Observations on German Libraries and Librarianship:

A Study Tour

By Rowena Griem, Catalog Librarian for Germanic Languages, Arts & Sciences Team, Yale University

WESS Newsletter
Spring 2004

Vol. 27, no. 2

Editor: Sarah G. Wenzel

Association of College & Research Libraries
©American Library Association


In October 2003, I took part in a study tour of German libraries sponsored by Checkpoint Charlie Stiftung and organized by Initiative Fortbildung für wissenshaftliche Spezialbibliotheken und verwandte Einrichtungen. I was excited about seeing and learning about library practices in a different culture and learning about differences and similarities to U.S. library practices. Visiting these libraries with a group of American colleagues provided the opportunity to enter staff areas of the library and to discuss library science issues with German colleagues.


Highlights of the two-week tour included library visits and cultural experiences. We attended a concert in the Baroque Sommersaal of the Bach-Archiv in Leipzig, a beautiful 15th Century blockbook at the Kunstbibliothek der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin, observed the creative methods for coping with seasonal changes used at the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, toured the refurbished munitions factory in Karlsruhe which is now home to the bustling Zentrum für Kunst Medientechnologie, and learned about the delicate balance achieved at the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin to form a single corporate identity from its dual locations in former East and West Berlin.


In this essay, I will focus on four of the libraries we visited. These libraries demonstrate qualities and practices that are of particular interest to U.S. librarians. They demonstrate how intensely the turmoil of history has shaped German librarianship. Some of the libraries described here represent the strong influence of regional identity, others indicate a move toward a growing interest in cooperation between libraries nationwide and internationally. I have provided the URL to the English version of each library’s website whenever possible, should the reader be tempted to find out more about a particular institution.


The first library that we visited was the Universitätsbibliothek Heidelberg (UBH). History and political events profoundly affected this library and many others we visited. The Bibliotheca Palatina, founded in 1386, lost its entire collection in 1622 to the Bavarian victor of the Thirty Years War. The library began rebuilding its collection only to have the building and its contents completely destroyed in 1693 during the War of the Palatine Succession. During World War II, an estimated 40,000 volumes were lost, despite valiant efforts to safeguard the collection. Thanks to decades of rebuilding, the library is once again a vital institution. It serves the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität and other institutions of higher learning in Heidelberg, as well as local residents.


Like many German libraries, a large proportion of the collection at UBH is housed in closed stacks. Since 1980, incoming materials are arranged by acquisitions number in the open stacks as well as the closed ones. This approach makes browsing the shelves by subject impossible. On the other hand, shelf space is used as efficiently as possible, eliminating the need to shift books.

The growing trend toward cooperation between German libraries is evident in UBH’s participation in a cooperative development program. Participating libraries acquire every work in their assigned fields, regardless of country of origin. For more on this program, see WEB und BibliotheksInformationsSystem or WEBIS (WEB Library Information System). This collaboration provides a practical solution to the universal collection development issues brought on by the publishing explosion and increasing costs. WEBIS would be enhanced by a unified catalog, which would be possible with the implementation of a joint cataloging program.


Effective cooperation between German libraries is hampered by the lack of a national database or nationally accepted set of cataloging rules. Instead, each library retains a system historically associated with their region or develops its own system to suit local needs. This situation is not surprising given that each region has its own lengthy history. While numerous regional databases exist, researchers have no way of knowing which one may include the book that they are seeking. The result is an inefficient hit or miss system requiring multiple searches in a frustrating succession of databases.


Without a national database, no nation-wide rules have been needed. Numerous cataloging and classification systems are used in Germany, including a multitude of homegrown ones. Rules for bibliographic instruction include: Regeln für die alphabetische Katalogisierung (RAK), Preussische Instruktionen (PI) and Berliner Anweisungen (BA). To complicate matters further, RAK offers two sets of rules: one for academic libraries, the other for public ones. However, many German libraries are reconsidering this complex system in hopes of facilitating the exchange of bibliographic data. Die Deutsche Bibliothek (DDB) is currently funding a study on the potential effects of adopting AACR2 and/or MARC21. The discussion will culminate in a recommendation by a committee made up of representatives from public and academic libraries from a variety of German States.


We visited several libraries where staff studied old catalogs in an attempt to identify and recover materials seized during wartime. At the Forschungsbibliothek Gotha, we were introduced to another side of this issue. From 1640-1894, the Schloss Friedenstein, home of the library, was the seat of the Herzogtums Sachsen-Gotha, the Duchy of Saxony-Gotha. After Reunification, one of their descendents filed a lawsuit in an attempt to recover the family’s former property. Eventually a settlement was reached, allowing the library to remain a public institution.


Quite a few German libraries have remained true to well-established institutional library practices. The Kunstbibliothek der Staatlichen Museen zu Berlin has an impressive collection on post-classical European art, as well as special collections on costume, photography, graphic design, poster art and architectural drawing. Although many items in the collection are extremely rare or even one of a kind, the staff is reluctant to make digital copies available online, and the catalog is inaccessible beyond the walls of the library. One of the librarians explained that people might no longer visit the library if they could view its materials virtually, but these practices keep the materials locked away from interested scholars and patrons. The library’s rich resources have much to offer to the study of European culture, and increased accessibility would allow a greater audience for the collection.


Stiftung Bauhaus Dessau is housed in a magnificent building designed by Walter Gropius. Originally a school and performance space, the building now houses a library and archive dedicated to the history of the Bauhaus movement and its followers. The library staff uses RAK to catalog but has their own classification scheme and subject headings. The latter are only employed if the title is not “self-explanatory.” The staff does index articles from magazines. The librarian explained that commercial indexes do not cover German periodical titles and topics comprehensively. Cooperation between libraries with similar subject specialties would be extremely useful in this case to reduce duplication of work by staff at other institutions.


The trip was an amazing experience: fascinating, exhausting and often surprising. Problems raised by Germany’s history and political system raised a variety of issues for libraries, but I was encouraged by the growing interest in cooperation. I look forward to keeping up with the issues, especially as German libraries consider the possibility of moving from the current regional organization to a centralized one. Greater accessibility to the extraordinary collections of German libraries will provide invaluable insight into Germany’s rich culture and prominent role in the Arts.


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