KEK at Berlin’s State Library Coordinating the Protection of Written Cultural Heritage

Ink corrosion
Ink corrosion | Photo (detail): © Alliance for the Preservation of Written Cultural Heritage

In August 2011, a new coordination office began its work at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. Its job is to coordinate Germany-wide activities aimed at preserving written cultural heritage and to prepare a national concept for its protection.

It is not only once-in-a-century disasters like the Elbe river floods, the fire at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar or the collapse of Cologne City Archive that pose a dramatic threat to the valuable collections of German libraries and archives.

Written cultural heritage is also at huge risk on an everyday level – as a result of paper degradation, mould, acid and ink corrosion or indeed improper storage. Restoring and preserving Germany’s paper-based national memory represents an enormous challenge for libraries and archives.

Memorandum entitled “Preserving the Future”

This is why the “Alliance for the Preservation of Written Cultural Heritage”, an association of eleven German archives and libraries with extensive historical collections, called in 2009 for a national effort to be undertaken to permanently safeguard the country’s rich cultural and academic legacy. It presented Horst Köhler, Germany’s federal president at the time, with a memorandum entitled “Preserving the Future”, outlining concrete steps and recommendations for practical action.

The appeal did not fall on deaf ears, and the Alliance’s central call for a national coordination office was implemented. It began its work on 1 August 2011 at Berlin’s State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation.

Strategic planning, intelligent interlinking

“The coordination office for the preservation of written cultural heritage is entrusted with the urgent task of countering the impending loss of original documents and books nationwide, not only reactively, but also in a centralized, coordinating and strategic manner”, explains Dr Ursula Hartwieg, the office’s director.

The coordination office, which initially has been established for a period of five years, is by no means intended to replace the advisory and expert groups of archives and libraries. “The job of the new office is to evaluate existing findings, interlink existing networks and competence centres on a national and regional level, identify gaps and make suggestions for efficient solutions.” What is more, the public is to be sensitized to the risks facing Germany’s written cultural heritage.

All the activities of the coordination office are directed towards one goal: the creation of a national concept for the preservation of holdings. “Here too we are following the recommendations of the ‘Alliance’, since nationwide preservation of our cultural legacy cannot be achieved by the individual institutions alone on account of the huge quantities involved – coordination on a national level is required.”

Supporting innovations, funding specific projects

The coordination office, which is financed by the federal and state governments, also initiates and supervises model projects in archives and libraries with a view above all to supporting the development of innovative approaches. “To see it as a funding body would be a serious misunderstanding, however, as its current financial resources are far too limited”, explains Ursula Hartwieg.

Whereas the “Alliance” called in its memorandum for ten million euros per year to be earmarked for the preservation of nationally important cultural heritage, so far only 500,000 euros have been set aside for this purpose in the annual budget of the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and Media; in addition, 100,000 euros are made available by the Cultural Foundation of the Federal States.

“Thus the model projects can only receive a small injection of funding which in turn gives the institutions an incentive to take steps to preserve their valuable collections and thereby to serve as a role model for other institutions.”

Exemplary protection, long-term persuasion

Even before the coordination office was officially founded, the Berlin State Library was already supporting a total of 31 such model projects, particularly in smaller institutions. These included the volunteer-run German Diary Archive in Emmendingen, whose unique collection was showing signs of acidic decay; the library of the St. Marienthal Cistercian Abbey in Ostritz, whose precious incunabula were at threat from mould; the Robert Schumann House in Zwickau, whose valuable holdings required protective packaging.

“Since August 2011, we have been supervising 40 new projects, most of them addressing the threat to original documents posed by fire and water”, says the library spokesperson. “At the same time, we are undertaking genuine start-up work – including setting up our own website.”

A great deal of persuasion is also necessary. “The invested capital must yield dual returns: firstly in a non-material sense, i.e. the impetus we give must inspire everyone involved to show personal commitment, without which we will never achieve our goals in any case, and secondly by attracting additional funding. To this end, potential investors – politicians, funding bodies, and indeed the public as a whole – must have their sense of responsibility for written cultural heritage strengthened. After all, we all have an obligation to preserve our national memory.”