An American in Leipzig

The 1997-98 ALA/USIA Fellows Program

By Roger Brisson

WESS Newsletter

Fall 1998, Vol. 22, no. 1

Association of College & Research Libraries
©American Library Association

In his new book Sachsen-Spiegel: Geschichten aus Mitteldeutschland (Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt, 1998), the German author Ulrich Frank-Planitz writes: "Seldom in German history has the image of a land changed so radically than that of Saxony after Reunification." This statement could be read and understood in a number of ways, as Frank-Planitz certainly intended. Like other Americans I knew that Saxony, with its two major cities Leipzig and Dresden, represented a region hidden by over 40 years of the Iron Curtain and Communist rule. Having been selected an ALA/USIA Library Fellow for Leipzig, I was very excited to finally experience the city and the land of Saxony for myself. Familiar with its rich history, I knew that like Prussia, East German communism systematically repressed any expression of Saxony's great cultural heritage and long history. A small, densely populated state, Saxony is somewhat smaller than New Jersey and has a population of over 4 million. Though highly urbanized and having much of its natural resources ravaged through settlement and the devastation of the environment under communism, Saxony has the potential, like other German regions, of once again developing an attractive balance in a cultural geography composed of urban centers, farming country, and natural surroundings. For this reason massive investment, both through private and public spending, is being poured into the state and its two major cities. Through my ALA Fellows experience, I would come to witness this exhilarating transformation first-hand.

Sweeping statements like Frank-Planitz's above occupied my thoughts as my British Airways flight approached the new Leipzig-Halle airport. How did the oppressive, gray uniformity of Communism intermingle with the bürgerliche glory that was once Leipzig? Was this rich cultural history once again asserting itself and brushing off several decades of dusty abuse? Two themes coursed through my mind as my host Klaus Bastian and his family chauffeured me from the Leipzig airport to the faculty guest quarters at the university. The first was the physical remains of 40 years of communist rule in this part of Germany, still very apparent by the endless rows of the crumbling, depressingly gray housing blocks on the outskirts of the city. The second was clearly recognizing the former glory that once was Leipzig, well known before the war as one of Europe's greatest mercantile cities and a major trading hub between eastern and western Europe. Leipzig was heavily damaged during the war, but not nearly as bad as Dresden, so much of its former wealth is still apparent in the dense concentration of architectural monuments and opulently decorated Baroque and Wilhelmenian buildings in the city center. This strange mixture of former communism and commercial, bürgerliche, culture was something that was to become a pervasive backdrop to my entire experience in this central German city.

The City of Leipzig

As soon as I settled into my modest but pleasant living quarters and slept off my jet lag, I hit the streets and began walking toward the city center. I was staying in newly renovated faculty housing at the university where I would be teaching, the Hochschule für Technik, Wirtschaft und Kultur, or HTWK, located in a nice, urban residential area south of the city center, about four kilometers away. Like many other things I would discover in eastern Germany, my nicely furnished room, complete with a very fast, direct Ethernet connection to the university backbone and the Internet, was in many ways more modern and advanced than if I were in a corresponding situation in the western part of the country. I was, of course, benefiting from the rapid investment in eastern Germany's infrastructure after Reunification, as were all the citizens of the recently reunited German states. Though still suffering from high unemployment, there is a general sense of busy industriousness and optimism in eastern Germany, which is understandable when one considers the excitement of redevelopment after so many years of oppressive stagnation.

