The history of the Gotha Research Library dates back to 1640. The Duchy of Saxe-Gotha came into being in this year. Its founder, Duke Ernst I, called the Pious (1601–1675) brought his collection of books to Gotha and had them placed in the rooms of the Latin school in Gotha's Augustinian monastery. It contained older Ernestine family property inherited from his ancestors as well as books bought by him and captured by him and his brothers during the Thirty Years' War. In the course of the construction of Friedenstein Palace, Ernst I had his reference library placed in the west tower of the palace and founded the Gotha Court Library, which was also called the Ducal or Princely Library. 1647 is regarded as its founding date. In this year Andreas Rudolph (1601–1679), who was responsible for the library, was able to purchase the first large collection of books. The scholar Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1626–1692) compiled the first surviving catalogue of books in 1657.
From the very beginning, the Ducal library was a place of princely representation and collecting pleasure as well as a place of Protestant self-presentation for the dukes, who saw themselves as guardians of Lutheranism. It served as a reservoir securing the memory of the Reformation and as a universal knowledge archive of the ducal house. Until the end of the 18th century, the Ducal Library of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was considered one of the most important libraries of the Protestant cultural area in the Old Empire. At the same time, it was the most important court library of the Ernestine dynasty. The years from its foundation to the extinction of the ducal house of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg are regarded the age of large and significant acquisitions. Under Duke Friedrich I (1646–1691), large parts of the Altenburg court library were integrated into the Gotha collection after the extinction of the ducal house of Saxe-Altenburg and the subsequent integration of Altenburg into the Saxe-Gotha line in 1673. In 1678, Frederick I arranged the acquisition of the extensive library and the handwritten estate of the Jena theologians Johann and Johann Ernst Gerhard. Around the anniversary of the Reformation in 1717, the director of the library and theologian, Ernst Salomon Cyprian (1673–1745) significantly expanded the Reformation history collection in particular on behalf of his employer.
The development of the Ducal library in Gotha was largely dependent on the personal interests of the reigning duke. His intentions, his collecting interests and his financial commitment played a decisive role, as did the creative will of the scholar in charge of the library. After the death of Duke Frederick II, the library increasingly lost its importance as a political instrument of dynastic Reformation historiography. Julius Carl Schläger (1706–1786), the numismatist responsible for the library, recommended a significant course correction in the acquisition policy towards historical, philosophical and literary writings. He was concerned to discover that Duke Frederick III (1699–1772) and his wife Luise Dorothea (1710–1767) spent considerably more money on their reference libraries, which were administered and catalogued by the scholar Gottfried Christian Freiesleben (1716–1774), than on the court library.
It was not until 1772, under the reign of Duke Ernst II (1745–1804), that the quality and quantity of the collection increased immensely. Ernst II donated numerous precious medieval and early modern manuscripts, incunabula and rare old prints. This included, among other things, the natural scientific estate of the botanists and zoologists Jakob (1637–1697) and Johann Philipp Breyne (1680–1764). On behalf of the Hereditary Prince and later Duke August (1772–1822), the naturalist Ulrich Jasper Seetzen (1767–1811) acquired almost 1,500 Arabic, Persian and Turkish manuscripts on his journey through the Middle East, which made the ducal collection, initially comprising only a few oriental manuscripts, one of the most important of its kind in the German-speaking world.
1826 to 1918
With Duke Friedrich IV (1774–1825), the ruling line of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg died out in the male line in 1825. In his will of 13 December 1824, he decreed that the collections were inalienable and would remain in Gotha. This entailment ensured the preservation of the library and museum collections at Friedenstein Palace. The Gotha Library continued as one of two libraries of the double duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. It had already been part of the jointly administered scientific and art collections since 1822. It was no longer directly subordinate to the duke, but to various offices or a ministry and operated as the State Library.
Even under Frederick IV of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg, the princely reference libraries set up in the private chambers of the dukes and duchesses had been transferred to the Court Library. These included the library of Duchess Luise Dorothea, rich in French literature from the Enlightenment period, as well as that of her son, Duke Ernst II, which had a mathematical and astronomical focus, and the so-called theatre library of his wife Charlotte (1751–1827). The integration of the reference libraries presented the librarians with great challenges; duplicate books were sorted out and sold, and the remaining 25,000 volumes had to be recorded in the catalogues while the library remained in regular operation. As a result, the integration process lasted until the early 1850s. It is associated with the name of the classical scholar Friedrich Jacobs (1764–1847). He stood for the continuity of librarianship at Friedenstein Palace, having worked under four dukes, the last three of the Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg line and under Duke Ernst I of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1784–1844). From 1810 onwards, he managed the library for 31 years. During his time, the large systematic catalogue spanning 48 volumes was completed. The Indologist and philologist Wilhelm Pertsch (1832–1899) also rendered outstanding services to the library. He was in charge of the library from 1883 until his death and recorded the collection of oriental manuscripts in a catalogue that was exemplary for the time. This catalogue was a milestone for the international reputation of the Gotha library. The following library director Rudolf Ewald (1847–1927) continued to make the library known to the public through exhibitions of the most valuable library objects. In 1901, he brought the 2nd German Librarians' Conference to Gotha.
