My CERL Internship at the Metropolitan Seminary Library in Warsaw

By Martyna Osuch, University of Warsaw Library

Throughout January 2021, I had the possibility of working at the Metropolitan Seminary Library of the Archdiocese of Warsaw as part of my CERL Internship. I was tasked with entering the provenances of the seminary’s incunabula into the MEI database. Due to the difficult situation of the pandemic, I got the opportunity to work at the Seminary Library in the city of my residence instead of interning at the Huntington Library in California.

About the library

The Metropolitan Seminary was founded in 1682 as the St. John Seminary[1]. Today, its building is located in the center of Warsaw, on Krakowskie Przedmieście Street. The area is usually crowded with tourists, so I was somewhat surprised to see how deserted it had become due to COVID.

Deserted center of Warsaw, January 2021

The Metropolitan Seminary Library currently holds 58,000 volumes of early printed books, including 151 incunabula, which makes it the second biggest incunabula collection in Warsaw after the National Library (1,000 volumes)[2]. Unfortunately, the capital and its historical collections have suffered greatly due to historical events: starting from the Swedish invasion (the so-called Deluge) in the seventeenth century, through the Partitions of Poland in the eighteenth century and the November Uprising (1830-31) in the nineteenth century, to two world wars in the twentieth century. I will expand on this below.

Most of the Metropolitan Seminary incunabula were preliminarily catalogued by hand in the second half of the twentieth century. The records, created by a local librarian, Zofia Popławska, and later completed by incunabulist Eliza Szandorowska, survived in the form of a handwritten notebook which contained general descriptions of all the 151 incunabula, most of them including basic provenance information. It should be stressed, though, that the descriptions featured in the notebook are very brief, with nearly no mentions of reading marks or of more difficult and less visible ownership inscriptions. Therefore, there was still a lot of material left to investigate and data to complete.

Page from the handwritten 20th c. incunabula notebook (now stored in the National Library in Warsaw)

Connections: The Metropolitan Seminary Library – the University of Warsaw Library – the St. Petersburg National Library of Russia

In that month, I managed to catalogue 38 volumes in detail, and to provide their records with links to the provenance images uploaded into the Provenance Digital Archive (PDA). At this point, my priorities are: firstly to catalogue the rest of the incunabula into MEI from the University Library where I work, and secondly to return to the Seminary Library and complete the task there.

Why am I especially interested in the collections of these two particular institutions (apart from the fact that one of them is my employer)?

The answer is that the two libraries have close historical ties. After the last phase of the secularisation and closure of monastic libraries in Poland in the second half of the nineteenth century (after the January Uprising, 1863), monastic book collections (which had previously belonged to the Dominicans, Carmelites, Augustinians, Missionaries, etc.) were divided between the University of Warsaw Library and the Metropolitan Seminary Library. The latter became the only institution in Warsaw to collect cultural property of the Church post-1867. Cataloguing the incunabula of both of these institutions into the MEI database would make it possible to consolidate Warsaw’s dispersed collections (both monastic and private ones) online as well as to answer the question of how many books have survived to the present day (a great portion of Warsaw incunabula were lost in fires in 1944. Luckily, the Met. Sem. collection did not suffer during the Second World War, because it was transported to Rokitno, a village located about 40 kilometers away from Warsaw, in 1944.)

Unfortunately, in some cases, in order to reconstruct the entire (or the major part) of the historical collection, it would also be necessary to catalogue books held at the Russian National Library in St. Petersburg. A good example to illustrate the complicated issue of Warsaw’s collections is the historical library of the Congregation of the Mission in Warsaw (founded in 1651). In 1865, the Missionaries’ whole library was incorporated into the Metropolitan Seminary Library. However, before this happened, in the eighteenth century, the missionaries made numerous exchanges of books with the Załuski Library, the largest public library on Polish lands. The Załuski Library was in turn exported to St. Petersburg in 1795. Some of these books were returned by Russians in the 1840s to the University Library in Warsaw rather than to the Metropolitan Seminary Library (where the largest part of the Missionaries’ library was stored) or to the National Library (which claimed the rights to the Załuskis’ legacy). Thus, today, the missionaries’ early printed books can be found both at the Seminary and the University Library, and most likely at the National Library in St. Petersburg as well.

