Five Years After the Fire: The Herzogin Anna Amalia Library in Weimar
“The next group for the Rococo Hall, please!” A lady in a blue uniform opens two double doors, and 25 visitors shuffle past, as quickly as they can in their oversized felt slippers. Time here in the heart of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library is precious; tickets to visit sell out long in advance. Amazed at what they see, the visitors meander around the hall. Anyone who has previously seen only panoramic photographs of the hall tends to be surprised at how small it is. Like just about everything else in Weimar, the Rococo Hall presents itself on a pleasantly human scale.
The restoration of the hall is eradicating the traces of the September 2004 fire. It is already easy to imagine once again that library director Goethe might enter the hall at any moment, while Schiller, Herder or Wieland pluck a leather-bound volume from the shelf. The only reminder of the catastrophe are the sparsely stocked bookshelves. The fire broke out shortly before the dilapidated building was due to be renovated, and was caused by an electrical fault. Flames raged from the roof structure of the historical main building, and charred pages of books flew over the town. 50,000 books and 37 paintings were lost for ever, burnt to a crisp. Worldwide horror was followed by an unprecedented wave of offers to help, from Germany and abroad.
Summing up the restoration work to date
It is hardly surprising that people are rushing to see the Rococo Hall. For reasons of conservation, only 90,000 visitors are admitted per year. “In the first year after the library re-opened in 2007, we could have sold 500,000 tickets”, says Jürgen Weber, the library’s deputy director. Five years after the fire, he sums up the situation: over 7,600 books have been restored, and around 6,500 repurchased. To date, this has cost approximately ten million euros. By 2015, the remaining 20,000 books should have been restored. The next step is to try to save the “ash books” – as the charred blocks of books without any binding are known which were recovered from the rubble of the second gallery. Today a special reading room has been created under the roof, which is where 50,000 books and the music collection of Duchess Anna Amalia were once kept.
A light parquet floor and functionally minimalistic furnishings create a sharp contrast to the Rococo Hall which can be seen through the oval opening in the ceiling. While work in the floors below aimed to restore the rooms as far as possible to their original state, the marks left by the fire have been preserved in the special reading room: the balustrade of the ceiling opening is charred and the ceiling beams are blackened by smoke. Up here is also where one can find the trompe l’oeil painting of the “Genius of Fame” copy. The painting, together with its frame, is painted on, as is the richly decorated stucco. A glass case separates the impressive documentation of the fire from the rest of the room, where the most precious items in the library’s collection, such as manuscripts, old maps and incunabula, can be studied.
From feudal to research library
The different names of the Anna Amalia Library reflect not only its changing self-perception, but also German history. It was founded as the “Herzogliche Bibliothek“ (i.e. Ducal Library) in 1691, and in 1815 was renamed the “Großherzoglichen Bibliothek“ (i.e. Grand Ducal Library). The feudal library underwent a major transformation in 1766, when Duchess Anna Amalia had the collection moved from the Stadtschloss (i.e. City Palace) to its present location. “From that point on, one no longer had to get past the city guards in order to borrow a book.”, says Jürgen Weber, “There was a library with rules of use and proper entrance procedures”. Weber stresses that Anna Amalia was the first to establish a permanent budget for the library, and that this budget was then expanded by Goethe when he was the library’s director: “When Goethe died, the library was one of the ten biggest in Germany.”
In 1918 the library was once again given a new name and a new remit: the “Thüringische Landesbibliothek“ (i.e. Thuringia State Library) was required to include in its collection one mandatory copy of everything printed in Thuringia, “including grey literature, company publications and so forth”, explains Jürgen Weber. During National Socialist rule between 1933 and 1945 there was “no money to purchase index cards, but new titles were added at twice and in some cases three times the rate”. This is because the library, according to its deputy director, “played a central role in the economic exploitation of Jewish families.” Today, the library is at pains to find the former owners: “So far, we have found the rightful owners of 3,000 volumes.”
Collections plundered for lack of hard currency
There was a radical change to the library’s collection in the GDR. The institutions of the classical city of Weimar were rearranged, and in 1969 the library was renamed the “Zentralbibliothek der deutschen Klassik” (i.e. Central Library of German Classics). The focus was now on the period between 1750 and 1850. “Part and parcel of this was a rejection of books which were seen as not belonging to this period”, says Jürgen Weber. “In reality, however, it was also a question of raising hard currency.”
Books were taken off the shelves “pallet-wise” and sold to the West, among them many theological works and the library’s complete collection of historical American literature. Weber estimates that around 70,000 books were lost. In return, books were transported to Weimar from other East German libraries if these reflected the library’s area of specialization. “It was a good idea to create a research centre, but the way it was done was not good.” Another stage in the transformation of the Anna Amalia Library from feudal to research library came in 2005 when the Study Centre was opened: new buildings and an underground wing were added to the main building.
The most recent name change took place in 1991 to mark the library’s 300th anniversary: ever since, the library has borne the name of its greatest sponsor, Duchess Anna Amalia. Her bust can be found in the Rococo Hall. Heads bent, visitors stand before her, each holding an audio guide to their ear. The final explanations have hardly finished when their audience in the Rococo Hall comes to an abrupt end: in a friendly way but with great energy, the lady from the library’s supervision staff escorts the group out: “The next visitors are waiting!”
works as a freelance journalist, for Westdeutscher Rundfunk in Cologne, among others.
Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
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