The University Library has a history spanning over 450 years, and it has always been in the service of Hungarian culture and academic science, not only with its collections but its erudite directors and colleagues as well. Here follows the history of the library and its building from the 16th century up till now, supplemented with a selected bibliography at the end.
It is a common misconception even nowadays that the University Library was established by Péter Pázmány along with the university in 1635, but it is appr. 70 years older. The foundation of the library coincides with that of a Jesuit college in Trnava (Nagyszombat) in 1561. Even though the plan of the Archbishop of Esztergom to introduce the Jesuits to the city of Trnava did not prove to be entirely successful (they had to leave in 1567), in 1586 Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor gifted the provostry of Turóc the Society of Jesus which included two estates: Kláštor pod Znievom (Znióváralja) and Šaľa (Vágsellye).
The library of Kláštor pod Znievom was founded by Viennese Jesuits who brought over the books of the old collection not destroyed in the 1567 fire of Trnava. Until 1605 they taught in the school of Šaľa so it is more than possible that a part of the Šaľa collection originates from Kláštor pod Znievom. However, after the 1608 diet, the Jesuits suddenly had to leave Šaľa. Later, they opened a new college in Trnava in 1615 with the help of Ferenc Forgách Archbishop of Esztergom. The books came a full circle: the volumes of the 1561 college once again found themselves in Trnava, together with those documents that the Jesuits preserved even after running from the troops of Bocskai to Wien in 1605.
After the establishment of the university in 1635, the library took on the responsibilities of a university library. It is perhaps best proved by the fact that only university teachers could become librarians until the suppression of the order. This change of function required the enlargement and revision of the collection, giving them a more scientific profile, seeing that in the beginnings the library consisted mainly of volumes suitable for secondary education (cf. the needs of the Order).
The new library building opened its doors in 1761. A new building was necessary because, by that time, the book collection numbered appr. 15 000 volumes, partly thanks to the free issues from the university’s publications. Despite the narrow circumstances, the enlargement was not random, the librarians strove to complete the library’s series and multi-volume books.
After the 1773 suppression of the Society of Jesus the library became an institution governed by the State, also acquired its current name (or rather its Latin equivalent: Bibliotheca Universitatis). In 1777 the library moved to Buda with the university. It was a busy period: the library had to deal not only with the moving but because of the abolition, a large number of new documents. After the suppression of several religious orders and houses, the collection numbered appr. 22 000 volumes, a great part coming Pauline, Camaldolese, Trinitarian, Franciscan, Servite, Premonstratensian, Dominican, Cistercian, Capuchin etc. houses. From 1780 on the collection grew bigger through legal deposits.
In 1784 the library moved to Pest to its current location. In this period the site housed not the palace known today, but one of the buildings of the Franciscan cloister. Before the Austro-Hungarian Compromise of 1867 the University Library had more than 150 000 documents and 35 000 readers per year, a new building was an absolute necessity to increase the quality of services and satisfy the readers. The architect of the ceremoniously inaugurated (26th March of 1876) new palace was Antal Szkalnitzky who was responsible for the engineering and artistic implementation.
The most imposing room of the library is the Main Reading Room (Nagyolvasó or Díszterem) with its Baroque style gallery. The frescos depicting allegorical women figures in the hall with 228 m2 ground-space and 15 metres ceiling height was painted by Károly Lotz. Above the entrance, one can find Mór Than’s full-body portrait of Franz Joseph I of Austria who helped the construction of the library building with a generous sum. The Main Reading Room is illuminated through three large windows facing the entrance, and the glass ceiling. The glass ceiling was smashed during the bombings of World War II, the books on the shelves got wet, but the collection suffered no large damages either during the war or in 1956.
From 1945 on the previously considerably wide collection profile of the library narrowed due to the changing political climate (e.g. the acquisition of religious and ecclesiastical history works became harder) which was further exacerbated by the creation of new libraries serving the university’s institutes and departments. On the other hand, political changes after 1945 resulted in the enlargement of the collection: a large number of (mainly 16th-18th century) books made their way into the University Library from several nationalised ecclesiastical and private collections.
The library introduced the integrated library system (IKR), laid the cornerstone for an online catalogue, and the work on the old catalogue (alapkatalógus) containing the documents explored until 1995 was discontinued. An online version of the old catalogue is available since 2011.
University Library Service (EKSZ) integrating the University Library and the libraries of the university’s institutes and departments was created in 2009 which made it possible to unify and synchronize the services of all libraries.
In 2017 the organization of the University Library integrated the University Archives and (as it was known back then) the Savaria University Centre University and Archives of Szombathely. In accordance with a 2018 agreement, the University Library and Archives maintains the library of the Institute of Business Economics (GTI), and from 2021 the Faculty of Economics (GTK) as well.
Today, with its appr. 2 000 000 documents, the University Library is the third largest library in Budapest, the capital city of Hungary.