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The Hermitage book collection arose out of the personal library of Catherine II and its original composition reflected the interests and requirements of the Empress herself. "My museum in the Hermitage consists, not counting the paintings and the Raphael Loggias, of 38,000 books," she wrote in a letter to Melchior Grimm in 1790. By this time the library had absorbed large Russian and foreign book collections - those of the philosophers Voltaire and Diderot, the geographer Busching, Marchese Galiani, the Berlin-based book-sellers Nikolai and Zimmermann and the Russian historiographer Prince Mikhail Shcherbatov - and acquired the official title of the Imperial Hermitage Foreign Library.
Nicholas I installed the library in the rooms of the New Hermitage, creating an original "Museum of Books and Writing". This room with walls of multicoloured stucco contained 44,600 books on theology, philosophy, mathematical sciences, the art of warfare, history and literature in foreign languages.