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1745: Gerard van Swieten Appointed Prefect of the Court Library


In contrast to the official image of the library, its inner story unfolded more in silence, even though it was presided by noteworthy men of its time. In 1745, Gerard van Swieten, known as Maria Theresa’s personal physician and reformer of medical education, was called to Vienna as the court library’s new prefect.

In the Netherlands, the Dutchman and "Little Republican", as he described himself, had not only become acquainted with and learnt to appreciate a state-of-the-art publishing industry, but also the modern academic library system of Leiden. Via booksellers in Paris, Venice, and Leiden, he organised the purchase of recent scientific literature from Western European countries for the court library, thus adding a key element of a modern library to its collection activities: the acquisition of the latest scientific writings. Gerard van Swieten was perfectly familiar with them, since as president of the book censorship commission he read and commented upon numerous academic works himself, most of which dealt with the natural sciences, but they also included works by the French Enlighteners. For instance, the library owns a codex in which Gerard van Swieten comments upon the books censored by him using a cryptographic code:

"A useful book I bought for the library", "doesn’t contain anything bad", "quite a useful book", "found nothing bad, but nothing useful either" are positive comments that can be found, but there are others, too: "shameless, will be banned", "contains a lot of dangerous things, will be banned"

» 1780: The Oldest Card Catalogue

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