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The Memory of Mankind. The Story of Libraries since the Dawn of History

The Memory of Mankind. The Story of Libraries since the Dawn of History

By Don Heinrich Tolzmann


The French Revolution and the 19th Century

Since the end of the Middle Ages the development of libraries had moved with a clearly recognizable rhythm. After the Renaissance, libraries found themselves faced with the task of solving hitherto unknown problems of internal organization; and again after the Enlightenment had produced the type of the scholarly reference library, the nineteenth century found itself harried by a series of grave new problems of organization. As the Renaissance was ushered in, large numbers of books had been transferred to new owners, and this took place at the beginning of the Enlightenment to an even greater degree. In the earlier age the Reformation had provided the impetus; now it was the French Revolution.

In November, 1789 the libraries of the Church in France were declared national property. Three years later the collections of émigrés were confiscated. It is estimated that eight million books in France parted from their owners at this time, almost two million in Paris alone. Then it became a problem to make these piles of books safe, to classify them, and to bring them into general use. The successive revolutionary governments passed a long series of laws and administrative decrees, and even planned a great French union catalogue. But times were too unsettled for action to follow upon resolve. There was much waste and destruction. In general, large quantities of books landed first in temporary storehouses, the dépôts littéraires, and from there in the new district libraries, the administration of which was entrusted to municipal officials in 1803, while the government retained supervisory powers. But for a long time the state of these communal libraries (bibliothèques communales) still left much to be desired. Not until toward the middle of the century was a general system put into effect through decrees from Paris, followed somewhat later by reorganization of the university libraries.

Nine dépôts littéraires had been established in the capital. Out of them came additional book-collections for the new state institutions, the Arsenal, the Sainte Geneviève, the Mazarine Library, and, most important of all, the Bibliothèque Nationale. The holdings of the Bibliothèque Nationale increased by about 300,000 books, as well as many thousands of manuscripts, among them the treasures of St. Germain-des-Prés and the Sorbonne. The provinces also had to pay their tribute to the Bibliothèque Nationale, and when troops of the Republic and the Empire carried victorious arms to the Netherlands, Germany, Austria, and Italy, many valuable items traveled to Paris from the libraries of these countries, only part of them to return home after Napoleon’s fall. A decree of 1805 had ordered that the Bibliothèque Nationale should be made as complete as possible from the resources of the remaining libraries of the land, in exchange for its own duplicates. Although this order was never fully carried out, since that time the principle has been upheld that the Bibliothèque Nationale must be the chief library of France not merely in name but in fact. With the same object, the ancient laws relating to legal deposit of copies were renewed and strengthened.

This short sketch of the fortunes of the Bibliothèque Nationale would be incomplete without mention of the great services of Joseph Van Praen, who was at this time director of the Department of Printed Books. Credit is due to him first and foremost for taking advantage of all opportunity created by the events of the time. It was his leadership in the main that helped to put into effect the government’s resolve to make this new state institution available to everyone. He alone - thanks to a remarkable memory - could find his way among the stored-up treasures, and he richly deserved to be called “the living catalogue” (le catalogue vivant).

The Revolution had two very important results for French library history - centralization of book-collections and the principle that books were to be accessible to the general public. Let us now see how Germany followed the example of her neighbor.

The dissolution of the Jesuit Order in Germany had already caused a noticeable transfer of large numbers of books. Now many of the other churches and monasteries began to dispose of their treasures, so that eager bibliophiles and dealers in books and manuscripts who knew their business had a profitable time. Typical of the times was the former Benedictine Maugérard, who outwitted all his colleagues by artful dodges, and moreover had no scruples about unsavory dealings.

From 1794 on there were visitations of libraries along the Rhine by French agents. At the start of the new century Maugérard was one of these agents, and he gleaned so thoroughly and used his knowledge and experience so unflaggingly in the service of his Parisian employers that a tablet was later erected to perpetuate his name. Only items of minor value found their way to the dépôts littéraires which had now too been set up on German soil. The regions of Germany which the defeat of Prussia first exposed to the foe suffered no such losses. Only a few collections, like that at Wolfenbüttel, saw part of their holdings temporarily removed to Paris. Göttingen, the most important library of the new kingdom of Westphalia, remained completely intact. In fact, Jerome Bonaparte planned to do with Göttingen in a small way what his brother had striven to carry out at the Bibliothèque Nationale on a large scale. But the books sent to Göttingen from abroad were hardly unpacked when the collapse of the French regime forced their return.

