Libraries I have known: The best library on the planet (TBLOTP)

Continued from here. This is in response to the most recent “Mach was” challenge, which concerns the library (“Bibliothek”).

You’re probably getting tired of “libraries Serv has visited,” and meanwhile I am just getting started. In this episode: my favorite library of all time, which I encountered in June, 1994. So at the beginning of this post, I am twenty-five.


Why people study paleography: This is a mid-sixteenth-century copy of a recipe for preserving quinces. In English. I can read about a quarter of it at a glance. I do a lot better with sixteenth-century German hands; yes, it’s so specialized that most scholars need at least  some training to read manuscripts in their native languages. European handwriting was at its worst in the sixteenth century due to responses to the shift from manuscript to print; writers of cursive were still trying to figure out what to do.

In the spring of 1994, I won a fellowship from the German Historical Institute to study paleography (the science of old and historic handwritings) at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel and tour some selected archives and libraries in Germany. This was a big deal for me, because despite having focused on German history for at least three years at that point, I’d never been to Germany. Also, paleography is a box that one has to have checked in professional preparation as a pre-modern historian. Some people love the puzzle aspect of deciphering very old handwriting; I was less enthused and I’ve always liked books better than manuscripts. But doing this meant that my doctoral advisor would include it in my professional recommendations, and that was important. Also, it gave me a paid-for trip to at least four libraries to look at their collections before I needed to write my first big application for an international grant. And the successful grant was (and is) a strict requirement for getting hired as a European historian in the U.S. You have to prove you know how to get money out of third parties, because your research will be comparatively expensive.

Half-timbering in Wolfenbüttel.

So, with five semesters of German instruction behind me, I embarked upon a journey to the little town of Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony. Nowadays the main reason most people go there is on a day trip to see the half-timbered houses (Fachwerkhäuser) and the churches and the early modern palace. One walks around the city center with a tour guide, pauses in the afternoon for Kaffee und Kuchen, and then goes back home — a very popular type of outing even now for Germans of all ages. Today Wolfenbüttel is a true backwater, but after the 1570s and into the mid-eighteenth century, it was famous as the seat of very powerful dukes who built that palace: they embraced the Protestant Reformation, founded a library, and in later centuries employed some of the leading figures of the German Enlightenment. You should go on the tour — what is neat about it, I think, is that you get a lot of early modern (ca. 1450-1800) German history at a glance in a very manageable situation.

But did you catch that bit about the library? In the eighteenth-century, it was sometimes called “the eighth wonder of the world.” Insiders call it the HAB. But I refer to it as TBLOTP.

So, for several weeks, I went every morning into this building, the so-called Augusta:

Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, main building.

and I sat in this room with fifteen other aspiring doctoral students from the U.S. and Germany:

Bibelsaal — named according to the hundreds of historic Bibles stored on the shelves here.

And tried to decipher Latin and German handwriting beginning with the Carolingian minuscule (the scholar in charge didn’t think it would be worthwhile to cover pre-Carolingian scripts) all the way up to the present. I struggled in the sixteenth century; I was good at the eighteenth century; and I was decent at reading the writing that Germans used for the twentieth century up until 1941. That was important to me because at that time, some library finding aids were still written in that script. We ended with Thomas Mann, whose handwriting was execrable, in case you’re wondering. I was not great at paleography; for one thing, my German wasn’t yet good enough that I could really use context to decipher a word. (If you’ve ever tried to play Scrabble in a foreign language, you will know what I mean.) Later it got better and I got good enough to pass on the skill, which was gratifying. But there were really interesting moments — as, for example, when we got to read Martin Luther’s handwriting, or when we learned that Philip Melanchthon had clear handwriting in Latin but that his German handwriting was almost illegible. Martin Bucer is said to have had the worst handwriting of all the Reformers — which is one reason why the critical edition of his collected works is still not complete.

