Some time ago I used a short trip to Göttingen to visit my old work place, the Göttingen State and University Library (SUB). The occasion was the National day of Collection Care (link to program) at the Historical Building at Papendiek.
The National day of Collection Care is an initiative of the “Allianz Schriftliches Kulturgut erhalten” and is organized each year at a different German library or archive as a reminder of disasters such as the fire at the Herzogin Anna Amalia Bibliothek (1) or the collapse of the Cologne City Archive. It draws attention to dangers to manuscripts and books such as mould or paper and ink corrosion.
Being rather new to the topic, I was very thankful with the informative presentation by Johannes Mangei (SUB) about damage to books by water. The air raids of the Second World War and the resulting fire which destroyed huge parts of the SUB did not lead to the complete destruction of many books by fire as one might think, but, because most of the books were moved in advance to safe places in the basement, to water damage. The books did not burn, but they were soaked through by the water for firefighting. At the moment there are still thousands of water damaged books at the SUB waiting for conservatory measures, about which I learned more during a guided tour through the restoration department. First I was rather shocked by the stacks full of books waiting for treatment (sealed in some kinds of plastic bags). Soon I understood much better how painstakingly slow and work intensive the restoration process is, which is one of the main reasons that so many years after the war not even close to 1/3 of the books has been treated (the other factor – like always – being money).
Other highlights were a presentation accompanied by a documentary about the rescuing of the Timbuktu-manuscripts by Eva Brozowsky and the interactive multi-media exhibition Conn3ct: 2 media, 1 story, a project of the Flanders Heritage Library and the National Library of the Netherlands. Conn3ct draws interesting parallels between the role and impact as new media of modern social media and printed books from the sixteenth century and states that for example the role of Twitter during the Arab Spring can be can be compared to the role of printed pamphlets during the Reformation.
The day closed with a lecture by professor Heinrich Detering about archives and libraries as time capsules (“Zeitkapseln. Vom Nutzen und Nachteil des Wegwerfens”). At the center of this talk was the question which witnesses of the past we should preserve. Detering approached this question from the two extremes “total securing of evidence” (exemplified by Andy Warhol) and “no evidence at all” (exemplified by Friedrich Nietzsche). At the moment the abundance of analogue and digital traces and a felt obligation to preserve as much as possible for future generations seems to make it extremely difficult to negotiate what to keep and how to keep it. For example, the inheritance of the German philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer is so extensive that having to take in a few more inheritances like this would make the German Literare Archive reach its maximum capacity very fast. Detering concluded his lecture with quoting Stephen Greenblatt: “I began with the desire to speak with the dead.” (from Shakespearean Negotiations, 1988). He admitted that the witnesses of the past play an undeniable role for our self-affirmation, but that there is no all-embracing answer to the question “What to keep and what not?” because it is part of the never ending negotiations between past and present. It is a question to which each generation has to answer for itself.
It occurred to me that Detering’s philosophical reflections may also be relevant for the field of long term preservation. It is often stated (especially by archivists) that a lot could be learned from analogue archival practices (Kassation) and that one hast to start thinking in terms of “digitale Kassation” (2). Bringing together more extensively archival approaches with theoretical approaches like Detering’s that reflect on what is at the heart of humanities’ research methods will probably stimulate and help to methodically underpin this discussion. Given the urgency of the question and because digital material will not survive sealed away untouched in plastic bags for 50 years, we better move fast.
(1) See Michael Knoche, Die Bibliothek brennt, Ein Bericht aus Weimar (book containing the eyewitness account of the fire and the aftermath by the director of the library).
(2) The German term Kassation refers to the deliberate destruction or decision not to keep archival material.