For the remaining libraries of Germany the Principal Decree of the Imperial Deputation in 1803 was decisive. With the disappearance of a host of principalities and city republics, a good many of their libraries vanished from the scene or changed masters. Most important of all, just as in France, seizure of church libraries was now effected.

Secularization achieved its best results in Bavaria, and Munich benefitted especially. A short time before, when the crown had passed to the Palatine line, the very large holdings of the Mannheim library had been transferred to Munich. Now, under the prudent and (despite certain errors) unexceptionable direction of Von Aretin, about 150 church and monastic collections found their way to the capital. As a result the Hofbibliothek at Munich held the leadership among court libraries for a long time, and its wealth in medieval manuscripts and incunabula may well remain forever unsurpassed. In addition to Munich, the Bavarian government provided especially handsomely for Bamberg and Würzburg. Things went correspondingly well, though on a more modest scale, in Württemburg and Baden, where the collections of Stuttgart and Karlsruhe enjoyed considerable growth. The same was true, finally, of Hessen-Darmstadt, while in Nassau, for the most part, resources were squandered in criminal fashion.

For Prussia secularization was no such epoch-making event because the Catholic domain formed but the smaller part of her territory. Moreover, there was no plan of any kind for centralization which would benefit Berlin: only a few of the duplicates which were sent out by the provinces reached that city. More worthy of notice is the growth of resources at Münster and Königsberg and, above all, Breslau. The university was moved from Frankfurt an der Oder to Breslau, and along with it came its book-collection. Thereupon it was planned to make Breslau into a central library like those at Munich and Paris. The transfer of church collections to this library, it is true, was soon stopped, yet the Breslau library received about 70,000 volumes, among them a large number of incunabula.

The changes which have been described produced the problem of making usable these institutions, some of them newly born, some importantly enriched. This task shaped up all the harder because at the same time demands upon libraries had grown heavier - for the following reasons. In the first place, in Germany deepening national consciousness and change in social organization caused libraries generally to be looked upon as public institutions. Then again, the new century brought an increase in scholarly activities by which libraries could not remain unaffected. But they showed themselves quite unprepared for it, as can be understood from the points made in the last chapter. There was practically no such thing as a class of trained librarians. Still, there were two libraries whose organization served as useful models - Dresden and Göttingen.

The Göttingen system now swept triumphantly through Germany. It was carried over into the Prussian university libraries, and so into the newly founded libraries of Bonn and Breslau. That it was put into operation in Berlin, too was due to Wilhelm von Humboldt, who as a student at Göttingen had eagerly cultivated the friendship of Heyne, and who now, in the rebirth of Prussia, assumed decisive leadership of the educational system, even if only for a year. The University of Berlin was founded at this time, and as a consequence the responsibilities of the Royal Library expanded greatly.4 Through Humboldt’s initiative the yearly budget increased, the organizational structure improved, and more liberal arrangements for using the library went into effect. The new alphabetical catalogue stuck close to the Göttingen model. On the other hand, a couple of decades later Schrader used his own methods in setting up a classed catalogue. Since that time the Prussian State Library has had an administrative tool which neither the British Museum nor the Bibliothèque Nationale yet possesses.

At Berlin conditions were relatively simple. But how was the sister institution at Munich to overcome its much stiffer problems?

At first there was an attempt to group by subject the manuscripts which had been acquired, but this track was fortunately abandoned in time. It was Schmeller’s great contribution not only to have insured continuation of the historical tradition by re-establishing the principle of providence but also to have carried out the cataloguing and shelving according to this principle during the years from 1829 to 1852. Treading in his footsteps, his students and followers could then publish the monumental Munich catalogue of manuscripts.

