When Kurfürstliche Bibliothek was founded in the middle of the seventeenth century, the initial holdings already included Oriental manuscripts and printed works. Extensive acquisitions in the following years and a growing public interest in the "Orient" increasingly required professional management. In 1919, the Oriental Department was established and in 1924 the Oriental Reading Room at Preußische Staatsbibliothek opened. Due to a generous acquisition policy, the department developed into a world-renowned collection of Oriental literature within the first two decades. However, following the evacuation of all manuscripts and book collections during the Second World War, activities came to a temporary halt.
In the period after 1945, some of the scattered holdings came to the Oriental Department (which was called Asia-Africa Department as of 1969) of Deutsche Staatsbibliothek Berlin (East). Other parts of the collection were initially gathered in Marburg and Tübingen and later reunited at the Oriental Department of Staatsbibliothek Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin (West). A few holdings were destroyed during the war and post-war years or were later found in various Eastern European libraries.
The departments in East and West took different paths until 1991, but even during Germany’s division they were never fully out of touch. Each institution continued the traditions of the Oriental Department of Preußische Staatsbibliothek in its own way. While the Asia-Africa Department was primarily devoted to the collection and, in particular, the cataloguing of modern literature and current information materials, the Oriental Department focused on the collection, maintenance and cataloguing of Oriental manuscripts.
The two departments began to grow together again when the libraries were unified in 1992. This process was completed when they joined premises at Potsdamer Straße in November 1997.
Today, the Oriental department of Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin is responsible for the following areas:
- Acquisition and cataloguing of literature in Asian, African and European languages from and on the following regions:
- Ancient Orient and Egypt
- Islamic Middle East from North Africa to Afghanistan and Central Asia (including European Turkey and the intermittently Islamic parts of Europe)
- Caucasus (partly in cooperation with the Osteuropa-Abteilung)
- Sub-Saharan Africa
- Israel (as well as Hebrew Studies and Judaism in general)
- South Asia
- Acquisition, cataloguing and management of manuscripts and block prints from all regions of Asia and Africa.