John Hudson visits a national library with a difference in Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank and the famous Buchmesse. The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek reflects the unique and often troubled history of Europe’s economic powerhouse…

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A model of The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Frankfurt, in the library foyer.

Unity, Diversity and a Touch of Love

"Welcome to the German National Library.”

I am greeted by Elke Jost-Zell. The two of us meet under a 3 metre high sculpture by German artist Georg Baselitz entitled Armalamor that resembles a 3d version of one of Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon.

“Libraries are a great place for romance,” says Elke, standing by the very nubile figure. “Baselitz knew this when he created Armalamor.”

She, or should I say it, is certainly striking, raised beneath the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek’s domed central entrance area. And I appreciate Elke’s point: libraries do not seduce by books alone and Frankfurt being a large university town, I am sure that young love’s lamp is lit across the hushed aisles and studied stacks of this impressive building.

“Over here we can get a better look at our building.” Elke leads me over to a scale model in a glass cabinet. “It was opened in 1997. What you see here is only half the building, though. There is as much below ground as above. We shall visit that later.”

I observe, as far as my preparatory research has shown, that Frankfurt am Main is but one arm of the national library.

“Yes, there are two branches. Here, in Frankfurt, which is the younger, and in Leipzig. But there are other historic libraries in Berlin, Munich, Göttingen and Wolfenbüttel who fulfil tasks of a classic national library.”

I have to confess that I had not heard of Wolfenbüttel. Elke smiles then goes on to give me a potted history of this diverse and fascinating institution.

“In 1912, the town of Leipzig and the Association of German Booksellers, agreed to found a German National Library in Leipzig. Starting in 1912, all books published in Germany were systematically collected including translations and books about Germany.”

I remark that the National Library is quite a young institution compared with many in Europe.

“German history is complex: principalities, religions, revolutions, wars. We are, to this day, a federated country, unlike the more centralised countries of Europe, such as France. After the Second World War, division becomes a political reality. So Professor Hanns Wilhelm Eppelsheimer, director of the Frankfurt University Library, established a German archive library based in Frankfurt. The city of Frankfurt agreed to support the library with staff and financial resources while the US military government gave its approval. As a result, there were two national libraries in Germany: one for the GDR and another for the Federal Republic. Two national bibliographic catalogues were published.

“With the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Leipzig and Frankfurt national libraries were merged into a new institution, The German Library (Die Deutsche Bibliothek). And then, in 2006, the ‘Law regarding the German National Library’ expanded the collection brief to include online publications while changing the name of the library and its buildings to "Deutsche Nationalbibliothek."

As we leave the atrium for a set of stairs to view the library’s art collection, Elke explains that the institution is still in a state of development. The all-important music archive, which collects printed and recorded music, moved from Berlin to Leipzig in 2010. For a country that might reasonably lay claim to making the most significant contribution to western music, the Deutsche Musikarchiv (DMA) surely represents one of the world’s treasures.

On an expansive landing on the first floor of the building, I am once again engaged by the German love of the human form, usually naked. Elke confesses that she doesn’t bring all her guests here as it is “rather revealing” but I am also struck by the sculpted metal busts of figures that are lean or enquiring, introspective, serene, noble or atavistic: heads that we might see bent over a book in the reading rooms around this building.

In the corridor leading from the sculptures, Elke and I spend a few minutes playing “guess the library” as we gaze at photographs of national libraries around the world, many of which have already featured on the pages of BDS Life. We both reminisce about the grand reading room in the old British Library, reflecting on where Karl Marx might have sat while researching Das Kapital. But soon we enter the hushed reading rooms of Frankfurt.

I ask how long it takes for a request to reach a reader from the storage facilities below us. About two hours is the reply. I gaze around the studious researchers, bent over their laptops, making notes, referring to texts, glancing up and down or staring through the windows that give onto the gardens around the building. After Elke’s earlier remarks on romance, I look for exchanged glances, glazed day-dreaming, but I must admit that these researchers seem dedicated scholars to a man and woman.

“Follow me. I have something to show you.”

Elke leads me to several exhibition cabinets displaying works from the German Exile Archive, a collection of books, articles, photographs and writings made by exiles from Germany from 1933 to 1945.

“The collection was started by our founder Hanns W. Eppelsheimer. He collected from around the world to record exile experience from this period. It includes, for example, writings by Albert Einstein.”

We move through a door into a corridor lined with shelves on one side and reading rooms on the other.

“For copyright reasons, researching unprinted texts is by appointment only, so people have to come here to study in these rooms to your left.”

I can’t help but notice a copy of German PEN in exile, another text in Hebrew script, a volume entitled, simply, Exil-Literatur 1933-45, and I reflect on the role of the writer as witness to some of the most horrific acts of human history and the importance of the role of the library as a preserver of human memory, a guardian of our humanity and a warning against human insensitivity and cruelty.

But now it is time to go downstairs, into that other half of the building unseen by the general public, the lair and preserve of the librarian. Elke leads me into the lift and we begin our descent.

“Am I entering the librarian’s subconscious?” I asked whimsically as we make a very smooth descent.

“Oh, the nation’s subconscious,” she replies as the doors open onto concrete walls and another corridor. “This way.”

I am taken by way of a lobby and short walkway into a cavernous subterranean chamber with shelves of books as far as I can see. In the distance is a human figure pushing a trolley. It makes its way towards us, slowly getting larger, but before the person can get anywhere near we turn left along the first row of shelves.

“We are walking back in time,” Elke tells me, and as we reach the wall she bends down to take out a slender volume. “Here is the first volume to be collected in the Frankfurt National Library of Germany. Read the code.”

I do. It says: D45 1. D for Deutsch, 45 for the year, and the number one. Its title is Meine Hunde im Nordland. A modest dawn onto a new era for a new country and a changed world.

“We now have over 30 million items, growing at a rate of four thousand items per day. There are two more underground storage rooms like this at Frankfurt, each the size of a football pitch.”

As Elke announces these astonishing facts the small figure I saw approaching with a trolley finally passes by the end of our row of books and moves on out through the entrance door in order to deliver more requested items for researchers working away above our heads.

I thank Elke for my unique tour of this unique institution, a library as diverse as it is dedicated to maintaining unity for all humanity, and a building laced with a whiff of romance and seduction, a building that Frankfurt’s most famous son, Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, would have surely used for liaisons both intellectual and amorous.