The first thing I noticed as I began walking was the smell of fresh plaster. Everywhere. It permeated the whole city, and I quickly realized that Leipzig was a single, massive construction zone, with entire city blocks covered by scaffolding. I had never seen anything like it. All was peaceful and quiet as I walked, since it was Sunday, but I would soon have to get used to a constant background of construction noise throughout the city. I later learned that the East German cities Berlin, Leipzig, and Dresden were experiencing one of the greatest concentrated investments in urban rebuilding ever, with billions of marks being poured into both new construction and in the renovation of important historical structures. This made Leipzig a bizarre patchwork of dilapidated old buildings sitting incongruously next to newly renovated architectural masterpieces, and it took some getting used to. I made my way to the enclosed pedestrian area of the city center, and I ended my walk at the Thomaskirche, the famous church where Bach spent the most productive years of his life as cantor. As I sat drinking coffee and eating Apfelstrudel at the outdoor café next to the church, with a statue of the great composer in front of me, I realized that I was beginning an unforgettable six months in my life. Indeed, visiting the church on Fridays for organ concerts and performances of the famous Thomanerchor went on to become a regular highlight throughout my stay. This should come as no surprise, since Leipzig continues to be one of the world's great music cities, a tradition that began with the 1000-year old Thomanerchor, continues with its great composers Bach, Mendelsohn, and Schubert, is evidenced today with sold-out, world-class concerts on an almost daily basis, and includes its expression in the city's most illustrious musical ambassador, the New York Philharmonic's conductor Kurt Masur. It was thus no surprise it would only take a few days after my arrival to find my way to the famous Leipziger Gewandhaus, as the university celebrated the begin of the new academic year with an inspiring matriculation ceremony led by one of the city's symphony orchestras.

Teaching at the HTWK

The HTWK is a university of applied science that was created after Reunification. With a student enrollment of about 4000, the main part of the university is composed of four large buildings used for administration, classrooms, faculty offices, and laboratories. The main library, with about 200,000 volumes, is located in one of these buildings. The core part of the university can trace its roots back to a technical college that focused on architectural studies, which was founded in 1838. After reunification, in 1992, other technical colleges, including a school of library science, were brought together administratively to form the HTWK, or the 'Leipzig University of Applied Sciences,' as it is identified in English-language brochures. Unfortunately the other schools are still located in their original buildings, and are scattered throughout the city. The school of library science, for example, is found on the opposite side of Leipzig, which is about an hour commute by public transportation from the main campus. Plans are underway for moving the other schools to the main part of the university, but it will be several years before this is accomplished.

Only a couple of days after arriving I found myself in the classroom, introducing myself to some twenty curious students, with my first lecture for the course I would be teaching on digital libraries. About half the students were from the western German states, and they had come to the HTWK to avoid the impossible level of overcrowding so pervasive now in western German universities. I was 'team-teaching' the course with Klaus Bastian, who is a professor of Computer Science at the HTWK. The only contact we had up to that point was the ride from the airport, so he had little idea what to expect of our collaboration in the classroom. It became clear that his expectations were at first rather modest. He politely introduced the new American guest professor, apparently thinking that he would be working with a librarian who knew little German, who would provide modest assistance in the classroom, and who would help with correcting papers. Fluent in German, it didn't take me long to rekindle my German teaching experience of a few years earlier, and by the end of the first lecture he realized that he would be working, on much more equal terms than anticipated, with someone who knew the language well, who enjoyed teaching, and who had extensive experience in the computer and information sciences.

At the HTWK students can select one of 20 disciplines as a focus for their study. A major is made up of eight semesters of study, which includes internships and possible study abroad. Students can major in architectural studies, computer and telecommunication sciences, library science and publishing, as well as business studies and a program in social and public welfare. Graduation leads to a specialized diploma, certifying that the student has acquired the knowledge to practice a specific profession (which explains the description 'applied sciences' in the university's name). While the course of study is primarily based on classroom instruction, the emphasis is on applied learning. The course I taught belonged to the recently created studium generale, which represents a kind of core curriculum in many ways similar to the general education requirements we're familiar with in the U.S. It was intended to provide students with a practical introduction to the Internet and digital libraries, with the purpose of giving students enough background to be able to use digital materials in their own studies. At the same time the course, which was composed of both lectures and a weekly lab, included more demanding technical material, appealing to career-minded students who wished to learn more about the emerging field of digital libraries.

