Germany´s oldest university library is considered to be one of the best scientific libraries of Germany. She dates back to the 14th century, to the year of the foundation of the Heidelberg University in 1386. The latest university ranking gave her rank two just behind the state library of Goettingen. With more than 1.6 million book lendings and about two million visitors per year the Heidelberg University is even top of the ranking.
The man responsible for the library´s first major extension was Elector Ottheinrich – 1556-1559 – an avid bibliophile. He donated his Castle library to the university and with this laid the foundation-stone of the Bibliotheca Palatina, which was supplemented by the extensive library of Ulrich Fugger. The Biblioteca Palatina quickly attained world fame as “scholarly Germany´s most precious treasure” and became the most important library north of the Alps.
The Thirty Year´s War spelled a major turning point. After the town was taken by the troops of the Catholic League under Johann von Tilly in 1622. Duke Maximilian I. of Bavaria, the new ruler of the Palatinate, sent the Bibliotheca Palatina to Pope Gregory XV. as a gift. Over 3,500 manuscripts and some 13,000 printed books were transported to Rome. After this crippling loss it was not until the reorganization of the University in the early 19th century that the library was given a new lease of life. Adding of the libraries of the monasteries of Salem and Berghausen laid the foundation-stone. Attempts to reclaim the Bibliotheca Palatina met with partial success in 1816, when 847 invaluable medieval manuscripts in German were returned by the Vatican together with Latin and Greek works from Paris . Then, in 1888, came the return of the Codex Manesse via Paris.
Nowadays the Heidelberg University Library comprises of 6.02 million volumes. She possesses a collection of 6 600 manuscripts of the 9th to 17th century, going back to the foundation year of the Heidelberg University in 1386. The highlight among the manuscripts is the Codex Manesse, the “big Heidelberg song manuscript”, which originates between the years 1300 and 1340 and is the most voluminous collection of Middle High German poetry, the work of 140 poets. Page-size miniatures are devoted to 137 medieval bards.
The magnificent building on the university campus in the middle of Heidelberg´s Old City is a real sightseeing highlight. It is situated on the site of the former Black Nun Monastery directly in the vicinity of St. Peter´s Church and the building of the New University. The library building of the Karlsruhe Architect Joseph Durm was opened in 1905. The façade is built in the style of German and French Renaissance with precious ornaments created by the Karlsruhe sculptor Herman Volz.