The categories of Image, Word, Orientation and Action constitute the main divisions of the Warburg Institute Library and encapsulate its aim: to study the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture (Image, 1st floor); the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures (Word, 2nd floor); the gradual transition, in Western thought, from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy (Orientation, 3rd & 4th floor) and the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions (Action, 4th floor). In other words the Library was to lead from the visual image, as the first stage in human's awareness (Image), to language (Word) and then to religion, science and philosophy, all of them products of humanity's search for Orientation which influences patterns of behaviour and actions, the subject matter of history (Action).

See also:

Principal areas of strength

Western post-classical art history, especially early Christian, Byzantine, Italian, Netherlandish and German art (covering architecture, sculpture and painting); iconography (religious and secular); survival of classical art (antiquities, inscriptions, numismatics, gems) and of themes from classical art (e.g., Hercules, Orpheus); art historical sources (guidebooks, inventories, artists’ letters); development of art history as a discipline; history of art collecting; applied arts.

Rhetoric and poetics, Italian literature (from Dante to the seventeenth century); Renaissance humanism; the later influence of classical authors and forms (complementary to the holdings of the Institute of Classical Studies); the survival of classical themes (especially Alexander legend and Roman legend); mythological handbooks; emblem books; history of European universities and academies; cultural exchange (translation, travel, pilgrimage).

The survival of ancient philosophy and its influence on medieval, Renaissance and early modern thought, with sections of particular importance on Arabic philosophy of the Middle Ages, Spanish medieval philosophy (Ramon Lull) and Renaissance philosophy (especially Christian Neoplatonism, Giordano Bruno, Nicholas of Cusa).

The history of religion, especially comparative studies (e.g. rituals, onomastics); the survival and later influence of ancient religious beliefs and cults (Manichaeism and Hermeticism), and their connections to Christianity and Judaism; the interrelations between Christianity, Judaism and Islam; Christian religion (patristics, hagiography, monasticism, preaching, Jesuits); Jewish mysticism, history and art; Western attitudes towards, and perception of, the Islamic world

The history of magic and science, especially astrology and astrological iconography; alchemy; prophecy and divinatory practices (e.g., dreams, comets, monsters, fortune-telling books, chess).

Historiography (from antiquity to the present) and political history, especially of Italy and Germany (complementary to the holdings of the Institute of Historical Research).

Cultural history, especially the survival of ancient cultural practices and their influence on later history, with sections of particular importance on: history of utopian thought and of political advice books; medieval kingship; Renaissance political thought; history of festivals and of banqueting (including historic cookbooks); Roman law in the Middle Ages and Renaissance.