Dr. Bastian and I quickly established a productive working relationship, and a positive synergy developed between the two of us in class. This synergy naturally rubbed off on our students, which was evidenced by the high attendance and participation on their part (German students come to class voluntarily- there are no grades, as in American classes, and so there is no compulsion to attend class other than intrinsic interest). We enjoyed designing our syllabus for the class as we went along, which included a fully 'virtual' component for homework assignments and communication with students. All exercises were given on the Web, with an example located at (this link, and the others given, were valid as of August, 1998): Students were then required to send us their homework via email. Surprisingly, not once did we encounter the anticipated 'But I did send you my assignment, I don't know why you didn't get it…' All in all, both Dr. Bastian and I very much enjoyed this 'experiment', and I think we both learned a good deal, from sharing our knowledge on through to having interesting intercultural experiences. A couple of photos of the class during one of our labs can be found at: In addition to the course on digital libraries, I participated in a number of other activities in the university, such as helping to represent the HTWK at the CeBIT in Hannover. German universities frequently present and exhibit their research at the large industry fairs held in Germany, and this year I had the opportunity to assist the HTWK's Computer Science Department in staffing their exhibit at the CeBIT, with over 500,000 visitors by far the world's largest computer fair. I found this an excellent occasion to experience a showcase of German academic research in the computing technologies, and I spent much of my time visiting the exhibits of the other universities.

German Library Education

With one of only two library schools in Eastern Germany, the HTWK has established itself as an important center for library education in Saxony, Thuringia, and Saxony-Anhalt. As an American academic librarian, I was quickly introduced to the faculty in the library school, known formally as `Buch und Museum' since it includes programs in the publishing and book trades, a school for conservation and museum curatorship, in addition to the library school. Soon after arriving in Leipzig I was invited to join a group of faculty and students from Buch und Museum to a three-day excursion to the Frankfurt Book Fair. As with other German library schools, the HTWK had an exhibit and stand to recruit possible students, and its purpose was to publicize its research and educational activities to the publishing world. This provided a good opportunity to learn more about the library school and to get to know the faculty and students. As a result of my contacts with faculty, I was invited to present a series of special lectures on various aspects of American librarianship to students, faculty, and library professionals in the Leipzig area. Included in the lectures were such topics as the Library of Congress as a national library, special libraries, the revolution in library management, academic libraries, and a lecture on the issues of access vs. ownership. Taking place over the course of my six-month stay, I organized the lectures to be as open and interactive as possible, providing attendees the opportunity to ask questions and to actively engage in discussion. In general the lectures went very well (only one of the lectures was poorly attended, since it happened to coincide with a snow storm passing through the city), and they provided both students and faculty with a forum to discuss openly a wide range of issues in American and German librarianship.

Like their counterparts in the U.S., German librarians are facing serious challenges in the wake of the Information Revolution. Indeed, the problems confronting librarianship in Germany are compounded by the fact that librarianship did not integrate information science into its professional training in any way comparable to the way American librarianship has done since the 1960s. Education in information science thus exists in a very underdeveloped state, and it has been predominantly left in the hands of the computer scientists. This has made it very difficult for aspiring librarians to acquire the necessary expertise in the emerging information technologies, and it is now recognized as an acute problem by professional educators. Because of my interest in education and pedagogy, I was frequently consulted by German library school and computer science faculty to provide an outsider's perspective regarding the restructuring of library school programs. I was invited to lead a Faculty Colloquium on the topic `Education for Information Professionals', where I presented a comparative history of library and information science education in Germany and the U.S. In preparation for this colloquium, I visited Achim Oßwald, dean of the library school at Cologne, who is an acknowledged leader of library school reform in Germany, and who is guiding Cologne through a complete restructuring of its library school curriculum to fully incorporate a program in information science. He explained that the inability of the library schools to provide students with sufficient training and education in information science has created a crisis in libraries throughout the country, which are now being compelled to find some way of providing sufficient training to their own staffs in information technologies. Interestingly, while well-attended by faculty from the Computer Science and related departments, only one faculty member from the library school came to the colloquium. In a related manner, it was also revealing that not one student from the library school had enrolled in our course on digital libraries.

