The Library of the GFZ in Potsdam “Modern science, grounded by its history”

The rooms of the library used to house the Geodetic Institute.
The rooms of the library used to house the Geodetic Institute. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner

Sibylle Itzerott analyses satellite data that has been gathered about the earth.  Her work benefits from the library of the Research Centre for Geosciences. Not just because of the fact that the history of surveying started there.

My work as a geoscientist involves me analysing satellite data on the processes of change taking place on the earth's surface, mostly pertaining to soils and vegetation. It is a field of research that is developing rapidly. Since 2001 I have been working at the Helmholtz Centre, the German Research Centre for Geosciences (GFZ) on the Telegrafenberg in Potsdam. And I have been using its library for just as long.

In the bosom of Mother Nature: the library on the Telegrafenberg in Potsdam In the bosom of Mother Nature: the library on the Telegrafenberg in Potsdam | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner The facility is housed in the former Institute for Geodesy, i.e. surveying – an institute so steeped in tradition. The building first came into being in 1892. The rooms were remodelled for use as a modern library with great care and with pride in our history.

Online research in the GFZ database. Online research in the GFZ database. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner The reading room is not large and has only a few places where people can work. For research in the natural sciences, library space does not have the same function as that of a public or university library. I do not have to actually be present to use the library of the GFZ, as it is primarily used for online research and publication, without which research work today would be impossible.

The library staff are there to support us in all matters. The library staff are there to support us in all matters. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner The most important medium for this research are scientific journals, of which 99 per cent are now in digital form. The GFZ library makes all the relevant contributions from the realm of geoscience available online. Thus, on the one hand, a lot of time is saved when researching – I just have to enter a keyword or an author, I always find what I am looking for. Quite seldom is it the case that an article cannot be made available immediately. Then I submit a document delivery request and what I want arrives two days later.

The touch screen – a great help when we have visitors. The touch screen – a great help when we have visitors. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner On the other hand, the library supports and advises me in all questions concerning the publication process. It is customary in our field of research, in particular, to make scientific information freely accessible, i.e. Open Access publishing. The next step involves the library staff entering my essay in the GFZ online database, known as GFZpublic. This ensures that it will actually become known. For books or a doctoral thesis, the library can also take on the function of publishing. All we have to do is hand in one text file, and the librarians do everything else – from preparing it for electronic publication to ensuring its availability.

For scientists who are new to the GFZ, the library regularly offers talks, lectures or an introduction to the use of their service options: How to publish research data as one’s own, separate data publication? How to use the GFZ publishing service?

Sibylle Itzerott also likes to look at the old surveying equipment. Sibylle Itzerott also likes to look at the old surveying equipment. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner It is a real joy to work there – also because of its location: the Telegrafenberg in the bosom of Mother Nature, the historic buildings, it is nice to be amidst all this. The building lives and breathes history: there are old surveying devices all over the place and old books and reports that tell us today how science worked at that time.
When measuring gravity acceleration the number 9.81m /s² was determined with this pendulum apparatus. When measuring gravity acceleration the number 9.81m /s² was determined with this pendulum apparatus. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner
In one of the rooms there is a pendulum apparatus with which the magnitude of gravitational force was determined as a benchmark for all measurements on the globe. We are really proud of the fact that this is part of our history. The historical devices are beautiful and finely crafted, but they are also very heavy. I think it must have been really exhausting to work with them. When you read the reports, you realise just how much effort went into surveying back then. If it were still like that today, I am not sure, if I would still want to do the job.

But sometimes I borrow works on the history of geodesy, in which I am particularly interested. History is not only the basis for our current scientific work, it is also exciting to find out how what we know about the shape of the earth was developed from the findings of various research groups. Especially in the field of satellite observation, things are progressing at a similarly rapid pace today. It makes you feel a little bit grounded, too, when you see just how the science started in this building 150 years ago.

Researching the old books in the historical library of the former Institute for Geodesy. Researching the old books in the historical library of the former Institute for Geodesy. | Photo (detail): © Ula Brunner

Dr. Sibylle Itzerott is a senior scientist at the German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam. Her field of research is applied remote sensing (analysis of satellite data) of vegetation and soils. She also works as a consultant for the director of the Department of Geodesy.
The GFZ library on the Telegrafenberg in Potsdam sees itself as a scientific service facility. As an affiliated member library of the Albert Einstein Science Park, it also supplies other institutions. The library provides printed and electronic media as well as information on geoscientific issues needed for current research. It is also the main contact point for all questions concerning scientific publishing.