The tempests of history have not only spared Krakow’s historical monuments, but also invaluable books, from destruction. Which local libraries are worth visiting in order to come face to face with history?
‘Yet the books will be there on the shelves, well born, Derived from people, but also from radiance, heights’ were the words of Czesław Miłosz, a Nobel Laureate from Kraków, who used to describe the strange and very human affliction that of the passion for collecting books. Despite widespread digitisation, libraries remain places of deepening knowledge and simple intellectual pleasure. Among the various cities of Central Europe, Kraków in particular is fortunate enough to provide a venue for many of the finest books reminiscent of the creativity of previous generations. Let’s have a look at them together!
‘Jagiellonka’ and university libraries
Every year from October to June, Krakow’s population increases by 200,000 students. They are drawn by the offer of the libraries of the various universities, many of which have collections of great significance for the city’s immaterial heritage.
Unquestionably the most important library in Krakow is the Jagiellonian Library. Its unique collection of ancient prints and its status as the library serving Poland’s oldest university make the popular ‘Jagiellonka’ one of only two libraries in the country to be granted national status. This means that, by law, the library receives two copies of every book published in the Polish language.
The library has an extensive historical book collection, the creation of which was associated with the University’s activities. In its collection is the manuscript of a groundbreaking treatise De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Celestial Bodies) by Nicolaus Copernicus from 1543. The Jagiellonian Library also collects the most valuable relics of Polish language and literature, e.g., from 1408 Bogurodzica, a war song of Polish knights from 1408, manuscripts of Jan Długosz, and Liber viginti artium, and the Book of Twenty Arts with an alleged imprint of Satan’s paw. Its collection includes the autograph of Fryderyk Chopin’s famous Scherzo in E major, the first print of Stanisław Wyspiański’s Wesele (The Wedding), and works by Ignacy Jan Paderewski and Stanisław Moniuszko.
The Library also acquired the so-called Prussian Library ‘Berlinka’. This is a collection of the most valuable relics of European culture — the Works of the Prussian State Library, evacuated from Berlin during World War II under the threat of aerial bombment and later discovered in Lower Silesia by Polish museum professionals. The collection contains several hundred music manuscripts, including over a hundred scores by Mozart, dozens by Beethoven and Bach, as well as Brahms, Haydn, Schubert, Schumann, Mendelssohn, and letters by Luther, Dürer, Leibniz, Goethe, Kleist, the Brothers Grimm, Hegel, Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm.
From the very beginning of its existence, Jagiellonian Library occupied a wing of the oldest, Gothic building of the Collegium Maius. In the interwar period it was moved to a new modernist building situated on Aleje Trzech Wieszczów, designed by Wacław Krzyżanowski. In the 1990s, a new, modern wing was constructed in the building facing Oleandry Street.
Monasteries were an important factor in the development of Kraków and the rest of Central Europe in the Middle Ages, especially the activities carried out by the Benedictine and Cistercian orders. As places of seclusion and prayer, monasteries equally played a culture-forming role, transmitting innovations from other countries and accumulating knowledge.
Kraków’s monastery libraries are peculiar time capsules filled with priceless artefacts. The most interesting and valuable collections have been gathered in the libraries of the Carmelite Fathers’ monasteries in Piasek and in the oldest Polish Benedictine monastery in Tyniec. The pride of the Krakow Carmelite monastery’s collection is its 317 15th-century incunabula and antiphonaries (liturgical books) that were created well before the age of the printing press and imported from Prague in the 14th century. The library of the Benedictine monks of Tyniec was not fortunate in terms of historical continuity – in 1816, the Austrian Emperor dissolved the abbey and the priceless monastery fell into ruin for many years. The present 60,000 volumes are the result of a truly painstaking search for scattered collections as well as subsequent donations.
Libraries as a legacy of the aristocracy
Nineteenth-century Kraków was a particular favourite of the families of the nobility, who chose it as the spiritual capital of a nation artificially divided by the borders of the three partitions. The Czartoryski family located priceless family heirlooms there. They created not only the first public museum in Poland with famous paintings by Leonardo da Vinci, Rembrandt and a later lost portrait by Raphael Santi, but they also founded the Czartoryski Library. Although nearly 70,000 prints and 3,000 manuscripts from the family collection were dispersed after the failure of the November Uprising and the family estate in Puławy was confiscated, 50 years later they found a home in the City Arsenal, donated for this purpose by the Kraków authorities. Today, the library is a branch of the National Museum in Kraków, located at 17 Św. Marka Street.
Numerous eminent figures of Polish culture for whom Kraków proved to be a favoured place to live have assembled considerable collections of books at the Wawel Hill. The bibliophilic passion of Kraków’s professor of Polish Philology, Henryk Markiewicz, who for 80 years collected 40,000 books in a private flat, including many first editions and rare editions of 19th century periodicals, has passed into legend. After the professor’s death, the library found its home in… Szczecin, but places such as Czesław Miłosz’s flat on Bogusławskiego Street are still filled with original collections and manuscripts reflecting the entire range of interests of the former residents. The opportunity to browse through the books in which the author of The Captive Mind made his notes, sometimes enriched with his friends’ handwritten dedications, is an experience unlike any other. The flat where Miłosz lived from 1993 to 2004 enjoys the custody of the KBF.
An interesting idea for recreating the private working space of a man who devoted his life to culture is the library of Professor Mieczysław Porębski at the MOCAK Museum of Contemporary Art. Recreated on a 1:1 scale, the room of the eminent art historian contains several thousand books reflecting his humanist passions. The arrangement of the space immediately adjacent to the museum’s library was personally managed by the professor’s son.
In the library network
Contemporary Krakow is a city with unprecedented concentration of public libraries, serving the day-to-day needs of residents across generations, including the student community. The Biblioteka Kraków (“Kraków Library”) currently manages 57 branches throughout the city and offers the largest network of municipal libraries in Poland. Another important address for bibliophiles is the Wojewódzka Biblioteka Publiczna in Kraków, located in the former Austrian military barracks at Rajska Street. The latter library’s main attraction is the youth-oriented Arteteka with its attractive collections of comics, books on contemporary art, board and electronic games and films.
In total, Kraków’s public libraries have been lending out more than 4 million books a year. If we were to compare this to the number of inhabitants, it would turn out that the average resident of Kraków borrows 4 books in a year! The reality looks a bit different compared to the statistics, of course – however, there is no doubt that Kraków truly has libraries in its blood.