The older collections of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek primarily stem from the court libraries of the Wittelsbach dynasty in Munich and Mannheim, the secularised Bavarian monasteries as well as from further book collections of different origins.
In 1558 the Wittelsbach Duke Albrecht V acquired the private library of the Austrian Chancellor Johann Albrecht Widmanstetter, an important patron of the arts and sciences, and declared it the foundation of his court library. Widmanstetter, who was a supporter of the ideas of humanism and simultaneously an Orientalist scholar, owned works on classical philology, theology as well as Oriental and medical-scientific texts. His library comprised 300 manuscripts, among them 140 in Hebrew and 50 in Arabic, which are of outstanding importance to research even today, and 500 volumes with a total of 900 different prints.
In 1571 the Duke managed to purchase the library of the Augsburg Patrician Johann Jakob Fugger, comprising more than 10,000 volumes. Fugger was one of the best book connoisseurs of his time, and had already integrated the library of the Nuremberg physician and humanist Hartmann Schedel in his collection. The court library thus grew by a variety of important manuscripts and printed works, in particular from Italy, and by some literature on history and jurisprudence. In the year 1600 the collection comprised about 17,000 volumes, among them valuable printed music and music manuscripts, as well as important maps. The library was regarded as one of the most important book collections in Europe.
The commotion and confusion of the Thirty Years' War also had an impact on the court library. Parts of the collection had to be evacuated, parts were lost. In the second half of the century and in the early 18th century no important acquisitions took place. The library lay in a deep sleep and was hardly accessible even to interested scholars. This long phase of stagnation could only be overcome under Prince Elector Max III Joseph. He was interested in the arts and sciences and thus allocated sufficient funds to the library for purchasing books. In 1759 the library became part of the newly founded Academy of Sciences, and it was also accessible for court officials and professors of the university of Ingolstadt.
In the year 1756 the Elector of the Palatinate Karl Theodor had founded the court library of Mannheim. When the old Bavarian line of the Wittelsbach dynasty died out upon the decease of Maximilian III Joseph in 1777, Karl Theodor became Prince Elector of Bavaria. He moved to Munich in 1778, and also the Mannheim court library was transferred to Munich in 1803/04. Comprising 100,000 volumes, the library's focus was primarily on literature on history and natural science. Numerous works of contemporary French and Italian literature were acquired still under the reign of Karl Theodor. The Prince Elector had the library of the Florentine humanist Petrus Victorius purchased in Rome, complementing the court library by further important works of the 15th and 16th century.
The secularisation taking place in the years 1802/ 1803 was the crucial turning point in the history of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek. In 1773 the court library could already take over 23,000 volumes from the dissolved Jesuit college in Munich. In the following decades the library received selected collections from about 150 monasteries and seminaries in Upper Bavaria, Lower Bavaria and parts of Swabia. The holdings acquired in the course of secularisation were not only of great importance as regards quantity – the spiritual and intellectual heritage of Bavaria spanning many centuries was thus united in one place. Rich holdings from famous monasteries with long-standing traditions of up to a thousand years, such as Polling or Tegernsee, which in their heyday belonged to the elite of ecclesiastic libraries, summed up to form a unique collection. The monastic libraries contained unique literary sources on a great variety of fields of knowledge, from the Middle Ages to the late Age of Enlightenment. The theological and historical literature is documented in exceptional broadness. It is complemented by works on classical, Hebrew and Romanic philology and scientific publications. These collections represent a cornerstone of the Staatsbibliothek's rank from past to present.
Up to the year 1818 the holdings had been extended to 500,000 printed volumes – half of them originating from secularised monasteries – and 18,600 manuscripts. Even specialists from abroad confirmed that the Court and State Library, as the library was called from 1829 onward, ranked second in Europe behind the Bibliothèque Nationale in Paris. The estimated number of duplicates was another 200,000 volumes – which figure was too high, though, since according to today's view, the volumes in question are by no means all duplicates in the proper sense.
In the following years it was attempted to purchase newer literature as comprehensively as possible. Due to the acquisition of the libraries of several scholars, literature about Bavaria is especially well documented. The extension of the right to legal deposit, which had entered into force in 1663, to the newly annexed regions of Swabia and Franconia also made a contribution. The regulation committed all publishers in Bavaria to submit one copy of each work printed by them for archiving purposes.
Under the reign of the Kings Ludwig I and Maximilian II the library maintained its level of sophistication. Enormous efforts were made to complement and extend the collections. In order to fund the purchases, duplicates were sold, among them a great number of incunabula. The proceeds enabled the purchase of the library of the French Orientalist Etienne Quatremère, containing 1,200 manuscripts and 45,000 prints of the 16th to the 19th century. The holdings of literature of East Asian and Oriental provenience were furthermore greatly extended by the purchases of the Sinologist Karl Friedrich Neumann in China in 1833 and the collection of Sinica of the Italian Onorato Martucci. Together with the already existing holdings of Oriental literature from the Widmanstetter collection, these collections ranked the library among the small group of important centers of Orientalism in Europe.
Also the music collection grew considerably during the 19th century. In 1857 the collection of the Heidelberg music theoretician Anton Friedrich Justus Thibaut could be acquired. The number of music manuscripts rose from 600 to more than 5,000.
The general collection development dropped back at the end of the 19th century, due to the strongly expanding book production and simultaneous decrease of funds. The spectrum of acquisitions focused on the field of humanities. Literature on natural science, medicine and technology was only purchased as a very basic selection and in the form of periodicals. The library did cross the threshold of one million volumes around 1900, but it was outstripped by the Koenigliche Bibliothek zu Berlin. Until 1939 these two libraries played an important, supraregional role. The Munich library managed to intensify the purchase of Slavic literature, which had been taken up in the 19th century. The same is valid for books from East Asia purchased by the Sinologist and later Director General of the Staatsbibliothek Georg Reismüller on the occasion of a journey to China in 1928/ 1929. He increased the collection in question from around 12,000 to more than 30,000 volumes.
The time of national socialism and the Second World War limited the scope and volume of acquisitions considerably. However, the darkest hour of the library came with the destruction between 1943 and 1945. The manuscripts and the most valuable printed works could be saved, since they had been evacuated already in 1940, but the rest of the holdings remained on the premises. So it happened that a total of almost 500,000 volumes or a quarter of the overall collections were destroyed in bomb raids. Due to the systematic shelving, complete subject areas were lost: theology including the important collection of bibles, literature on art history, historically-geographic publications, classical studies, academic publications, travel descriptions and doctoral theses. Only after these severe losses the collections were evacuated to 28 locations in Upper Bavaria.
Up to today, only one third of the books destroyed in the war could be acquired anew. The purchase of foreign literature of the war years and the systematic development of the collections on the basis of the current book production reached a noteworthy volume only in the 1950s. The budget rose strongly from 1963 on and soon exceeded two million DM. It became possible again to take due account of natural sciences and medicine, corresponding to old tradition. During this phase the library managed to build up the largest and most comprehensive holdings of scholarly and scientific literature of the current publication years in the German language area.