German Libraries: A Portrait - Berlin

Monumental Media Temple: The Grimm Center in Berlin

Außenaufnahme des Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrums; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Milan BulatyOutdoor shot of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Milan BulatyIn the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center, the Humboldt University of Berlin has the first central library in its history – and one that is being inundated by inquiring readers.

The Brothers Grimm are commonly known mainly as collectors of fairy tales and less as co-founders of German philology. Yet Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm left linguists pioneering work in their field. Their joint master project was the Deutsche Wörterbuch (i.e., German Dictionary), which was to document all German words from the time of Luther to Goethe. The project was so monumental, however, that neither the estimated ten years working time nor the lifetimes of the brothers sufficed to complete it. Before his death, Wilhelm was just able to conclude the work on the letter “D”; Jacob passed away while working on the article about “fruit”.

Clarity and formal rigor

Reading terrace of the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Matthias HeydeThe Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center in Berlin is also monumental, but it was completed within the planned construction period of three years. Thus at the end of 2009, shortly before its 200th anniversary, the Berlin Humboldt University could present itself with a rich gift: for the first time in the history of the university, it now has a central library. The library furnishes room for the extensive holdings that were previously scattered over twelve humanities, cultural and social and economic branch and sub-libraries. It also houses the valuable historical holdings and special collections of the University Library.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Thorsten KrauseThe € 75.5 million building, which also houses the University Computer and Media Center, was designed by the Swiss architect Max Dudler. “It’s a modern, clear and functional building, with beautiful views and a stimulating atmosphere”, says Milan Bulaty, Director of the University Library, of his new workplace, which lies close to the Friedrichstraße train station in the heart of Berlin. “An originally designed library with a reading terrace and glass roof.”

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Thorsten KrauseBoth outside and inside, Dudler’s building impresses the viewer with its geometrical clarity. The whole building – from the facade of Jurassic limestone and glass to the immense reading room – seems to be pervaded by a space lattice that gives the viewer the impression of calm and vastness at once.

Open views of the city and the sky

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Thorsten KrauseThe heart of the library is the impressive terrace area of reading room. Here on four levels are over 300 of the total 1,250 workplaces. From each of the long, black wood tables, the user has an open view of the sky through the glass roof. Those who prefer working in smaller rooms can also feel at home in the Grimm Center: in addition to the huge reading room, there is a modern PC pool, decentralized computer workstations, training, conference and group work rooms, and individual work cubicles. In almost the entire building the user can pursue his research in the Internet on his own laptop over a wireless network connection.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Thorsten KrauseSurrounding the reading room are the shelves of the largest open access library in Germany. “Of our total of 2.5 million volumes, we have systematically ordered nearly 1.5 million on the shelves so as to invite the user to browse”, says Milan Bulaty. “And of course our holdings are accessible and can be borrowed free of charge not only to students, scholars and scientists, but also to every resident of the city.” This openness too is in harmony with the architecture: large windows give a view of the city from every library shelf.

The downside of the enthusiasm

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm-Center; © Jacob-und-Wilhelm-Grimm-Zentrum/Thorsten Krause“Unfortunately, our user’s enthusiasm for the architecture and beauty of the reading terrace has its downside”, reports the Library Director. “At peak times we have 5,000 to 6,000 readers per day. During the week between eleven am and seven pm, there are no vacancies at the workplaces, and exam candidates book up the individual cubicles over a month in advance”. Thanks to the automated lending service, opening times are very liberal: the library is open seven days a week, on Mondays and Fridays until midnight.

By the way, the library was conceived with the reader with children in mind. In the “nursery” on the seventh floor, there are workplaces within sight of the play area for children. And while parents are studying perhaps a volume from the library of the Brothers Grimm, which like the libraries of many other scholars belongs to the valuable special collections of the Humboldt University, the young visitors can draw pictures at special tables or look at storybooks.

Dagmar Giersberg
is a freelance journalist living in Bonn.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner.
Copyright: Goethe-Institut Online-Redaktion
June 2010

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