Naturally, librarians from eastern Germany must face additional challenges resulting from several decades of devastating neglect in libraries and lack of support under communism. The federal government in Bonn provided eastern German academic libraries with several years of special funding to develop their collections and to redress the imbalances created by communist collection development policies. While library directors enjoy comfortable collecting levels now, they know that this special funding will soon cease, and like their colleagues in the western part of the country they will have to become much more selective in budgeting for their collections. In like manner, eastern German library administrations have received significant additional monies to retool their libraries with the latest computing technology. Because the years after Reunification have corresponded with the revolution in client-server computing, eastern German libraries have in many ways been able to equip themselves better than their western German counterparts. The HTWK, for example, possessed a fully developed intranet and LAN, with its own servers running the OPAC and the library's Website. Staff possessed powerful Pentiums, and numerous Internet-equipped workstations were available for public use. I was very impressed by the ensemble of software owned by the library, and I had little problem fulfilling my own computing needs during my stay at the HTWK.

At the same time, many of the challenges and issues facing librarians in the new German states parallel those of their colleagues in the west. Generally, the status and public image of librarians in Germany are noticeably lower than librarians in the U.S., and this makes it very difficult for library leaders to secure new funding from a library culture that is highly centralized by federal and state administrations. Because librarians have thus far been unable to rise above their traditional roles, it has been difficult for funding bodies to develop the confidence to invest significant amounts for digital technologies. In comparison to American academic libraries, German libraries are notorious for their lack of service orientation. There are a number of reasons for this, but a significant one is the still pervasive, traditional view that research libraries by their nature should be difficult to use, and this attitude acts as a stubborn barrier to introducing changes based on quality management principles. These problems are compounded in eastern Germany because of the counter-productive working habits learned from many decades of centralized communist rule. In the newer states staff, even professional staff, still all-too-frequently possess little loyalty to their home libraries or dedication to assisting patrons. This situation makes it very difficult for administrators to introduce and implement changes or new technologies in their library operations. It can be anticipated, however, that these problems will improve as the remnants of communism decrease in significance in the coming years.

The Horizon Project and Global-Info

An additional part of my assignment in Leipzig was to assist the university library with its installation of the new Ameritech Horizon Integrated Library System (ILS), as well as to participate in the university's involvement in Germany's large-scale digital library project, Global-Info. The second host during my stay in Leipzig was Stefan Diettrich, who as director of the library provided me with a well-equipped office and a healthy list of ongoing assignments relating to the Horizon installation. As with Klaus Bastian, we too hit it off very well and quickly developed a productive working relationship. Along with Dr. Diettrich I also worked closely with Gabriele Vogt, the head of the library systems office, and we closely coordinated our activities to work as much as possible on the Horizon project.

The HTWK is a Saxon beta site for one of the largest library-related projects ever undertaken, a project in which three major German library networks have committed to creating a single integrated library system using Horizon. Over 600 academic libraries are involved in this massive undertaking, and if all goes well they will share the same Horizon system and be seamlessly linked using Z39.50 software. They will share the three union catalogs of the participating networks, and will also use common authority files. Imagining 600 libraries cataloging in real time using Z39.50 is daunting, but stress-testing with 900 simultaneous users at the Sun labs in Silicon Valley showed that this Unix-based system would provide wait times of a maximum of 2-3 seconds for searches. Ameritech is using the experienced gained in Germany to develop its North American product base, and late last year WLN announced that it too would be developing a system similar to that being developed in Germany.

The administrations of the German library systems involved in this project have contracted with Ameritech to configure Horizon for the German MAB format, to be compatible with the German RAK cataloging rules, and to be based on a true Entity Relationship Model, or ERM, which would permit a fully distributed database system. My involvement, which turned out to be fortuitous for the project planners, was to assist in the conversion of the existing Horizon system (which of course is MARC/AACR2 based) to conform to German cataloging practices. Needless to say, my knowledge of American cataloging culture was put to good use. This was a challenging, but stimulating, exercise for me, and it gave me the opportunity to gain a detailed knowledge of German cataloging (which in several respects is more advanced than ours). The first stages in the development of the project will continue throughout 1998, and as noted WLN recently announced it will follow the German model in employing an ERM system based on Horizon. Ameritech is now developing Horizon to be a truly convertible, international ILS using open standards, and if it succeeds it will position Horizon to become a major international online library system.

