The Warburg Institute Library holds a collection of international importance in the humanities. Its 360,000 volumes, available on open shelves, make it the largest collection in the world focused on Renaissance studies and the history of the classical tradition. It includes a large number of nineteenth- and early twentieth-century continental books and periodicals (especially German and Italian) unavailable elsewhere in the UK, as well as several thousand pre-1800 items.
The library has grown over the years, but the core of the collection is made up of the 60,000 books from Aby Warburg's Kulturwissenschaft Bibliothek Warburg (KBW) which were brought to London in 1933/34. Volumes from Warburg's personal collection can be found throughout the library; look out for his distinctive bookplate.
Warburg always intended that his collection should be more than just a library. In 1909, he wrote:
Goal: a new method for the study of culture, whose basis is the ‘read’ image. Area: Europe in the 15th century. This library should now gradually evolve into an institutional working laboratory [laboratorium] in which collaborators will be welcome.
Fritz Saxl, Aby Warburg's close collaborator and later the first Director of the Institute, described Warburg's ambition:
To give the student a library uniting the various branches of the history of human civilisation was his resolve... Books were for Warburg more than instruments of research. Assembled and grouped, they expressed the thought of mankind in its constant and in its changing aspect
Online exhibition: The Library of Aby Warburg
Find out more about the early history of the library in an online exhibition curated by Michael Thimann and Thomas Gilbhard
To order the collection, a unique interdisciplinary classification system was devised. Warburg insisted upon what he called 'the law of the good neighbour', described here by Gertrud Bing, Warburg's assistant and later Director of the Institute:
The manner of shelving the books is meant to impart certain suggestions to the reader who, looking on the shelves for one book, is attracted by the kindred ones next to it, glances at the sections above and below, and finds himself involved in a new trend of thought which may lend additional interest to the one he was pursuing
Divided into four main themes - Image (history of art), Word (language, literature and the transmission of texts), Orientation (religion, magic and science, philosophy) and Action (cultural and political history) - the classification system encourages readers to explore the collections, make new connections and ask new questions.