History of Zentralbibliothek Zürich (ZB)

History of Zurich Central Library

The Zentralbibliothek Zürich (ZB) is the cantonal, city and university library of Zurich. Indeed, the name „Central Library“ reflects the fact that the library was a result of a merger between the Cantonal and the City Libraries. This had been an aspiration since the 1890s, but was only approved officially by the electorate in 1914. ZB's roots in the City Library date back to the Baroque period, and in the Abbey Library back to the early Middle Ages.

Abbey, Cantonal and University Library

The history of the Zurich libraries and thus of the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, began in 1259 in the early Middle Ages with the library founded by charter of the St. Felix and Regula Abbey in Zurich. However, a large part of the Abbey Library's collection was destroyed in the book burning on 14 September 1525 during the Reformation. The Abbey Library itself continued to exist, but the number of works was reduced to only 470 volumes.
From 1532, the Alsation humanist Konrad Pellikan (1478–1556) began rebuilding the Abbey Library and enlarged the collection by adding books owned by churches in and around Zurich as well as the private library of Huldrych Zwingli (1484–1531), which the Abbey bought for 200 pounds. In 1551, his catalogue listed around 770 volumes (handwritten manuscripts and prints) of 1,100 titles. Over the next three centuries, the collection grew continually thanks to many purchases and legacy gifts.
The Abbey was dissolved in 1831. The Abbey Library with its 3,500 volumes of 14,000 titles provided the basis for the new Cantonal Library established in 1835. According to a ruling of the Government of the Canton of Zurich, the Cantonal Library also received the collections of the University established in 1833 (around 340 volumes), the Gymnasium Library established in 1827 (around 1,700 volumes of a mainly theological and philosophical nature), the Industrial School (a few titles) and the Veterinary School (around 110 volumes). In 1863 the Cantonal Library acquired the large library of 12,000 volumes (including 200 handwritten manuscripts on parchment and 230 on paper as well as theological, philosophical and historical print volumes) of the Benedictine monastery in Rheinau which had been dissolved a year earlier.
Because of a long-standing and ultimately intractable dispute between the students/staff of the young University and the members of the City Library established in 1629, a "Library for Cantonal Educational Institutions" was opened, initially located in the rear building of the former Augustinian monastery: Then, from 1855, it was housed in the old Mint, and finally from 1873 in the Predigerchor or Black Friars' Abbey. The City Library required external professors to meet its traditional membership standards, which in practice meant that only citizens of the City of Zurich could use the library. As this was unacceptable to the University, the Cantonal Library was established, and entrusted with the tasks of a academic library.

City Library

Initially, the City Library's history was enmeshed with that of the Abbey Library: on 6 February 1629, four young Zurich merchants decided to found a city library association with the objective of providing a scholarly library for the City of Zurich that was open to all – in a way as a counterpart to the Abbey Library, which was primarily open to Chapter members. At the beginning of 1634, the "Bibliotheca nova Tigurinorum publico-privata" housed in private rooms opened its doors in the late Gothic Wasserkirche (Water Church) which had been used as a warehouse since the Reformation. The library's collection grew quickly thanks to many donations by the citizens of Zurich. Within just a few years, the library with its books and coins, art collection and natural history specimens became Zurich's treasure-trove and temple of learning.
Initially the City Library saw itself as a universal collector of works on all subjects, but following the establishment of the Natural Research Society by Canon Johannes Gessner (1746), the Medical and Surgical Library Association by Canon Johannes Heinrich Rahn (1780), the Judicial Library Association (1823), the Antiquarian Association (1832) and especially the establishment of the Cantonal Library, the City Library increasingly shifted its focus to the liberal arts and Turicensia or Zurich-related media.
In 1744, the City Library was the first Swiss library to publish a printed catalogue of its collection; the last catalogue published in 1900/01 consisted of 12 volumes. Between 1899 and 1907, Wilhelm Wyss produced the first subject catalogue.

Central Library: Cantonal, City and University Library

Towards the end of the 19th century, the call for a central library for Zurich became ever louder. The time had come for this, as both the City and Cantonal Libraries were suffering from an acute lack of space. Finally Hermann Escher (1857–1938), head of the City Library since 1887 (and  also linked with the Cantonal Library since 1896through his membership of the Supervisory Commission) took up the cause of a central library. The first major outcome of his efforts was the Alphabetical Central Catalogue, listing the collections of all libraries in the City of Zurich, which was available to the public from 1901.
In 1914 the City and Canton of Zurich voted overwhelmingly in favour of a merger of the City and Cantonal Libraries. With the help of generous private donations, the Central Library started its operations in 1916, and opened its doors to the public in 1917 under the management of Hermann Escher as a public foundation supported equally by the City and the Canton of Zurich.
Around 80 years later, between 1990 and 1994, after of suffering an acute lack of space many years and having to store its books in a large number of outside warehouses, the Zentralbibliothek Zürich moved to the extension built on the site of the old Repository buildings at Zähringerplatz. The old building was converted and renovated in 1995, and has since housed the Special Collections, except for the Music Section which is located in the Predigerchor.