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Czech Collections

This page provides an overview of the Czech Collections, illustrated by specific examples. We acquire material across the spectrum of the the humanities and social sciences.

Collections

The exact size of the Czech holdings is not known, since, like other country/language holdings, they have no separate catalogue and are dispersed within the rest of the collections. There are approximately 14,000 titles in Czech in the current catalogue (which covers items acquired since 1975). In the following text, codes which appear in brackets after references [I.B.51405] indicate British Library shelfmarks.

The Library's collection of books of Czech provenance and of books in the Czech language is among the most important collections outside the Czech Republic and, with regard to continuity, probably the major collection of this material outside its country of origin.

Books relating to Czech lands were represented in the Library's collections quite early but it was not until the middle of the nineteenth century that systematic acquisition of books in the Czech language began under the directorship of Anthony Panizzi, the Keeper of Printed Books.

The official emblem of the Czech Republic © The British Library Board

The official emblem of the Czech Republic © The British Library Board

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The Bible was translated very early into Czech (1380) and the British Library has the first complete Bible printed in Prague in 1488 [I.B.51405] as well as the first illustrated Bible printed in the mining town of Kutna Hora in 1489 [I.B.51804]. Around 100 editions of the Bible or its parts are held including the early volumes issued by the great Czech Renaissance printer J. Melantrich in the years 1549-1577, the famous six volume Kralice Bible [C.114.n.18] printed in secret by the Unity of the Czech Brethren (1579-1594) and clandestine Protestant editions printed for the Czechs abroad after the defeat of Reformation in the Czech Lands. Presses that flourished in Bohemian and Moravian towns in the sixteenth century, the "Golden Age" of Czech printing, are represented in the British Library collections also by their secular output. From the early press of P. Severyn comes the great Kozmograffia Czeska (1554) [L.23.dd.2] and from Melantrich, who gave the Czech book its specific character, there is, among many others, his celebrated Herbarz (1562) [986.g.17] with large woodcut illustrations. Ivancice kancional (1564) [C.36.g.12], Unity of Brethren's hymn book with music, beautifully printed from moveable type, demonstrates the peak of the art of Czech 16th-century printing embodied in imprints coming from this secret press. Apart from printing in Latin (using Roman types) and Czech and German (in the Fraktur and the Schwabacher) printing in Cyrillic was also carried out in Prague. The Library has Knigi pervyj Tsarstv (1518) part of the Bible translated into Belarusian and printed by F. Skorina (Skaryna) [C.36.f.4].

The book production of the 17th and 18th centuries was determined by the Counter-Reformation and concentrated in a smaller number of establishments under the control of the Jesuits. A selection of postillas, hymn-books, textbooks and homiletic literature from this period is enhanced by large, presentation volumes incorporating engraved plates and title pages. Among examples in the British Library are Althann's Imago principum Bohemiae (1673) [9314.f.14], Balbin's Epitome historica rerum Bohemicarum (1677) (175.k.8), Hammerschmid's Prodromus gloriae Pragenae (1723) [157.h.6] and Ramhofsky's Trogj popsanj (1743) [9930.i.6 and 9930.i.7] published in Czech and German to celebrate the coronation of the Empress Maria Theresa. The home production was augmented by the output of exiled Protestants, who continued to have their works published abroad. The Library has, for example, a good collection of the works of the educationalist J.A.Comenius published in Amsterdam, Leipzig, London and elsewhere and is also the proud owner of the only surviving copy of Comenius' treatise Conatuum pansophicorum dilucidatio printed in Lesno (Poland) in 1638.

The awakening of Czech national consciousness at the end of the 18th century as well as new discoveries in science and scholarly research heralded the birth of the first learned societies. A regular flow of their publications has been received and the library now has complete or nearly complete runs of their serials as well as works by eminent scholars and writers of the period.

From the early 20th century there is a comprehensive collection of the first and early editions of 1920s and 1930s writers whose books often incorporate the best Czech avant-garde book design led by K. Teige. Thanks to copyright deposit, the British Library holds the most comprehensive collection of monographs and periodicals issued in England by Czechoslovak exiles during the Second World War and through donations and purchases it has also been possible to build up a collection of Czech exile material published abroad between 1948 and 1989. There are also some 400 titles of samizdat publications from 1970s and 1980s of which a printed catalogue was issued in 1989 with a second edition in preparation. Official publications start with early 16th century laws and although the pre-1900 period is covered fairly well the coverage is more comprehensive for the post 1918 years and includes official gazettes, parliamentary proceedings, law codes and bulletins of various government ministries as well as statistical material. Post-1945 government publications have been acquired systematically through international exchange agreements.

Current acquisitions represent a whole range of humanities and social sciences subjects and are carried out both by purchases and exchanges with Czech libraries. The average intake of monographs is now around 600 titles per annum and there are some 360 current periodicals taken.

See the page Lusatian (Sorbian) Collections for information on holdings of Lusatian material in the British Library and an overview of Lusatian history.

Catalogues and printed guides

  • Czechoslovak collections in the British Library (London: British Library, 1989) [YA.1995.a.21571]
  • P. Hellyer and D. Pavlik, Czech and Slovak samizdat: a catalogue of British Library holdings (London: British Library, 2003) [YC.2005.a.13821]

Other resources

Czech material elsewhere in the British Library

Contact

Susan Halstead, Curator, Czech, Slovak and Lusatian Studies
European Studies
The British Library
96 Euston Road
London
NW1 2DB
United Kingdom

Tel: +44 (0)20 7412 7588

E-mail: susan.halstead@bl.uk