The same thing happened with the newly acquired books. Here too a few unlucky experiments were made at first until there appeared in Schrettinger just the person to come to the rescue. A keen practical mind, Schrettinger derived from an unsuccessful trial of the Göttingen system the realization that imitation would not lead him to his goal and that the special problem which he faced required a solution of its own. Consequently he classified his mass of books in coordinated groups which he then combined into a few main classes, and completed the alphabetical catalogue up to the year 1818. His other plans were far ahead of his time; some were blocked by the opposition of colleagues and others were never carried out completely. But Schrettinger left them to posterity in this theoretical writings. In them we find also the fundamental theme: “to dispel the chimaera of detailed technique is to lay the foundation of a genuine library science.”

Among the opponents of this point of view was F.A. Ebert. He had been trained at Dresden, had steeped himself thoroughly in the system of Francke, and had made it his ideal. Consequently, appointed to head the Wolfenbüttel collection in 1823, he began to reclassify without proper regard to local conditions; then, before the work was done, he returned to Dresden and there - though barely forty - met his death by falling from a ladder. If, in the light of the above, Ebert’s practical accomplishments were of little value, his literary achievements deserve all the greater consideration. We can only mention here his history of the Dresden library, based scrupulously upon reliable sources, his bibliographical dictionary, worked out with careful scholarship, and his original treatise on manuscripts, which grew out of his work with the Wolfenbüttel treasures. We must glance for a moment at his youthful essay On Public Libraries. Here he waxes sarcastic over university library conditions which were still the rule at the beginning of the nineteenth century, describing the libraries as “dusty, desolate, and unfrequented rooms in which the librarian must spend a few hours weekly to discharge his duties - so that during this time he can be alone!” From this he passes on to proposals for reform, of which the most important asserts: “The hitherto existing practice of librarianship as a part-time affair must be done away with. The proper direction of a public library requires persons endowed with the finest qualities of mind and character, who will bring their abilities to bear on the task before them.” These ideas are found again in a more profound and expanded form in a later work, The Training of the Librarian.

“I spend my own energies serving others” (aliis inserviendo consumor) was to be the motto of every capable library worker, according to Ebert, and Schrettinger furnished a public example of this point of view. Where these two differed was in their working methods. Schrettinger, pre-eminently a practical man, had derived new principles from a great new problem; Ebert, the theorizer, remaining for the most part steeped in the ideas of the past century, held fast to the ideals of Francke.

Both Schrettinger and Ebert, however, struggled virtually alone in their day. It would be incorrect to deny altogether in this epoch of poets and thinkers any true interest in the internal organization of libraries: the efforts of Goethe in behalf of the institutions at Jena and Weimar which had been placed under his supervision argue just to the contrary. But it appears in general as if the orientation of knowledge at the time actually made difficult a true understanding of the situation on the part of the educated classes from which the library officials were usually recruited. Even if we consider as an exception the notion of Hoffmann von Fallersleben, curator of the University of Breslau Library, who saw in his office only a sinecure and declared the rigorous demands for service made upon him oppressive and worse than the worst corporal punishment of eighteenth century army discipline, it still remains significant on the whole that the new professional periodical, the Serapeum, ventured to publish his opinions in 1840.

The all-powerful library committee was a disastrous creation, for it led mostly to the already meager funds being earmarked for the use of special faculties, or indeed of individual professors. At Tübingen the Professor of Constitutional Law, Robert von Mohl, came up against especially bad conditions of this kind. He waged a sturdy fight against them, and in 1836 took over the direction of the library himself. His words show the conception of the duties of the new office which animated him: “the chief librarian, whatever else he may be, must think and plan night and day for his library; in its behalf he must buy and exchange, beg and - one might almost add - steal.” But he met strong opposition from his colleagues and the administration, and failed in his attempt to eliminate the influence of the library committee and to regulate the expenditure of funds by uniform and reasonable principles.

