Looted Library, Reconstructed Library

Books of Riga Jesuit College in Riga and Uppsala

Books and library collections have a history of being stolen, moved around and separated because of ever-changing rules, perspectives and politics. Collections have been looted, wrested from one community and transferred to another, and become an essential part of the cultural heritage of a new institution or society, far from their original home.

This exhibition tells the story of one such historical case - the former library of Riga Jesuit College. This unique collection of books possesses a cultural and historical importance on a European scale.

The Jesuits started to accumulate the library in 1583. In 1621, when Riga was captured by Swedish troops during the Polish-Swedish War (1601-1629) the library collection, together with other valuable items, was transported to Sweden as war booty. The bulk of the books ended up in Uppsala, where they became the core of the Uppsala University Library.

The collection of the former library of Riga Jesuit College is diverse. It holds both the oldest known hand-written text in the Latvian language and the oldest surviving printed Latvian text. Its medieval books – manuscripts and incunabula - had been in the possession of priests, nuns and institutions of the Roman Catholic Church before the Reformation. The collection also boasts hand-written prayer books, read in the medieval Cistercian nunnery in Riga. Together with other items in the collection, these volumes bear testimony to the religious and intellectual Catholic culture in Riga and in Northern Europe in general in the late 16th and early 17th century.

In the first half of the 20th century, librarians and historians tried to reconstruct this historically important collection. Now, in the early 21st century, experts from the National Library of Latvia have created a new catalogue of this valuable collection, making the library of Riga Jesuit College accessible again. Let’s explore it!