The beginnings of the University of Warsaw Library go back to late 1816/early 1817 when books started to be collected soon after the establishment of the Royal University of Warsaw for the purposes of its library. It was based on the resource of the Warsaw Lyceum which included holdings from the Knight’s School, the School of Law and Administration, as well as the Appellate Court Library. Initially subordinated to the school, in 1817 the Library became independent as a public library reporting to the State Commission on Religion and Public Enlightenment. Its first director was the outstanding lexicographer Samuel Bogumił Linde, and one of the deputy librarians was Joachim Lelewel The library was growing quickly, augmented with acquisitions from current publishing production in the Kingdom of Poland owing to the right to hold legal deposit copies which the Library was granted in 1819. It also acquired collections from dissolved monasteries (about 50,000 volumes).
The library collections were mainly related to the humanities. Theological and historical writings prevailed. The mathematical and natural sciences collection was supplemented in 1825 by the former Medical School holdings. The most valuable items were held in the Print Room, including collections of King Stanisław August Poniatowski and Stanisław Kostka Potocki, organised for the purposes of the then users by their first custodian Jan Feliks Piwarski. In 1831, the Public Library’s collections consisted of more than 134,000 print volumes of printed matter, including 6,000 early printed books, 2,000 manuscripts, and more than 102,000 items in the Print Room. The holdings were kept on two floors of the Kazimierz Palace, which was then the seat of the University.
In 1831, the library was closed following the collapse of the November Uprising. The majority of holdings, the Print Room, the numismatics collection, the catalogues, and the inventories were moved to St. Petersburg. Only about 40,000 old printed books and 303 manuscripts in Polish remained in the library. In 1834, the library was renamed State Library and the right to hold legal deposit copies was reinstated. The holdings were augmented by collections from institutions such as the Friends of Science Society or Piarist schools, which were closed after the fall of the November Uprising.
In 1862, the University was reinstated in Warsaw under the name of Main School, as was the library, which was then named the Main Library. Its director was Józef Przyborowski and his deputy was the outstanding bibliographer Karol Estreicher, who used the Library’s collections when working on his Bibliografia Polska. The library again started to extensively acquire scientific literature. Owing to keen interest in science, which was characteristic of the Positivist period, a major part of the Library’s acquisitions at the time consisted of German and French mathematical and natural sciences literature. At the end of the 1860s, the Library held more than 260,000 volumes of books, more than 5,000 volumes of periodicals, 1,800 maps, 742 manuscripts, 10,000 numismatic items, prints and music scores.
After 1864, the impact of Russification became particularly apparent in the collection of new publications. In 1869, the Library incorporated the collection of the Ancient History Museum, with holdings including archaeological finds, Egyptian mummies, and works of art. Two years after the Main School became the Russian Imperial University, the Main Library fell under the control of that university.
In 1894, a new building was opened for use. The architectural design by Antoni Jabłoński-Jasieńczyk and Stefan Szyller represented the state-of-the-art in library technology. The building, which was erected in 1891-1894, comprised two parts: a seven-storey storage area made of cast-iron crates, separated with a firewall from the library’s three-storey component accommodating reading rooms, a lending room, and library backroom areas. It was designed to hold a million volumes. Compared with the previous period, the Imperial University Library was experiencing a setback. No books were brought from the Austrian and Prussian sectors. However, imprints from the Polish Kingdom continued to be received, through the Office of Censorship, and foreign books were purchased, mainly Russian. Before World War I, the holdings of the Imperial University Library in Warsaw comprised about 610,000 volumes.
After the Russians left Warsaw in August 1915, the Imperial University of Warsaw was evacuated to Rostov-on-the-Don. The most valuable Library holdings were then taken away: incunabula, manuscripts, part of the inventories, and library archives. The Library reopened in autumn 1915, along with the re-establishment of the Polish University in Warsaw.
In the interwar period, the library holdings were growing quickly. In addition to legal deposit copies from the Warsaw, Łódź and Lublin Voivodships, the acquisitions included numerous valuable donations from Poland and from foreign universities and academic societies. Under the Treaty of Riga, the manuscripts and holdings of the Print Room which had been taken out of the country after the November Uprising, and early imprints evacuated in 1915, were recovered. The growth in holdings, increasing numbers of readers and expansion of the library catalogues resulted in an acute lack of space in the library premises. The first reports calling for expansion of the Library emerged as early as 1919, when Prof. Zygmunt Batowski held the office of director, and the tense political situation in the late 1930s made director Adam Lewak Ph.D., take measures to protect the building in May 1939 in case of war.
At the outbreak of World War II, the Library held about one million items. In 1940, the occupational authorities established the Staatsbibliothek Warschau comprising the former University Library and the Krasiński Library. It was organised into three divisions: the University of Warsaw Library with foreign collections, the National Library with Polonica, and the Krasiński Library with special collections. In this situation, the University Library was forced to transfer to the Krasiński Library its manuscripts, incunabula, prints and drawings; its Polish periodicals had to be moved to the National Library, and the University Library had to take over foreign publications. During the entire period of occupation, the library illicitly circulated its holdings to the underground universities of Warsaw and Poznań. The losses suffered by the University Library during the war were very serious – a part of the special collections held at the Okólnik building was burnt along with the Krasiński Library in 1944. However, a part of the library holdings was hidden in the library basement, where they were walled in thanks to efforts of a group of librarians consisting of Tadeusz Miazek, Marian Toporowski, Tadeusz Makowiecki, Wanda Sokołowska, Józef Chudek and Józef Krampera. The most valuable collections were protected after the fall of the Warsaw Uprising as part of what was called the Pruszków Action.
The ordeal of the collections and of the Library itself is described in memoirs by Wacław Borowy, professor of Polish literature, director of the Library in 1937-1939, and participant of underground education at the University of Warsaw.
In January 1945, work started on the preservation and organisation of the Library. The beginning of the academic year 1945/46 saw the opening of the Main Library. In the initial postwar years, the Library focused on the recovery of its collections and on the taking over of collections abandoned by the Germans and by Polish nobility. Overall, during the first five years after the end of World War II, the Library expanded its collections by 350,000 volumes and remained the largest academic library in the country. Unfortunately, the postwar rapid growth in BUW acquisitions was not continued in the following years. The intentional reduction by the authorities of funding for the University of Warsaw resulted in a decline in acquisitions. There were also serious difficulties with storage and circulation due to a dramatic lack of space suffered by the Library. After the end of World War II, efforts to expand the library space, initiated in the interwar period, became a prevailing theme in all letters the Library management wrote to the University and government administration authorities. Until the end of the 1990s, the majority of BUW collections was held in poor conditions: on storage room floors, on staircase landings, in basements and in attics, and not only in the Library’s own buildings. It was not until 1990 that the government, then headed by Tadeusz Mazowiecki, earmarked revenue from the rental of the former Communist party headquarters for the construction of a new seat of the Library.
In 1993, an architectural design competition was held for the Library’s new building. The first award went to the architects Marek Budzyński and Zbigniew Badowski whose design was recommended for implementation. In December 1999, after many months’ logistically complicated collection transfer operation, the new building in the Powiśle area was made available to users, marking a new stage in a history of the University of Warsaw Library.