The next decades brought the Revolution and then the Reaction. The times were not suitable for fundamental library reforms, which came only after conditions in general had changed. In order to evaluate them properly, however, it is necessary to have some acquaintance with contemporary events in England and France, more particularly with the development of the British Museum and the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The great reform of the British Museum is bound up with the personality of the Italian, Sir Anthony Panizzi. He was not a scholar, though we do have valuable works from his hand, such as the editions of Bojardo, but he devoted himself wholly to public life and took a most active part in politics. Passionate by nature - he had been forced to flee his native land as a Carbonaro - and faced with opposition from many sides in his new position in a foreign land, he lived a fight, yet carried it on not from any personal motives but only in the interests of the institution to which he had dedicated his powers and which he believed himself alone capable of leading to the desired eminence. His contemporaries called him the second founder of the British Museum, the Napoleon of librarians. Garnett, his successor, said of him: “Panizzi governed the library as his friend Cavour governed his country, and in a spirit and with objectives nearly similar, perfecting its internal organization with the one hand while he extended its frontiers with the other.”

Panizzi’s steady rise - in 1831 he became Extra-Assistant, in 1837 Keeper of Printed Books, finally in 1856 Principal Librarian - only signifies a steady extension of the range of his influence. In reports to the trustees, in oral and written transactions with government commissions, even in social contacts with friends and acquaintances, he fought for his principles, which he had early in his career summarized in the following three sentences: “The (British) Museum is not a show, but an institution for the diffusion of culture. It is a department of the civil service, and should be conducted in the spirit of other public departments. It should be managed with the utmost possible liberality.” What this meant for his time is shown by the remark of the contemporary member of Parliament, Cobbett: The British Museum is a place where the rich and the aristocrats go to amuse themselves by reading. Let them pay for their own amusement.

Since its origin, the British Museum’s holdings in books and manuscripts had been expanded on a large scale, thanks especially to large and frequent gifts, such as the King’s Library, the favorite project of George III. Also, from time to time, Parliament had approved additional appropriations. System and continuity, however, were lacking. Panizzi took the position that the British Museum was called upon to become a national library worthy of a nation like England. It should preserve all English books and the most important foreign literature. Consequently he made sure of a large and regular yearly budget, the appropriation of which was not continent upon conditions of any kind. The result was that the book-collection quickly doubled, and about 1870 it had already reached 1,000,000 volumes. At the same time he was instrumental in obtaining valuable gifts, notably that of his friend, Grenville. Finally, entirely through his personal insistence and despite all opposition, he brought about strict enforcement of the copyright provisions, which had hitherto been administered very negligently.

Panizzi applied himself with similar industry to the problem of cataloguing, which was pressing for solution just at the time he entered the Museum. He opposed the classed catalogue which had already been begun and succeeded in getting an alphabetical catalogue started. For this he drew up rules which before long came to be regarded as canons in the Anglo-Saxon library world. Publication of the catalogue had to be discontinued at first after a premature attempt had been made in deference to the wishes of the trustees, and work under Panizzi’s direction was completed only in manuscript; nevertheless printing of the catalogue in later years (1881-1900) was carried through entirely in the spirit of its creator.

Panizzi has a special claim to high repute because of the building changes and additions made to the British Museum in his day. At a time when the continent stuck to the old hall-with-gallery type of building and exerted itself only to increase its dimensions, as the fantastic creations of the Frenchman Horeau illustrate, when even America could not bring herself to abandon this tradition, Panizzi took the step required by circumstances and separated the rooms used for shelving books and the rooms used by readers. Strongly impressed, in all probability, by the recently completed Crystal Palace, which had shown the dazzling possibilities of iron construction, in 1852 he himself drew up the plan for the reading room. When the building was finished five years later, the height of its dome and its spaciousness aroused universal admiration: it fell short of the Roman Pantheon by only a very little, and it provided accommodation for several hundred readers.

The new stack space surrounded the reading room. The principle on which the stacks were constructed had already been enunciated by a writer in Frankfurt, but had attracted no real attention at the time. Gärtner’s beautiful building for the Munich library had gone only as far as constructing the galleries low enough to enable the impractical ladders to be dispensed with. In the British Museum the sections of stack had removable shelves, and fire-proofing was achieved by the use of iron exclusively. The greatest efforts, however, were expended upon saving space by setting the of library buildings.

