A Tale of Two Libraries

The reunification of Berlin’s libraries after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Moving Germany’s capital from Bonn to Berlin is proving every bit as complex as originally anticipated. Initiated in time to mark, in November 1999, the tenth aniversary of the Wall’s collapse, it has emphasised the fundamental changes that transformed Berlin at every level of its existence following the surrender in 1945 of all rights to its original status.

Gazing eastwards along the Unter den Linden from the Brandenburg Gate, the image gradually recedes of how it was when the Soviet Zone was sealed from the rest of the city. Facing the German State Opera at the bottom of the avenue is the main Library, with the Humboldt University adjacent.

When the city was divided, these great institutions became inaccessible to those in the Western sector, and they needed to be duplicated. Amidst a welter of conflicting priorities, the library had to wait its turn until 1978. West Berlin’s mayor of the time, Klaus Schutz, suggested that the consecration of architect Hans Scharoun’s new Staatsbibliothek, instantly dubbed the ‘Stabi’, was ‘sure proof against the kind of soullessness that compels the creation of divisions and walls’. Under a single, dramatic roof, the ‘Free Zone’ at last had its own credible collection of books, including an original volume of the Gutenberg Bible, the collected works of Herder, Fichte and Hegel, and autographs by Kepler, Galilei and Einstein. The facility offers its users service, speed and a modern retrieval system, promising delivery of materials in no more than twenty-five minutes.

West Berlin’s embryonic lawyers, doctors, teachers and artists were no longer forced to squander time and effort in journeying to distant libraries. However, within ten years of the Bürgermeister’s stirring speech, the Stabi’s storage system was outmoded. Demands to computerise were ignored until 1997, by which time retrieval of books was estimated to take four days. The juxtaposition of wide open public spaces with scattered tiny offices exotically designed with impractical vanishing perspective simply piled nuisance on inconvenience. In twenty-five years the new library, a jewel in the crown of West Berlin’s Arts District, had become a victim of its own success. Every square centimetre of the builidng had become bitterly contested, the stairwells as much as the provisional folding tables.

When, in 1999, the Wall was consigned to history, commerce replaced politics as the mechanism driving Berlin’s fortunes. The wasteland next to the Stabi, crucial to its plans for growth, was sold off for corporate development, and physical expansion of the library had to be confined to the underground car park, where books supplant cars. Progress elsewhere – a computer system inadequate for modern demands, extended opening hours, a reading room for researchers, a speedier loan service, and improved direct access to books – emphasise how much remains for Berlin to do, just to keep abreast of current needs. Reinforcing the pressures are the thousands of government offices, corporations and associated businesses pouring into Berlin, their members supplemented by droves of students from the Free University whose library struggles under severe budget constraints of its own.

Daunting problems remain. The All-German Reunification Agreement of 1990 designated a catch-all Staatsbibliothek, comprising the Berlin State Library (the Stabi, now known as Building Two) and the Prussian National Library (Building One, on the Unter den Linden in the former Soviet zone), but these two entities challenge each other for possession of valuable assets. Building Two is not pleased at having to relinquish its copy of the Gutenberg Bible, while Building One faces the almost insuperable task of restoring its deteriorating century-old structure. The plight of its shelved assets is exemplified by J.S. Bach’s autographed compositions, 80 per cent of which belong to the library. Controlled storage has not prevented the composer’s vitriol-based ink from literally eating through the paper. The focus has therefore shifted back to the Unter den Linden and the original Prussian National Library.

When, in 1941, the Allies started bombing, the collection of books, incunabulae and autographs established in 1659 by Prussia’s grand dukes was largely moved to safer regions of Europe. A third was lost to fire or water, or to libraries in St Petersburg, Moscow and Krakow, where they remain despite attempts to have them repatriated. Items liberated by the Allies in towns such as Gottingen and Marburg were incorporated in West Berlin’s Stabi on its establishment, and the rest returned to the shattered ruin on the Unter den Linden. The reality of many untraceable items has too often made serious research of complex topics impossible. Whether these gaps prove a hindrance to the increasingly competitive world of international academic exchange remains to be seen. Meanwhile, internet access to the books in the library has become possible, although completion of the general catalogue will take another five years. The next phase will be the digitisation of all texts.

The reunification of East and West Berlin was no easy matter, but it is said here with considerable irony that the reunification of their books has been even more difficult. The grotesque Wall is mystically alive and rather well, a phantom fated to determine the city’s fortunes for some while yet.