The princely reference libraries were to remain the largest and most important additions to the Duke of Gotha's Library for the entire 19th and 20th centuries. While the budget for book acquisitions under the Dukes of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg was small and fluctuated greatly compared to the large German princely libraries, under the Dukes of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha it was decidedly small compared to the amount of literature available on the book market. In a paper written in 1862, the ducal ministerial councillor and theologian Eduard Jacobi (1796–1865), who briefly headed the library, suggested concentrating on selected subject areas. The library thus bade farewell to its claim to be a universal collection. The sharpening of the profile and concentration on primarily humanities literature took into account the financial wherewithal and allowed the librarians to concentrate on their collections that had grown over time. The professionalisation of the German library system enabled the library to coordinate its acquisitions with the surrounding central German libraries. This acquisition profile continued until 1918.
In 1723, the library had a total of about 23,000 volumes, in 1746 just under 30,000 and in 1783 about 60,000. The number rose to 110,000 volumes in the 1820s with the incorporation of the princely reference libraries. By 1850, the Ducal Library was the largest library in the region of Thuringia. In 1862, it owned 170,000 volumes.
From the very beginning, the Gotha Court Library was open to members of the ducal government and administration and – as the earliest records state – to all persons of "respectable standing". This meant that citizens of Gotha as well as scholars and travellers could visit the library. In addition, pupils of the ducal Latin school were also allowed entrance to use the library. Opening hours and lending regulations were – as in other princely libraries of the 17th and 18th centuries – not comparable with what is available nowadays. Making the collections available for use was not the main focus of the library's work. The first visitors' books can be traced back to 1779, but they have only been preserved for a few periods. The first printed usage regulations date back to 1775 under Duke Ernst II. In the 19th century, pressure to use the library was not high. The number of library staff remained within narrow limits throughout the library's existence and did not exceed five; a reduction of personnel was repeatedly considered on the part of the State Ministry. Between 1851 and 1861, when Wilhelm Heinrich Ewald (1791–1865) was in charge of the library and Friedenstein's collections and advanced the cataloguing of books the library staff had opening hours from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. from Monday to Saturday, and books could be borrowed from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays.
1918 to the present
The political developments of the 20th century have left indelible marks on the library's history. The major political and social upheavals of that time continue to shape library activities to this day, and the process of coming to terms with them is ongoing. As a result of the political events following the First World War, Duke Carl Eduard of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha (1884–1954) was deposed and expropriated in 1918. After the deposition, the library became the state library of the short-lived Free State of Thuringia and eventually the state of Thuringia. From 1921, it was headed by the writer Herman Anders Krüger (1871–1945), who was a member of the Weimar National Assembly and a member of the government of the state of Thuringia, which was founded in 1920. He rendered special services to the renovation and spatial expansion of the library. He also founded the first circle of friends, which was disbanded a short time later when he left. Because of his uncompromising stance on princely severance pay and positions compromising the Gotha dukes, Krüger was dismissed by Duke Carl Eduard as early as 1925. Since 1919, the duke had sued for restitution of the expropriated property. With the family agreement of 1928, the fiduciary commission binding the ducal private property was abolished. The Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha's Foundation for Art and Science was established, into which the library and the other scientific and art collections were transferred. In 1934, the final transfer of assets from the former fiduciary commission of the Duke's private estate to the Ducal Art Foundation took place.
By 1930, the sale of valuable books and manuscripts had begun. Among the items sold in the following years were numerous incunabula, block books, sea charts and maps, as well as the estate of the mathematician Johann Bernoulli (1667–1748), which had been kept in the Ducal Library since 1793. Eberhard Schenk zu Schweinsberg (1893–1990), who was director of the Saxe-Coburg and Gotha Foundation for Art and Science from 1935 to 1945 and thus also presided over the library, cited the difficult financial situation of the foundation as the reason for the sales.
Even before the official end of the Second World War and shortly before the withdrawal of the American troops from Thuringia, the Duke of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha Foundation for Art and Science had top pieces brought to Coburg and subsequently sold on the international antiques market. Among them is the "Golden Gospel Book" of Echternach.