Working on the HTWK Horizon project permitted me numerous additional opportunities to learn about German librarianship in both Leipzig and in other parts of the country. The library staff involved in the project worked closely with Dynix GmbH, which- confusingly- is the name of the German Horizon developer. This required trips to their headquarters in Berlin, as well as site visits to other Horizon installations. For reasons beyond our intended purpose for the trip, an interesting site visit was the Max-Planck Insitut für Mathematik, which is located in the old publishing district of Leipzig. As a group of us from the HTWK left the building where the institute was housed, I noticed, in spite of its understated, unassuming presence, the sign next to the door of the front entrance: `Reclam-Haus'. Though the conversation of the group focused on the various data conversion techniques relating to the latest version of Ameritech's Horizon system, my mind wandered as we walked out the recently renovated, Wilhelmenian building, for this sign spoke volumes on the history of this Leipzig neighborhood. Reclam, a distinguished German publisher, no longer occupied this building, which was now used by two different Max-Planck institutes. I excitedly pointed out the sign to my Leipziger colleagues, and they noted that the neighborhood was full of such important monuments to the German publishing industry.

This intermingling of historical imagination with my daily activities occurred frequently during my stay in Leipzig, and for good reason. Its rich history, a history that made this vibrant city one of the world's great centers of the book and publishing trade, provided a fascinating backdrop full of unmistakable significance as we enter this new age of disseminating information and knowledge. Many of these signs, pregnant with meaning, could be seen right here in this neighborhood where walked after leaving the Reclam building. Before the War this area around the Grassi Museum was the Buchviertel of Leipzig, a dense cluster of world-renown publishers and booksellers. To commemorate the significance of this neighborhood, a national center for the study of the book- the Haus des Buches- was established just a few blocks from the Reclam building, and today the Haus is quickly becoming an important cultural institution, both in Germany and abroad. During my stay in Leipzig I attended several lectures and other important meetings at the Haus des Buches.


Global-Info, the German national digital library initiative, recently received $40 million in funding from the federal government over five years, and this will enable several dozen participating libraries and other institutions to develop a large-scale digital library using standard protocols and a common interface structure. Global-Info is the much larger successor to the MeDoc Project, a project I briefly worked on at the beginning of my fellowship, and which can be viewed at: . MeDoc primary purpose was to develop a working platform for the delivery of electronic monographs for instruction, and one of its many interesting features was to provide interfaces and access to several hundred books were made available by publishers as part of this project. Unlike the American Digital Library Initiative sponsored in large part by the NSF, which is devoted to pure research only, the German projects are intended to lead to a usable, final product for general use. The primary target group is for scholarly research and higher education, but it is hoped that the success of the system will lead to general use. Germany is second only to the US in embracing the Web as a medium for making information available, and in spite of much higher telecommunication costs there is rapid growth in Internet use by the general German public. Global-Info is still in its initial planning stages, and I attended several meetings and conferences, including presenting papers on various topics, dealing with different aspects in realizing a national digital library. Here too it will be very interesting for American librarians to follow how this project takes shape over the coming years. Information on Global-Info can be found at:

A Library Ambassador in Germany

The last part of my assignment was to act as a 'resource person', as a specialist ambassador, for the USIA, or the US Information Agency, a part of the State Department responsible for the American cultural and consular agencies abroad. This meant that I would be invited to a variety of institutions and events to give lectures, workshops, and participate in meetings sponsored by USIS in Germany (USIS, or the US Information Service, is the name of the USIA abroad). Indeed, as an ALA Fellow I was expected to represent both the ALA and American librarianship during my stay in Germany. This provided me with the opportunity to travel and meet a lot of interesting people throughout the country, though most of my activity was in Saxony and the neighboring eastern German state Thuringia. This activity ranged from giving public lectures at universities like Hamburg, to holding a FrontPage workshop at a school in the town of Goslar, on through to holding a couple of workshops on using digital technologies for subject and area specialists at the University of Erfurt.

