From the fourth century onwards there is evidence of the Scrinium of the Roman Church, which was both a library and an archive.
The figure of the Bibliothecarius of the Roman Church appears at the end of the eighth century:
this title was given to the Librarian Theophylactus in a document dated to 784, under Pope Adrian I.
The earliest library and archive of the Popes were dispersed, for reasons which are still not well known,
in the first half of the thirteenth century. New collections gathered by the Popes of that century,
the description of which may still be read in an inventory made under Boniface VIII (1294-1303),
were moved after Boniface’s death first to Perugia, then to Assisi, and finally to Avignon, with serious losses along the way.
In Avignon, John XXII (1316-1334) began to gather a new library, parts of which made their way into the collection of the Borghese
family in the seventeenth century and from there back to the Holy See in 1891.
The mid-fourteenth century, after the Popes had returned to Rome with Gregory XI in 1378, is the period which may be thought of as the beginning of the modern history of the Vatican Library. It was Nicholas V (1447-1455) who decided that the Latin, Greek and Hebrew manuscripts, which had grown from 350 to around 1,200 from his accession to the time of his death (March 24 1455), should be made available for scholars to read and study. In the time of Nicholas V, the library was made up of a single reading room; his project was completed and carried out by Sixtus IV (1471-1484), with a bull (Ad decorem militantis Ecclesiae, June 15 1475), the nomination of a librarian (Bartolomeo Platina) and the necessary financial support. The new institution was housed in the ground floor of a building that had already been refurbished by Nicholas V, with an entrance from the Cortile dei Pappagalli and a façade on the cortile del Belvedere. Sixtus IV had the rooms decorated by some of the best painters of the time. There were four rooms, respectively called Bibliotheca Latina and Bibliotheca Graeca (for works in these two languages); Bibliotheca Secreta (for manuscripts which were not directly available to readers, including certain precious ones); Bibliotheca Pontificia (for the Papal archives and registers). The Librarian was assisted by three aides and by a bookbinder. Books were read on site under the discipline of strict regulations; but loans were also made, and the records of the books loaned during the years 1475-1547 are still in existence (Vat. lat. 3964 and 3966). The collection continued to grow, from a total of 2,527 manuscripts in 1475 to a total of 3,498 in 1481. In the sixteenth century, the Library continued to develop, particularly under Leo X (1513-1521), with systematic searches and purchases of manuscripts and printed books. Under Gregory XIII (1572-1585), archival material began to be separated from the rest, though it was only under Paul V (1605-1621) that it was entrusted to the care of a separate institution, the Vatican Secret Archives. Between 1587 and 1589, when the initial site had become too small to contain the continuously growing collections, Sixtus V (1585-1590) decided to construct new premises for the Library; he entrusted the project to the architect Domenico Fontana. The new building, which still houses the Library, was built on the stairway which divided the Cortile del Belvedere from the courtyard which is now known as the Cortile della Biblioteca. The top floor housed the large, decorated room with two naves known as the Salone Sistino (70 metres long and 15 metres wide).
In 1798-99 and in 1809, Rome was invaded and taken by the French and then by the Napoleonic armies. This led to considerable losses, including that of nearly all the numismatic collection which had been gathered up until then. In 1809, however, when Rome was annexed to the French Empire, the Vatican Library was became a National Library and was enriched with the collections of the religious orders. Between 1825 and 1855, in various phases, the collection of printed books were enriched by the large collection gathered by Leopoldo Cicognara, including art books and antiquities. Under Leo XIII (1878-1903), the Library was opened to a larger public of researchers and historians; in 1892 the current Reading Room for Printed Books was opened, with many books on the open shelves; and the opening hours were lengthened. During this period, which was marked by the tenure of the Jesuit Prefect Franz Ehrle (1895-1914), the card catalogue of printed books was begun, as was the publication of printed manuscript catalogues, produced according to detailed rules which have remained in force to this day. In 1900 the first volume of the Studi e Testi series was published. This period also saw the founding of the Restoration Laboratory, as well as some very important acquisitions. In 1902 the Vatican Library purchased the Barberini Library, which had rivalled it in importance in the seventeenth century, along with the Barberini Archives and the baroque wooden shelving which had contained the volumes when they were at Palazzo Barberini. This collection of more than 11,000 Latin, Greek and Oriental manuscripts and of over 36,000 printed books considerably increased the size of the Library’s collection. In the same year, the library of manuscripts and printed books which had belonged to the Sacred Congregation de Propaganda Fide became a part of the Vatican Library. This collection included the Borgiano collection, rich in manuscripts from various parts of Asia, which had been gathered by Card. Stefano Borgia (1731-1804). The period following the First World War saw the arrival, after various difficulties, of the collection of the bibliophile Francesco De Rossi (over 1,200 manuscripts and around 6,000 rare printed books, including 2,500 incunabula). The Chigi collection arrived in 1923, followed by the Chigi Archives (1944). The Ferrajoli collection, including around 25,000 autographs, arrived in 1926. In 1927, when the introduction of the automobile had rendered the old stables in the Cortile del Belvedere (to one’s right when facing the entrance to the Library), Pope Pius XI (1922-1939) decided to transform them into stacks for the Library’s printed books. In the same period, the financial support of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the collaboration of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. allowed the compilation of a completely new card catalogue of the printed books. During the Second World War, the Library, which remained closed for about one academic year (13th July 1943-2nd October 1944), housed a number of book collections, both religious and secular, which were at serious risk of destruction; among these was the library of the Abbey of Montecassino. In 1940, during the Pontificate of Pius XII (1939-1958), the collection of the Archive of the Chapter of St. Peter’s arrived at the Vatican Library. The various archival collections were later brought together to form the Archival Section (Sezione Archivi) of the Library, which was opened at the end of the 1970’s. In 1945 arrived the collection of Federico Patetta, which is very important for the history of the Piemonte region and contains a very rich collection of autograph letters; these were later integrated into the Library’s Archival Section. At the beginning of the 1950’s, most of the manuscripts were microfilmed. The microfilms are housed at the Pius XII Memorial Library in St. Louis, Missouri. In 1981, the association American Friends of the Vatican Library was founded to stimulate international interest and support for the institution; the association supports the Library by financing scientific publications and other projects. From 1982 to 1984, with the financial support of the dioceses of the Federal Republic of Germany, new stacks were built for the manuscripts underneath the internal courtyard of the Library. In 1985, with Prefect Leonard E. Boyle, manual cataloguing was definitively replaced with electronic cataloguing; in the following years, the data contained in the old card catalogues has been converted to electronic format. In September 2002 the new Periodicals Reading Room, where the most important material is available to readers on open shelves, was opened to the public. At present the Vatican Library preserves over 180,000 manuscripts (including 80,000 archival units), 1,600,000 printed books, over 8,600 incunabula, over 300,000 coins and medals, 150,000 prints, drawings and engravings and over 150,000 photographs.