In September 1945, the large library of the former Gotha ducal Latin school, whose building had been turned into barracks by the Soviet army, was brought to Friedenstein Palace. With the acquisition of this library, the entire book collection of the Dukes of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg that had survived until then was now located in the east tower and east wing of Friedenstein Palace. At the beginning of January 1946, the former Ducal Library, with an estimated volume of 350,000 volumes, was almost completely transported to the Soviet Union as spoils of the Second World War. All that was left behind were the works published in and about Gotha and the fine arts literature of the ducal collection as well as the Latin school library. In 1953, the "Central Office for Old Academic Collections" of the German Democratic Republic was established in the vacated rooms of the former Ducal Library. When most of the former Ducal Library was restored to Gotha from the Soviet Union in 1956, the work of the Central Office came to a standstill and was finally transferred to the German State Library in Berlin in 1959, where it existed until 1995. The Central Office was responsible for coordinating and organising the transfer of historical books from various sources between the libraries of the GDR. These were holdings of state and secondary school libraries that had been dissolved in connection with the political restructuring in the GDR, looted property from dissolved institutions of the National Socialists and books whose owners had been expropriated in the course of the land reform carried out in the Soviet occupation zone. Some of these holdings were transferred to Gotha and from there to other GDR libraries. A much larger proportion went to the Leipzig Central Antiquarian Bookshop of the GDR, from where the books were sold for foreign currency on the international antiquarian book market. However, the librarians also kept some books in Gotha. Since the reunification of the two German states, the present Gotha Research Library has returned them to their former owners.
In May 1957, the Gotha library was reopened as the Gotha State Library. When the library ordinance passed in the GDR in 1968 no longer provided for state libraries, it was possible under difficult circumstances to secure the continuing existence of the Gotha library as part of the "Methodical Centre for Scientific Libraries" in Berlin (East). With the designation "Research Library", the library was given the status of an essentially self-contained special book-historical collection, whose main focus until the fall of the Berlin Wall was the bibliographical indexing of its significant historical holdings. For researchers outside the GDR, academic use of the library was only possible to a very limited extent. Due to its bibliographical achievements and its outstanding historical collections, the library became a partner in the major all-German national bibliographical undertakings to index the printed works of the 16th and 17th centuries in the German-speaking world (VD 16 and VD 17). This occurred in the wake of the fall of the Berlin Wall under the direction of Helmut Claus (1933-2020), who worked at the library from 1981 to 1996. In 1991, it was directly subordinated to the state of Thuringia as the Gotha Research and State Library with the right to its own budget and operated as a non-university institution. In 1999, it was integrated into the University of Erfurt, which was re-established in 1994 and sees itself as a reform university in the humanities. Beginning in 1999, it operated jointly with the Erfurt University Library as the Erfurt/Gotha University and Research Library.- Its director was the historian and librarian Rupert Schaab until 2005. The Research Library received a remarkable boost in 2002 with the acquisition of a deposit of letters from German emigrants to America from the 19th and 20th centuries, which had been collected in the old federal states of Germany. Since then, the collection has been supplemented by emigrant letters collected in the new federal states. In 2003, the Research Library took over the collections of the former publishing houses Justus Perthes Gotha and Darmstadt as well as the VEB Hermann Haack Geographisch-kartographische Anstalt Gotha. It made this material available for research through extensive conservation, cataloguing, digitisation and acquisition activities. The collections operating under the name of the Perthes Gotha Collection complement the rich geographical holdings of the Research Library, which had been collected by the ducal house of Saxe-Gotha-Altenburg in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The library has been headed by the specialist in German studies and librarian Kathrin Paasch since 2005. In 2014/2015, it was evaluated by the German Council of Science and Humanities. Since 2018, the Gotha Research Library has been an independent academic institution of the University of Erfurt. It sees itself as an institution that conducts and supports research. The Research Library lists and indexes its manuscripts, printed books, maps and archival materials in supra-regional online databases, and restores and digitises its particularly valuable works that are in high demand by researchers. It presents its collections and work results to a broad public in lectures, conferences and exhibitions and makes its objects available for use in original form in the library and in digitalised form at any workstation worldwide. One of its printed works and an Arabic manuscript were inscribed on the UNESCO World Documentary Heritage List in 2015. Particularly young academics who travel to Gotha from all over the world on scholarship programmes now work in the rooms of this historical library, whose collections have grown over the centuries. The library has survived in its original location, is part of Thuringia's cultural heritage of European standing and is an international centre of academic exchange and encounter.
Excerpts from Kathrin Paasch: The Gotha Research Library and its treasures. Heidelberg 2017 (with kind permission of the author)