Old Prints Department as organization unit was created on 1st September, 1947. Collection of old prints, just like all other special collections, was organized in first years after war as a result of great concentration of numerous and various Silesian antique collections. The core of the collection are old prints from the two large libraries of Wroclaw: former City and University Library.
City Library was created in years 1865-1867 after merging the collections from evangelic public collections from the churches of: St. Elizabeth, St. Mary Magdalene and St. Bernard. These collections were diversified, and after merging, each of these libraries preserved their individual character, each of them had history of their own originated from 16th century, with specific features, rich and various provenience, enriched through centuries by donations and legacies.
The Library of St. Elizabeth, also called Rehdiger’s collection from the name of the founder Thomas Rehdiger, a humanist and patron from Wroclaw, currently numbers 58,000 (58 thousand) of prints. Among three parts of former City Library is the most European in character, with many prints from famous European printing houses, inter alia, many classic Greek and Latin authors published by Aldus Manutius, Netherlands Plantiniana, Froben’s and Oporin’s editions from Basel, Estienne’s.
Basis for the St. Mary Magdalene Church’s library was a small collection of theological and reformative prints by Johan Hess, first protestant pastor in Wroclaw, dead in 1547. Further course of collection was mainly dictated by donation of Karol Žerotina, starost of Moravia, whose donation included into library in 1641 bring the largest collection of Bohemian prints in the whole repository. Small legacy of Daniel Vogl, the Polish language teacher from Mary Magdalene Grammar School, enriched collection with valuable Polish prints. The collection from the St. Mary Magdalene Church’s library currently numbers circa 34.000 (34 thousand) of prints.
Third part that created former City Library was St. Bernard Church library, originating from the St. Bernard Order’s collection created on the turn of 15th and 16th century. Large development of this collection took place in the late 17th century, due to donations of Karl Rhenisch (1682), Zacharias Rampusch (1697) and in 18th century – legacy of Johann David Raschke. The collection currently numbers circa 43 thousand of prints and distinguishes itself with the large number of occasional prints, mostly form Silesia region.
The collection from former University Library, that survived the war, currently numbers circa 45 thousand of volumes. Originally, the collection of old prints from this library, numbered approximately circa 120 thousand of volumes, so two thirds of this collection lost during war time. Basis for the University Library was Jesuits’ collection of Leopoldina from Wroclaw (circa 8 thousand of volumes) and protestant Viadrina from Frankfurt an der Oder (28 thousand of volumes), which was supplemented after the secularization with rich collections of Silesian convents (circa 70 thousand of volumes). After the last war to remains of former University Library were added several, so called, restricted collections, inter alia, from Jesuits’ grammar school from Klodzko, fragments of Milich’s library from Zgorzelec, several hundred occasional prints from Hochbergs’ collection from Ksiaz, two Wroclaw’s grammar school repositories: from St. Elizabeth Grammar School and Friedrich Grammar School, Yorks’ collection from Olesnica Mala and bibliophilic collection from Czocha castle. From listed above materials, three chronologically ordered units of old prints were created: 16th, 17th and 18th century books (together circa 60 thousand of volumes) and separated collections of Silesiaca and Slavica were excluded (circa 15 thousand of items).
Among provincial collections three small libraries with long traditions are worthy of mention: Library of Grammar School in Brzeg, Library of Prince Georg Rudolf from Legnica and Library from Sts. Peter and Paul Church from Legnica. As valuable historical antiques, they preserved their individual character and original historical structure in current repository.
Piasts’ library from Brzeg was created in 1569 at the same time, as Grammar School, by the prince of Legnica and Brzeg Georg II. The basis for the library was a collegiate collection and several dozen volumes donated from the prince Georg II own collection. During 16th and 17th centuries the library developed due to donations of other princes, nobles and rectors of Grammar School. Acquisitions creates characteristic levels, that allows for recognition of historical development of collection. At its highest point of prosperity, library had 3370 volumes. In 1942 its collections numbered 2991 vol., and after the war – 2916 vol., from which 33 vol. with, inter alia, most precious parchment manuscripts, were left in National Museum in Brzeg.
Bibliotheca Rudolphina from Legnica was created at the beginning of 16th century by Georg Rudolf and it gathered books from all fields of knowledge. Although manorial in its character, selection of literature proved, that it was gathered for wide use. Large collection of music prints during Second World War was scattered and now its remnants are hold in several libraries. Currently Bibliotheca Rudolphina numbers circa 6000 items.
Collections of library from Sts. Peter and Paul Church from Legnica originated from collegiate repository, and, as time went by, was supplemented with convent collections. Currently, this small collection (circa 1600 items) holds large number of incunabula. It is worthy to mention, that it was the largest chained library in Silesia region. Later 18th additions had other character, especially legacy of pastor Reimann – 500 introligatory blocks containing over 15 thousand occasional prints and dissertations, among them 4.500 valuable funeral speeches.
Special position among the old prints have the oldest of them – incunabula. Their collection numbers 3270 items – over 2 thousand originated from former University Library and only 88 from former City Library (the rest of its collection of over 500 incunabula was lost during the last war). Many of this type of prints were in possession of provincial libraries: Milich’s library – 332, library of Sts. Peter and Paul from Legnica – 307, Brzeg’s Library – 222, Bibliotheca Rudolphina – 43.
Value of collection has risen by unique and valuable prints. Their number is estimated for circa 20 thousand items. On first place must be mentioned Statuta synodalia episcoporum Wratislaviensium, print that is of inestimable value for Polish culture, printed in 1475 in Wroclaw by Kasper Elyan, the first of Wroclaw printers. “Statuta…” contain the first text printed in Polish – everyday prayers: Lord's Prayer, Hail Mary and Apostles' Creed. The next known printed text in Polish, Bogurodzica (The Mother of God), was published in Krakow in 1506. Second complete item of “Statuta…” is in the possession of Clementinum in Prague.
Another very valuable item in the collection is Ars minor by Aelius Donat, a xylographic book created after year 1486, modeled on Basel’s print by Michael Wenssler. In Poland, there are only two xylographic books – besides Wroclaw’s print, – Ars moriendi in Kórnik Library of the Polish Academy of Sciences.
An important work in history of Silesian region’s typography, is The Legend of St. Hedwig, a Silesian duchess, wife of Henry I the Bearded, printed in Wroclaw in 1504 by Conrad Baumgart. The legend contains series of 69 woodcuts, that illustrate life of the saint and several scenes regarding actual historical events, inter alia, the Mongol invasion and the battle of Legnica in 1241, during which Henry II the Pious was killed.