France: The Colmar Dominican Library Reopens Its Doors

August 11, 2022
1460 Bible

On June 27, 2022, the library of the Dominican Convent in Colmar, in the Haut-Rhin, reopened to the public, after four years of work. The library houses the second largest collection of incunabula in France, in a renovated medieval convent.

The first stone of the choir of the Dominican church was laid in 1283 by Rodolphe de Habsbourg. The conventual buildings located to the north of the church were built around 1300. The French Revolution put an end to the influence of the Order of Saint Dominic with the closing of the convents of the city and the dispersal of the monks.

Converted into an artillery warehouse, the church was acquired in 1807 by the City, which turned it into a corn exchange. The convent was transformed around 1830 into a gendarmerie barracks until 1871, when the Germans briefly converted it into a post office. Restored at the end of the 19th century, it was returned to worship in 1898.

In 1873, it housed a preparatory school for teachers which continued its activity until 1940. The German occupiers then took over the site to establish a popular library there. It became the property of the City of Colmar at the Liberation. Partially classified as a “historical monument” in 1948, the site was the subject of a major restructuring and renovation campaign until 1951, in order to allow the installation of the city library there.

The library “contains the written memory of Alsace since the Middle Ages,” emphasizes Rémy Casin, its chief curator. Among its 400,000 documents are 2,300 incunabula, books from the beginnings of printing in the second half of the 15th century, “the most important collection in the country for these works after that of the National Library of France,” recalls Eric Straumann, Mayor of Colmar.

The jewel of this collection is a bible by the printer Johannes Mentelin dating from 1460, “one of the first books printed in Europe, five years after that of Gutenberg,” notes Rémy Casin. The collection also includes 1,800 manuscripts, the oldest of which dates back to the 8th century, 35,000 books from the 16th to the 18th century, 21,000 old prints and drawings, as well as 40,000 Alsace-related items, old or contemporary works and documents dealing with Alsace.

As a municipal library, the place is accessible free of charge to the public who can visit it, consult it, or borrow certain recent works, but the most precious collections are reserved for researchers. The establishment has had a bookbinding workshop since 1941, where two restorers officiate and carry out important maintenance work on the collections. The library puts up exhibits of around a hundred works at a time temporarily extracted from the collections.

Its restoration represented an investment of 19 million euros and was designed by Stefan Manciulescu, chief architect of Historic Monuments, with the assistance of the architectural firm Ameller & Dubois for contemporary fittings. The work undertaken in 2018 made it possible to restore the integrity of the spaces and arrangements of the former Dominican convent, with its 14th century cloister, classified as a Historic Monument.

The works, materials, and finishes used for the restoration of the old building, such as the exposed framework, the roof tiles and skylights, the pink sandstone floors, the double wooden windows, and the interior shutters, evoke all the historical richness of the old convent. Now the scriptorium room, the chapter room, the visible reserve, the cloister, the gardens, and the permanent exhibitions are open to visitors.

Library of the Dominicans, 1 place of the Martyrs of the Resistance, 68000 Colmar - 03 89 24 48 18

Museum tour (free): Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.; Wednesday and Saturday from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Library: Monday to Saturday from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.