Rīga Jesuit College Bookshelf opened in Uppsala

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Head of the NLL Special Collection Department Dagnija Baltiņa. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš
Head of the NLL Special Collection Department Dagnija Baltiņa. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš
From right: NLL Lead Researcher Gustavs Strenga. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš
From right: NLL Lead Researcher Gustavs Strenga. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš
2nd and 3rd from left: NLL Lead Researcher Gustavs Strenga, President of Latvia Egils Levits. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš
2nd and 3rd from left: NLL Lead Researcher Gustavs Strenga, President of Latvia Egils Levits. Photo: Ilmārs Znotiņš

On 21 June, the Uppsala University Library (UUL, Sweden) Book Hall hosted a presentation on the project to reconstruct the book collection of the Rīga Jesuit College (1583–1621) and the opening of the Rīga Jesuit College Bookshelf. Ceremony participants included the President of Latvia Egils Levits, UUL specialists, Dagnija Baltiņa, Head of the National Library of Latvia (NLL) Special Collection Department and NLL Lead Researcher Gustavs Strenga.

The Rīga Jesuit College book project was started in 2018 and has seen a significant part of Latvia's cultural heritage reconstructed and researched by bibliographers. The project's results have now become available not only to the academic community, museum, archive and library specialists, but to anyone, in Latvia and around the world, interested in history and literature. The project has also aroused interest in a little-known and researched, but fascinating topic in Latvia’s history and culture – the fate of literary war booty and its historical significance in the Latvian and European common cultural space.

The opening of the bookshelf in the UUL's famous white Book Hall symbolises successful co-operation between Sweden and Latvia and the importance of preserving literary treasures. The shelf’s contents are one of the UUL’s oldest and most valuable collections, which, after 400 years, has been researched and relocated, giving it appropriate and representative value in the present day. Each of the approximately 400 copies on the shelf now also has a specially created Ex libris label with a motif of Rīga's Zviedru vārti (Swedish Gate) to symbolise the unification of stories in Swedish and Rīga history.

In practical terms, the Rīga Jesuit College book project included work by both UUL and NLL researchers – detailed editing and compiling of the books' bibliographic descriptions. Participation in this type of project was a challenge and invaluable experience for the NLL bibliographers, because, for the first time, the bibliography of a relatively large collection in a foreign library was compiled. Subsequently, the historically priceless collection was transferred to a specially created electronic database. Consequently, the library removed from Rīga can be returned to its original location, at least in digital form.

Promotion of this project and greater awareness of the collection could also encourage researchers from other countries – especially Jesuit library researchers, library staff and bibliophiles – to turn their attention to specific specimens in the Rīga collection in other countries' libraries and thus cooperate with the NLL or UUL. The collection has already gained awareness within the European Jesuit Library project led by Professor Kathleen Comerford (USA). In order to further global awareness of the Rīga collection, Swedish and Latvian library specialists could, in the future, become involved in the European Jesuit Libraries Provenance Project: https://www.jesuit-libraries.com/.

The final stages of the project are planned for this September, when a catalogue of the Rīga Jesuit College book collection will be published, an exhibition dedicated to this collection opened on the European digital library’s Europeana platform and the collection's most important book – the Petrus Canisius Catholic Catechism – put on display. In turn, in 2022, it is hoped to publish a book The Baltic Battle of Books: Formation, Transfiguration and Replacement of European Libraries in the Confessional Age (c. 1500 – c. 1650) and Their Afterlife as part of Brill series of academic publications Library of the Written Word, dedicated to the fates of Northern European libraries during the Reformation.

The Rīga Jesuit College (1583–1621) library project is a part of the Historical Path of the Idea of Latvian Statehood in the Common European Cultural Space project, which is being implemented under the Latvian State Centenary Programme.

The project was implemented under State Research Programme project No VPP-IZM-2018/1-0022: The Role of documentary heritage research in creating synergies between research and society.


The roots of the creation of the Rīga Jesuit College book collection can be traced back to the founding of the College in 1583. The Rīga Jesuit College library was built up gradually but with purpose, most of the books being purchased. At the same time, the library also absorbed a number of other pre-existing book collections. When the former Cistercian convent was taken over, the Jesuits took possession of the Cistercian sisters' prayer books and Livonian pre-Reformation priests’ books. Some of the books were gifts from individuals, but many volumes had come to Rīga from other Jesuit colleges in Europe. The library's books include editions of the Bible and Psalters in many languages, works by Catholic and Protestant theologians, texts for teaching rhetoric, philosophical treatises, dictionaries, catechisms and liturgical books. Before the library was removed from Rīga in 1621, it comprised almost 1 000 books and was one of the largest book collections in the Baltic Sea region.

In 1621, Swedish troops under King Gustav II Adolf seized Rīga, the first city in which Swedish officials took steps to transfer cultural treasures with the aim of weakening the influence of the Catholic Church and strengthening Swedish educational institutions. Subsequently, during the Thirty Years' War (1618–1648), when capturing other Central and Central European cities, Swedish troops also confiscated books and other treasures from Catholic institutions: for example, in Braniewo, Prussia, Poznan, Olomouc and Prague. The book collections of Jesuit colleges and other Catholic ecclesiastical institutions in these cities were also transferred to Sweden and either became royal property or were sent to the UUL, founded in 1620 (the university itself was founded in 1477). The looted books became the foundation of the university library collection. Almost all of the Rīga Jesuit books were transferred from Rīga to Uppsala, as were liturgical objects and Orthodox icons, four of which are still in the Uppsala University art collection. The relocated books include the oldest known handwritten text in Latvian (the Nicolaus Gisbert Lord’s Prayer, c. 1529) and the oldest surviving printed book in Latvian – the Petrus Canisius Catholic Catechism (the only complete copy) published in Vilnius in 1585.

Bibliographies have been compiled for most of the collection and will be published in the catalogue. However, books from the former Rīga Jesuit College library could yet be identified, both in Sweden and in other countries to which Rīga Jesuit books could historically have been taken. After the publication of the catalogue, the Rīga College Jesuit book collection database will be supplemented with any newly identified copies.


Additional information:
Augusts Zilberts
Public Relations Manager
National Library of Latvia
E-mail: augusts.zilberts@lnb.lv
Phone: +371 26472501