Ever since it was founded, the Swiss National Library (NL) has explicitly set out to collect not just books but also image documents such as prints, posters, editions, artists’ books, photographs and picture postcards – all of which are now held by the Prints and Drawings Department. Since 2007 they have been complemented by the collections of the Federal Archives of Historic Monuments.

1895: start of the Helvetica collection

Ever since it was founded in its present form in 1895, the National Library’s mandate has been to collect “Helvetica”. From the outset, that has been understood to mean not just books and other publications but also image documents – a policy that reflects the origins of collections and their diversity in the European collecting tradition.

1895 – 1945: the picture collection takes shape

Sammelbild der Graphischen Sammlung
Collections of the Prints and Drawings Department
© NL, Simon Schmid

The part of the collection that makes up today’s Prints and Drawings Department began life as a picture collection. It consisted of iconographic, graphic and photographic image documents on the geography, history, politics, customs, culture and people of Switzerland. The NL has always collected artistic works by well-known Swiss artists too, with a particular focus on editions and artists’ books.

An agreement with the Swiss Photographers’ Association in 1917 led to the creation of Switzerland’s first official photo collection at the NL. As it entered its 50th year, the NL had already collected a broad spectrum of image media comprising prints, Schweizer Kleinmeister Helvetica, posters, picture postcards, photographs, editions and artists’ books.

1945 – 1989: the “Older Fonds” department

The collection forming the basis of today’s Prints and Drawings Department was further expanded in the decades that followed, particularly in the areas of photography and graphic Swiss Helvetica.

In the 1980s Annemarie Gugelmann transferred to the NL the collection of Schweizer Kleinmeister that she and her brother Rudolf had accumulated over four decades. Following this unprecedented gift the NL hired its first art historian, whose work mainly focused on this part of the collection.

Until 1991 the picture collection was administered along with the manuscript estates and other special collections of the NL in the “Older Fonds, Manuscripts and Special Collections” department. In 1991 however, the literary archives and estates were transferred to the newly created Swiss Literary Archives.

1990 – today: towards a Prints and Drawings Department

In 1990 the NL’s picture collection was renamed the “Prints and Drawings Collection”.

From the mid-1990s onwards it collected important artists’ archives, such as those of Daniel Spoerri, Karl Gerstner, Johannes Gachnang, Serge and Doris Stauffer, Ulrich Meister, Andreas Züst, Niklaus Stauss and Claude Kuhn.

In 2006 the Prints and Drawings Collection became a department in its own right and in 2007 the holdings of the Federal Archives of Historic Monuments (FAHM) were transferred to what was now the Prints and Drawings Department, substantially increasing its scope.

1897 – today: Federal Archives of Historic Monuments

The creation of the Federal Archives of Historic Monuments (FAHM) dates back to the «Federal Decree on Federal Participation in Efforts to Preserve and Acquire National Antiquities» of 30 June 1886. It instructed the board of what was then the «Society for the Preservation of Historic Art Monuments» – now the Society for Art History in Switzerland – to form a commission of experts: the Federal Commission for Monument Preservation (FCMP). The commission’s members were responsible for distributing subsidies and for overseeing operations to restore buildings and artworks as well as excavations. In carrying out their mandate, these experts and the individuals and enterprises acting on their instructions produced documents that were handed over and described in inventory books (entry books) in the order in which they were received. 

The first mention of this collection of documents as the «Archive of Historic Art Monuments» is recorded in 1897. In 1919 this archive was split off from the society and integrated in its entirety into the National Museum. It was renamed the Federal Archives of Historic Monuments in 1964. Deliveries of archive-worthy documents on subsidised activities to the FAHM continued into the 1990s; thereafter, by agreement between the Heritage Protection and Historic Monument Preservation Section of the Federal Office of Culture and the cantonal offices of historic monument preservation and archaeology, the cantons assumed full responsibility for archiving. Between 1908 and 1969, the FAHM also acquired on deposit a variety of items drawn from historic monument preservation and archaeology. Over time, through gifts and acquisitions, the FAHM also received various archives of historic monuments preservation experts, collections, documentation and inventories on the topics of architectural and art history, protection of built heritage and landscapes, as well as the private archives of individual photographers and picture postcard publishers. 

Until 1964, the FAHM were administered and managed by the Swiss National Museum in Zurich. They were then placed under the auspices of the FCMP secretariat until 1975, when both were attached to what is now the Federal Office of Culture (FOC) and transferred to Bern. Between 1976 and 2001, the archives had to move to new locations in the Bern region on a number of occasions, which was not good for the order and condition of the archival materials. Since 2001 the FAHM have been housed in the Swiss National Library (NL) building in Bern. In 2007 the archives were separated off organisationally from the Heritage Protection and Historic Monument Preservation Section and integrated into the Prints and Drawings Department of the NL. From an archival perspective, the FAHM are operated as a separate sub-department and are an ideal complement to the holdings of the Prints and Drawings Department.

Last modification 22.01.2024

Top of page


Swiss National Library
Prints and Drawings Department
Hallwylstrasse 15
3003 Bern
Phone +41 58 462 89 71

Print contact

Opening hours

by appointment