The beginnings of the East Asia Department of the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin - Preußischer Kulturbesitz date back to the founding period of the "Churfürstliche Bibliothek zu Cölln an der Spree" when, during the second half of the 17th century, the first acquisitions of Chinese books were made by order of the Great Prince-Elector. In 1682/83, the holdings comprised 276 Chinese books. While the collection almost stagnated during the 18th century, it started to grow more vigorously after the first decade of the 19th century: Julius Heinrich Klaproth published his printed catalogue of a selection of the Berlin Chinese and Manchu holdings in 1822. Wilhelm Schott's catalogue followed in 1840.
In the 19th century, custody of East Asian prints and manuscripts had first been in the hands of the Manuscripts Department. In 1919, they were transferred, joining the Oriental manuscripts, to form the Oriental Department. Finally, on July 1st, 1922, they were moved to the newly-established East Asia Department.
Until 1943, the collection had grown to approximately 68,000 Chinese printed volumes, 1,700 manuscripts and 5,000 Japanese volumes. Korean prints or manuscripts had, until then, not been collected in noteworthy quantity.
Unfortunately, a substantial part of the pre-WWII collection which had to be relocated due to the war, was not returned to Berlin. Only 24,000 items found their way back to the Oriental Department of the East Berlin Staatsbibliothek (since 1969: Asia-Africa-Department). A smaller part was returned to Marburg (former West Germany), later to the East Asia Department of the Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin (West). Today, about 20,000 volumes of this collection are in the Biblioteka Jagiellonska in Krakow, Poland. Other parts ended up in the former Soviet Union. Today, about one third of the former collection is in Berlin while the rest is destroyed or considered lost.
Both departments in East and West Berlin developed quite differently until 1991, shortly after the German reunification. The Asia-Africa-Department in East Berlin had to rely mainly on exchange copies for collecting and making accessible modern literature and relevant information from and on, East Asia. In the West, the support of the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft; DFG) after 1951 made it possible to establish the Special Subject Collection East- and South-East Asia (Sondersammelgebiet Ost- und Südostasien; SSG 6,25) which subsequently developed into the largest East Asia collection in Europe. The institutional reunification of both libraries in 1992 was followed immediately by the spatial reunion of the East Asia collections, both of the Asia-Africa Department and the East Asia Department, at Potsdamer Straße. The profile of the Asian-languages collection of the East Asia Department is influenced by the acquisition profile of the Special Subject Collection, East and South East Asia (Sondersammelgebiet; SSG 6.25), as defined - and funded - by the German Research Foundation (Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft) from 1951 to 2015.