The first imitation of this British Museum model came in Paris with the extensive enlargement of the Bibliothèque Nationale. This had become a crying need, since the enormous number of books which the Revolution had brought into the library and which had then grown slowly but steadily could now for the first time be arranged so as to form a view of the whole collection. First, after Van Praet’s death in 1837, the old and already catalogued parts of the collection were grouped into a fonds porté; the uncatalogued books which had accrued sine 1789 and the later acquisitions were gathered into a fonds non porté; both fonds were then divided into the classes of the shelving scheme, which had descended essentially intact from Clément. Then the labor of cataloguing went forward and at first, just as across the Channel, there was an attempt at a classed catalogue. Some sections were completed and even got into print. But here too the path which had been entered upon did not lead to the desired goal. And what Panizzi had been for London and Schrettinger for Munich, Delisle became for Paris at this fateful moment.

Léopold Delisle was one of the most brilliant representatives of nineteenth-century French scholarship and, without ever occupying a professor’s chair, he became the leader of a historical school. As a pupil at the École des Chartes he carried on, as it were, the traditions of the Maurists. Quite naturally, therefore, he devoted himself at first to the Department of Manuscripts, the cataloguing and classification of which is essentially his work. Probably to him even more than to Schmeller belongs the honor of being called the creator of the modern manuscript catalogue. Placed at the head of the library in 1847, Delisle demonstrated his ability as an organizer on a grand scale. He had already shown his determination a short time before by defending the collections against the attacks of the Commune. How well he combined scholarly acuteness with diplomatic skill is shown in the notorious case of Libri. That Italian scholar and adventurer, after having attained a high position in France, had used it to carry to astonishing lengths a plundering of the libraries of Paris and the provinces. The action brought against him became entangled with the political controversies of the year of the Revolution, 1848, and consequently resulted unsatisfactorily. It was not until some decades later that Delisle was able to produce indisputable proofs of the larceny and even to retrieve for France an important part of the stolen treasures.

As head of the library Delisle was to do for the Department of Printed Books what had already been done for the manuscripts. First, within each class he placed the new acquisitions in a special group, the fonds nouveau, within which the books were shelved simply by a running number (numerus currens). At the same time a list of new books - at first written, a bit later printed - began to be issued to the public. Then the still untouched parts of the fonds non porté were worked on, so that by 1893 everything in the library was recorded on cards. Three years later printing of the alphabetical catalogue began. Since then, despite many obstacles, it has been pressing forward steadily, even though the time of its completion is not yet in prospect.

Now if we turn our attention back to Germany, the question forces itself upon us: was what occurred in Germany at the end of the nineteenth century influenced from abroad by the examples of Paris or London? As for Paris, the answer must be negative. Delisle, to be sure, had very active contacts with his colleagues across the Vosges, but Germany already had the completely adequate example of Munich, and (most important of all) the reorganization of the Bibliothèque Nationale came too late to be seriously considered as a model. It was different with regard to Panizzi. That striking personality embodied the ideal which Ebert and Von Mohl had once championed. We know today that those in authority in Germany were in touch with him; systematic research, in my opinion, will make clear the details of these relations. As a result, the new type of building created by Panizzi formed an essential part of the German program of reform, as we shall see.

At the head of this movement stood the philologist, Friedrich Ritschl of Bonn. His biographer has nothing but praise for his term as library director, comprising the years 1854-1865. The recent historian of the library of the University of Bonn, on the other hand, takes obvious pains to depreciate his merits. There is little doubt that he had many truly unpleasant characteristics. Nor do we owe to him any really trial-blazing innovations. But, fired by the example of the Alexandrian Library, which his own investigations had for the first time placed in its true light, he transformed the hither to badly and rigidly administered Bonn library into a “well managed instrument of ready liberality.”

Even more important, however, was the influence of Ritschl’s personality. From the ranks of his subordinates and a host of volunteer assistants developed that school of librarians whose effectiveness revealed itself in the seventies. One of them was Klette, whose pamphlet The Autonomy of the Profession of Librarianship contributed in no small measure to a break with the previous system. Another was Dziatzko, who, as Prussia’s first professional librarian, reorganized the ill-managed Breslau library wholly in the spirit of his teacher, drew up the exemplary Instructions for the alphabetical card catalogue, and transferred to Göttingen in 1886, occupied there the newly created chair of Library Science.

