German Acquisitions in Hungarian Libraries:

Cultural Commerce and Cooperative Collection Development

By James P. Niessen

WESS Newsletter
Fall 2003

Vol. 27, no. 1

Editor: Sarah G. Wenzel

Association of College & Research Libraries
©American Library Association


This report will outline some preliminary results of my ongoing research and some related travel experiences. My proposal supported by the Coutts Nijhoff International West European Specialist Study Grant was entitled German Acquisitions in Hungarian Research Libraries: Cooperative Collection Development in the Twentieth Century. In March, 2003 I travelled to Berlin, Germany and Budapest, Hungary with the support of this grant, then in July and August I returned to Europe with support from other sources and on my own. During both stays I had the benefit of a housing award from the Europa Institute in Budapest, an institution founded with German foundation support in 1991 to facilitate short research stays in Budapest.

German cultural and political influence is of tremendous importance for the modern evolution of Hungary. For nearly four centuries Hungary was associated with (some would say colonized by) the German Habsburg dynasty. During this period German culture was a powerful model and antithesis for Hungarian culture, and German burghers were motors of the kingdom’s economic development. Germans constituted a large and influential ethnic minority within Hungary prior, with a significant publishing output in its own language. Hungary lost two-thirds of its population and territory in the Treaty of Trianon after World War I. German influence declined in this much more homogeneous state, yet it was aided by the common diplomatic interest of Germany and Hungary as countries aggrieved by the peace settlement. Fatefully, Hungary allied with Nazi Germany, enjoying shortlived territorial aggrandizement but then German and eventually Soviet occupation. After 1948 Hungary faced two Germanies, one of them the most economically advanced of the “fraternal socialist countries” and the other a Cold War adversary that became by the 1970s an economic if not a political partner. This partnership expanded and deepened after 1990 as Hungary joined NATO and then voted in April, 2003 to join the European Union.

I decided to consider libraries as one of several indices of the cultural counterpart to Germany’s political influence in Hungary. Clearly language practice is another index. For the first half of the twentieth century, German was the most widely used foreign language in Hungary; for the next several decades it was Russian, a required subject in all the country’s schools and actually learned by a substantial minority of students, and most recently English. Cultural influence can also be seen in the prevalence of Hungarians studying at German language universities, mentoring relationships with German scholars and scientists they encountered during advanced study in Germany, and the reception of German literature in Hungary. Thomas Mann traveled repeatedly to Budapest during the interwar period, for instance, and was fêted in the Hungarian press. I learned during a visit to Berlin’s new Jewish Museum in August that this German-Hungarian literary relationship had its flip side: Mann’s publisher, S. Fischer, began life as Sámuel Fischer of Hungary. German culture was an enabler and intermediary stage in the assimilation of many Hungarian Jews.

This is the context for my examination of libraries’ role. Rather than considering all Hungarian libraries, I selected only three. The principal focus of my research was the acquisition of German language publications, principally monographs, in the three most important scholarly research libraries of Budapest: the National Széchényi Library, the Library of the Hungarian Academy, and the Eötvös Loránd University Library. Inspired by accounts of abortive attempts in the nineteenth century to coordinate these three libraries, I also sought to determine whether there was cooperation in collection development for German materials among these libraries. For chronological focus, I concentrated on four years that exemplify historical eras: 1900, 1930, 1960, and 1990.

Enroute and returning from Budapest in March, I spent four days in Berlin to examine published and archival information on German-Hungarian library relations. The Hotel Unter den Linden provided a reasonably priced, pleasant, and central location for these “bookends” to my March expedition. The transformation of Germany’s new/old capital complicates the researcher’s task in interesting ways. Prussia survives in the Foundation of the Prussian Cultural Heritage (Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz), which manages various museums and, most importantly for me, the Berlin State Library (Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preußischer Kulturbesitz) and the Privy State Archives (Geheimes Staatsarchiv Preußischer Kulturbesitz) in Dahlem [photo]. It is not always easy to know whether the material you need is in the old building of the State Library on Unter den Linden or the newer one in former West Berlin near the Philharmonic. A somewhat similar quandary involves records of the Prussian state and Germany, which may be in the Privy Archives or in the Federal Archives (Bundesarchiv) in Berlin, which moved not long ago into the former Andrews Barracks of the Americans in Lichterfelde. I did find useful archivalia in these locations and in the Political Archives of the German Foreign Office (Politisches Archiv des Ministeriums für Auswärtige Angelegenheiten), as well as friendly, knowledgeable, and flexible archivists who confounded my preconception of federal and German civil servants.

The stay in Berlin was necessarily limited so that I could concentrate on my primary sources relating directly to my three target libraries in Budapest. Advance contact via email initiated my collaboration with the heads of acquisitions in these libraries: Lajos Murányi (whom some of us met at the Frankfurt Book Fair in 1999) in the Academy Library, Judit Kakasy in the University Library, and Mrs. Karakas in the Széchényi Library. Each of the libraries has an archives with correspondence concerning the exchange and acquisition of library materials that interested me. I also discovered records I had not anticipated. There are many reports of librarians’ visits to libraries and library congresses in East Berlin during the communist era, applauding some aspects of East German librarianship but criticizing others. These reports include a respectful but cautiously skeptical account by a university librarian of the German comrades’ presentations on “the application of Marxist-Leninist principles in subject cataloging”, which is contrasted unfavorably with the (today almost unusable) idiosyncratic subject catalog in the University Library. I also found at the university a detailed bibliography of a gift of books from the Embassy of the German Empire in 1942 that is a fascinating blend of valuable scholarly works, Nazi speeches, and ideologically tainted works somewhere in between.

I collected quantitative and qualitative information about acquired materials and library processes. Quantitatively, I used the national union catalog in the National Széchényi Library to search 400 titles taken from WorldCat, and sampling of the accession registers in the three libraries for the four selected years provided further insights. The accession registers reveal a side of Central European librarianship with which I was unfamiliar: for legally required inventory control, every publication acquired by a library is entered into a ledger and these are stored as annual volumes. The information in the ledgers varies, but usually includes the means of acquisition. Some researchers use the registers to learn how an individual work was acquired, but I sampled them to gain an understanding of the changing percentage of German monographs in library acquisitions and the relative weight of exchange and purchasing. Qualitatively, the archives and internal reports of the three libraries helped complete this picture.

During my summer expedition I drew back from the individual libraries once again to look for the bigger picture. Records of the Hungarian Ministry of Culture in the Hungarian National Archives gave me an understanding of measures to coordinate foreign acquisition work in Hungarian libraries. Finally, better understanding of various issues enabled me to follow up on them in the Berlin archives. Especially interesting were the personal papers of Karl Heinz Becker, the Minister of Culture of Weimar Germany, in the Privy Archives. Becker was the President of the Friends of the Hungarian Institute in Berlin and also a close friend of his counterpart in Hungary.

Here are some preliminary conclusions. First, the Library of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences was the most important collection of German materials throughout the century; the Eötvös Loránd University Library was strong early in the century, but its relative position declined after World War II; the National Széchényi Library was the weakest of the three. Second, both world wars led to a temporary spike in German acquisitions as commercial ties to Western countries were broken, but there was a decline in German acquisitions that reflected the international standing of German science and scholarship. Third, efforts toward a division of labor in collection development had an increasing effect over the course of the century. Finally, the placement of Hungary within Europe evolved from a state with a large domestic German cultural establishment to a small, monoethnic state maintaining important relations with revisionist, Communist, and NATO-allied Germanies.


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