There were several highlights to these activities, such as the two-day, closed working symposium in Weimar on the Nietzsche Bibliographie. At this meeting specialists and library leaders throughout the country met to discuss the means by which this ongoing, significant bibliography should appear. Should it, following the pattern of countless similar German publications, be published as a multi-volume set, or should it appear in some electronic form? If so, how should it appear? These questions were debated by some 60 publishers, editors, librarians, and scholars in a stimulating series of meetings held over the two days. Another highlight of my official, USIA-sponsored excursions was an interesting two-day visit to the Saxon state library, the Landesbibliothek in Dresden.

Needless to say, all of this more than satisfied my love of travel, and I have become a big fan of the German 'bullet trains,' or the ICE (Intercity Express). Sitting comfortably in richly cushioned seats, working productively with my laptop, while cruising across the German countryside at over 160 mph was quite an experience, and something I came to appreciate and look forward to. Though preparing for presentations and other lectures required a fair amount of work and preparation, I took advantage of the opportunity to sightsee and visit parts of Germany that I was unfamiliar with. Germany is a country with a breathtakingly rich history, and the sheer density of architectural jewels, of Gothic cathedrals and Renaissance palaces, sends one's imagination back on a in time to centuries past.

With its rich history in the publishing and book trades, travel wasn't necessary for a number of interesting events that took place in Leipzig itself. With its rich cultural past, this was not difficult to understand. Indeed, one of Germany's great libraries is found in Leipzig, the Deutsche Bücherei, founded in 1912 by the consortium of German publishers and booksellers, the Deutsche Börsenverein. It was founded by the publishing industry to act as a centralized legal depository of all books published in Germany, and hence to assist in organizing national bibliographic control. Not far from the former publishing district, I had the opportunity to meet on several occasions with staff from this library, which is now part of the German national library, Die Deutsche Bibliothek.

An additional symbol of Leipzig's illustrious past as an international book center is of course its Book Fair, which in significance far surpassed the great annual fair in Frankfurt. The Leipziger Book Fair continued under East German communism, but on a much smaller scale than its counterpart in Frankfurt, and of course it focused its attention on the publishing industry in Communist countries. There is little question that the Frankfurt fair has gone on to carry the great German publishing tradition that was once in Leipzig, but nonetheless Leipzig is attempting to reassert itself with its own international book fair. While international in scope, and in many ways competing with the Frankfurt fair, it is trying to develop a distinctive profile as a book fair focusing on the `reader', and to highlight the book publishing industry in eastern European countries. As part of the Book Fair this year, which was held in March, I gave a paper on `New Services in Libraries' at the Sixth International Library Symposium, which focused on the use of new technologies in offering new services to patrons. The purpose of the library symposium, which is held concurrently with the Fair, is to bring together librarians from eastern and western European countries to share their experiences. Giving the paper provided me the opportunity to experience the Fair and, naturally, to compare it to the Frankfurt fair. Though impressive enough in the new, ultra-modern fair facilities in Leipzig, it will take many years of concerted effort to even approach the scale of Frankfurt; indeed, many question whether Germany needs a second international book fair, but for the time being the Leipzig Fair appears to be serving a purpose in opening markets in eastern European countries.

All in all quite an adventure. Perhaps it wasn't a coincidence after all that I was to gain this first-hand experience of German book world's encounter with the Information Revolution in such an historically significant city as Leipzig. With the Haus des Buches, the Deutsche Bücherei, the book fair, a great university library, and a great tradition of commercial entrepreneurship in the publishing world, Leipzig is once again asserting itself as an important center in the information industry. My stay confirmed my feeling that the best way to learn one's own culture is to visit another country. I think this is also true with one's language, where learning another language is the best way to discover one's own, and I suspect this is also true of one's profession. Learning librarianship 'in another key,' from the perspective of a very different culture and tradition, provides one with a perspective that can be a guide for the rest of one's career. For this reason it is ironic that, in this year of ALA's theme "Global Reach", the ALA Fellows Program has not received funding to continue next year! I guess I should consider myself fortunate for being the last to participate in the program, but it is a distinction I would have readily passed on if given the choice.

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