Barack, founder and for many years director of the great new Strassburg collection, was a professional librarian. So, too, was Hartwig at Halle. Like Ritschl and Dziatzko he directed his attention chiefly to complete and up-to-date cataloguing of the collection. The fruits of his labors, the scheme of the Halle classed catalogue, won universal approval. His regime is important in another respect. In the years 1878-1880 came the new library building, which made use of the Anglo-French stack system for the first time in Germany. A whole series of additional new buildings followed, bringing into being the new and ever more practical type of lay-out: stack, administrative rooms, reading room, and periodical room. Attempts were made to combine esthetic with practical aims until finally in the Deutsche Bücherei at Leipzig, completed in 1916, the most fortunate answer to the problem was found.

But let us not hasten too far ahead of our period! The reform movement laid hold of ever-widening circles and even found strong support within the scholarly world. Realism had replaced idealism. Now the effort was to make sure of single facts by exact methods. In order to master such masses of subject-matter, large-scale organizations, were created and progressive differentiation of research carried through. Each individual discipline provided itself with one or more special journals. In all this the library attained a much higher importance than ever before. To administer the collection efficiently and make it ready for use was, so to speak, a necessary element of the whole business of scholarship.

To this we must add that after the formation of the German Empire, with the consequent political and economic prosperity, considerably larger funds had been made available. Moreover, the development of trade and technology increased the possibilities of taking care of the expansion of book-collections just as far as the need of them grew. Finally, the government now also awoke to its obligations toward libraries.

No one was more aware of the importance of the library as a public institution than Althoff, who had been the moving spirit of the Prussian Ministry of Education since the eighties. In his still unwritten biography his efforts in behalf of libraries will take up a good deal of space. We may even speak of an Althoff era. He fought most earnestly for the adequate financing of the institutions under his control. His next concern was for the library staff, its enlargement, improvement of its economic and social status, and finally for adequate training and regular employment. These efforts of the Ministry found support in the new professional journal founded by Hartwig (Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen) and in the library association (Verein Deutscher Bibliothekare) founded in 1900, with its annual meetings.

Naturally Althoff’s actions especially benefited the Royal Library at Berlin. The year 1885 brought a reorganization in which its functions as a national institution were greatly expanded. Even if the desired end was not nearly attained, as we shall later see, yet the Royal Library now took a deserved first place among its German sister institutions. And that an occasional violation of the principle ordinarily followed of appointing professional librarians exclusively can, lead only to good results is shown in the case of Harnack, who took over direction of the collection in 1905 and supervised its transfer to the splendid new building.

Althoff worked for organic cooperation among all libraries no less industriously than for the welfare of the Royal Library. To this end decree followed upon decree. In 1885 publication was begun in Berlin of yearly catalogues of German university publications. and soon thereafter a catalogue of school program dissertations, From 1892 on, the Berlin library printed lists of newly acquired titles, at first alone, then six years later in conjunction with all the Prussian university libraries. An additional undertaking was the inventory of all the older books up to 1898 in an alphabetical union catalogue. The idea was not new: it had been aired already in several countries. In Germany it had emerged in the forties. Urged on by Althoff, Treitschke brought the matter to a head in an essay in the Preussische Jahrbücher. In the middle of the nineties the work began, and today it is complete in preliminary form. Since the first World War and its consequences made impossible for the time being the printing of the catalogue, the Berlin Information Bureau (Auskunftsbüro Deutscher Bibliotheken) has assumed special importance. It was opened in 1905 and developed into a center of bibliographical research. Finally, all these organizations became useful on a wide scale through the system of interlibrary loan (Deutscher Leihverkehr), which since 1892 has bound German libraries to one another in ever-widening scope.

The other events of Althoff’s regime - the creation of a German music collection in Berlin and the catalogue of incunabula - can only be mentioned in passing. From them all emanates the same spirit. Basically it is Leibniz’s plan of organization made real by Althoff and his circle with modern methods and adapted to modern needs.



Excerpt from Don Heinrich Tolzmann, The Memory of Mankind. The Story of Libraries since the Dawn of History. Oak Knoll Press 2001. The text is presented here by permission of Bob Fleck (Oak Knoll Press). Thank you very much.

Published since 17 Feb 2010

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