19th c. ex-libris of Warsaw Missionaries Library[3]

The historical Missionary Library in Warsaw is just one of many examples which prove the great need to publish copy-specific data of the Warsaw incunabula. In my opinion, the only possibility for the dispersed collections to be merged and described in a widely intelligible way is to enter these copies into the MEI database. Once that has happened, not just a handful of Polish librarians, but also scholars from all over the world will be able to understand how our incunabula moved over centuries and to know how many of them miraculously avoided all the dangers I mentioned.

About the Met. Sem. incunabula

It should be particularly emphasised that a large number of early Polish provenances can be found in the collection of Metropolitan Seminary Library. This means that these books are particularly valuable to us, because they contain the marks of their local owners. It is not that easy today to find incunabula from Warsaw’s historical collections in Warsaw’s libraries. As I already mentioned, the most precious books from local institutions were transported to St. Petersburg in the nineteenth century, and another part of them, including incunabula, was burned after WWII.

Below, I would like to present some examples of valuable Polish and Warsaw provenances from the early modern period. All the evidence comes from the 38 volumes I described during my internship, which is about a quarter of the Metropolitan Seminary Library’s incunabula collection.

Ownership inscription of Adam Sijper from Tarnogród (near Lublin), 16th c.
Ownership inscription of Paweł Zembrzuski, mayor of old Warsaw, early 17th c.
Original 15th/16th  c. Polish binding from Chełmno, characteristic for Brethren of the Common Life (according to Eliza Szandorowska)
Ownership inscription of Jakub Gross from Krosno, 16th c.
Ownership inscription of Balthasar Smosarski, physician, alchemist, astrologer and writer from Symosarz (near Ciechanów), early 16th c.
Ownership inscription (crossed out) of Jan Zachariasz Golanowski, vicar (vicarius perpetuus) at St. John the Baptist Church in Warsaw, 17th c.


The Metropolitan Seminary Library’s collection has exceptional value as Polish national heritage. Therefore, I would like to complete the work on these incunabula in the near future. Once I have catalogued the incunabula in the University Library, I intend to submit a Preludium Grant application in order to describe the rest of the fifteenth-century books in the Metropolitan Seminary Library.

There is one important thing to mention on the subject of Warsaw’s incunabula-preserving libraries. The University of Warsaw Library offers a printed catalogue of its fifteenth- and sixteenth-century collection[4]. Additionally, all detailed incunabula descriptions will soon appear in the MEI. The National Library in Warsaw has just published a complete catalogue of its incunabula[5], as did the Public Library in Warsaw a number of years ago[6]. However, provenance information on fifteenth-century books from the Seminary Library as well as on the Polish incunabula in St. Petersburg is still not available anywhere publicly. I believe that it is high time to change that.

[1] Metropolitan Seminary Library’s website: .

[2] The biggest incunabula collections in Poland are:  University Library in Wrocław – 3270  ; Jagiellonian University in Cracow – 2345 ; Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań (main library + faculty of theology) – 1176 (377+799) ; Cathedral Library in Gniezno – about 1100 ; National Library in Warsaw – 1000 ; Seminary Library in Włocławek – 1000. For the list of public institutions in Poland holding early printed books vide: K. Szymański, Wykaz instytucji ze zbiorami starych druków w Polsce ( )

[3]Ex-libris and ownership inscriptions of the historical Missionary Library in Warsaw can be found in PDA: ; ;

[4] T. Komender, Katalog druków XV i XVI wieku w zbiorach Biblioteki Uniwersyteckiej w Warszawie, vol. 1, p. 1, XV w., Warsaw 1994.

[5] M. Spandowski, Catalogue of incunabula in the National Library of Poland, vol. 1-2, Warsaw 2021.

[6] A. Kawecka-Gryczowa, Katalog starych druków Biblioteki Publicznej Warszawy: inkunabuły, Warszawa 2005.

University of Warsaw Library

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