The Warburg Library has had to adjust quickly to the so-called new normal, but to plan its future the Institute is looking back to its roots for inspiration.

Recent visitors to the Warburg Library will have noticed a raft of logistical changes to the library that we have put in place to deal with the pandemic. From seat bookings to e-resources, the library has shifted into a “new world”, increasing digital processes and services. Nevertheless, the re-opening of the library – and the consistently high number of seat bookings – has shown that physical space remains as important to readers as ever. For the foreseeable future, visitors navigate one-way systems, Perspex screens and the 72-hour quarantining of books, and in doing so gain a new perspective and way of engaging with the library and its materials.

Being transported to a new world is far from novel in the grand scheme of the library’s history. Its founder Aby Warburg (1866-1929), a German art and cultural historian, assembled his unique library to answer the question: what does the influence of antiquity mean for European thought? In the 1920s, Warburg created a research institute in Hamburg out of his library’s collections called the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg – the Warburg Library of Cultural Studies. Warburg and the director of the institute after his death, Fritz Saxl, were both Jewish, and so the Nazi rise to power threatened the institute with dissolution. Saxl decided to move the library, archive and photographic collection to London, where it was later incorporated into the University of London in 1944.

Figure 1: The Warburg Institute’s main entrance

Adorning the lintel of the Warburg Institute’s main entrance, which has housed Warburg’s collections since 1958, is a pale stone carving that has become the emblem of the library (figure 1). The carving depicts a 15th-century woodcut illustration from an incunabulum of Isidore of Seville’s De natura rerum – itself a seventh-century text. The diagram portrays the interactions between the four elements, the four seasons and the four temperaments of the world (figure 2). Its interlocking circles represent the interconnectedness and hierarchical ordering of the universe, time and humanity.

Figure 2: Isidore of Seville’s emblem

Isidore’s representation of an interconnected cosmos can be seen as a metaphor for Warburg’s idiosyncratic arrangement of his books. As the Institute’s Guide to the Library explains, the current system preserves the four main categories into which Warburg divided his library – Image, Word, Orientation and Action (figure 3). In Image, one can study the tenacity of symbols and images in European art and architecture; in Word, the persistence of motifs and forms in Western languages and literatures; in Orientation, the gradual transition in Western thought from magical beliefs to religion, science and philosophy; and finally, in Action, the survival and transformation of ancient patterns in social customs and political institutions. Thematically similar books are grouped. This means that varied disciplines are drawn together and modern books rub spines with their early modern counterparts. One of the defining principles that guides this system is that of serendipitous encounter. With the majority of the collection arranged on open access shelves, a browsing reader might stumble upon a book or topic that could open up a new intellectual world.


Figure 3: The Warburg Library classification system

Tracing the migration of visual symbols from antiquity to the present-day – exemplified by the continued relevance of Isidore’s emblem – has always been at the heart of Warburg’s mission. In Hamburg, Warburg had worked in a custom-built circular library, in which he assembled a photographic archive of around 400,000 images. He planned to create a pioneering “memory atlas” – what he called the Bilderatlas Mnemosyne – which could serve as a map of mankind’s cultural history and the afterlife of antiquity.

Figure 4: Aby Warburg with Gertrud Bing and Franz Alber in front of Warburg’s panel design, Rome, Palace Hotel, May 1929 – Warburg Institute Archive

Detailing how images and ideas moved and circulated through space and time, the Bilderatlas  was unfinished by the time of Warburg’s death in 1929. But researchers from the UK, the US and Germany, led by Claudia Wedepohl at the Warburg Archive, have reconstructed all 63 panels and 971 illustrations that made up Warburg’s visionary atlas. This reconstruction culminated in an exhibition this year at Berlin’s Haus der Kulturen der Welt and is now available for viewers to tour virtually online, making it more accessible than Warburg could have imagined.

A return to the Warburg Institute’s origins in Hamburg has been very much at the centre of recent thinking about its future. In 2019, the University of London announced that it was embarking on a large-scale renovation of the library’s building. Dubbed the Warburg Renaissance, the ambitious development plan promises ‘to shape the future of cultural memory’ and seeks to restore ‘its original vision’ by creating new facilities. Replicating the original architecture of the Hamburg reading room, a new lecture hall will include an ellipse on the ceiling. Another space will house a “digital laboratory” in which visitors can navigate through the Bilderatlas on touchscreens.

As this project is on the brink of taking the library space into a new world, it does so by sticking to the spirit of the collections: by tracing the powerful and enduring influence of past ideas on the present.


Written by Jeremy Brown, graduate library trainee at the Warburg Institute Library.