But my favorite part of the day was when class was over and I got to go across the street:

The Zeughaus, which now houses the historic reading room for books not considered rare. It was originally a munitions storage facility where the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel stored their cannons and materiel.

and put my stuff in a locker, and walk through the entrance here:

Zeughaus entrance, first floor.

and go up two flights of stairs to sit here:

Historical materials reading room, Zeughaus. This is for all books published before 1850 or so that are not particularly rare. In the foreground, you can see the foam supports used to protect the historical bindings while reading and the book weights (in German it’s called a Schlange or “snake”) that are used to hold a book open to a particular page. The ceiling lights are adjustable and those dangling electrical cords are for plugging in laptops — a device of which there were very few of in 1994 when I went the first time, but without which no one travels anymore. There actually used to be “quiet sections” of reading rooms where people were not allowed to use laptops because the noise was considered distracting. The last time I was there, photography was still prohibited, but that may have changed now.

and read to my heart’s content. Which I did a lot of that summer — the library reading room was open until 8 p.m., so even after paleography, there was time for a lot of reading. I spent a lot of time reading printed accounts of Martin Luther’s death and copying notes and recording impressions with a pencil in an unlined composition book. It was my first encounter with the early modern book, an unmitigated love affair of mine, even now.

Main entrance to the Bavarian State Library. Not my favorite place, although I met it on this particular trip and used it at other times. If there’s only one copy of a book in Germany, it’s often here. But the first time I used it a librarian yelled at me for taking off a sandal in the reading room to scratch my foot and the place made me nervous after that. And Munich is expensive. Although you can’t beat the roast duck.

Historians consider four German libraries essential for reading sixteenth-century titles, and I used all of them to varying degrees, but this was my favorite. There are 75,000 items from the sixteenth century (it’s actually the German library of record for seventeenth-century items, of which there are 150,000). There are bigger historical collections, such as that of the Bavarian State Library in Munich (the library of record for sixteenth-century items), but this one is special for a few reasons. First, the collection hasn’t suffered any severe historical catastrophes (unlike the FB Gotha collection, which was transported to Russia and back) or the Preußischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin (which was both bombed and transported). Second, it is large and comprehensive — the most common items are here. And finally, and crucially, the books are delivered almost every hour, all day long.

Delivered, you say?

It’s probably unsurprising that historic books are not typically stored where anyone can get at them. Books from the sixteenth century have a wide range of values, but the ones that I spent most of my time with were not especially rare. Copies of them even appear occasionally on the rare books market. I could have bought a sixteenth-century edition of Johannes Mathesius’ sermons on the life of Martin Luther (which I practically had memorized) for between $1500 and $3000 USD, for instance. Dozens of copies survive. So there’s a difference in how European libraries will often treat items like that, and those represented in only a handful of copies (my namesake Servetus’ major [heretical] work on the Trinity, in comparison, in contrast, survives in only three known copies worldwide). TBLOTP has some items like that, too — things that there’s only one of — and they can be viewed in a different, more secure reading room in the Augusta where the librarian’s eyes are on one every second.

The new Magazin. The old books moved in last December. I haven’t seen this building in person.

So these books — both the valuable and the priceless — are stored in something called the Magazin (yes, the same word in English that refers to the place where a ship keeps its gunpowder) where only very few people ever go. The Magazin is climatized and secured for optimal protection of the books. They check it for mold periodically. The guy who goes into the Magazin to fish out the books so scholars can read them is called the Magaziner. In most historical libraries that are open to the public, that guy will go between one and three times a day, although this varies wildly. In some, for instance, you’re required to provide a list of books you want to see ahead of time, and in many, you are limited to a certain number of items per day. But at TBLOTP, the Magaziner travels every hour all day long with a pause for his lunch, and he will bring you as many books as he can find on any particular trip.

This saves a crazy amount of time, especially if you find you’ve ordered the wrong book. TBLOTP gets that designation from me because I’ve never been able to read so much in such a short period of time and I’ve never lost myself so completely while I’ve been reading.

A “chained book” from TBLOTP. This is a copy of St Augustine’s fifth-century masterpiece, The City of God, owned by the Franciscan monastery at Gandersheim (not far from Wolfenbüttel). These books were chained to prevent theft (not, as I learned in Sunday School, to keep people from reading them). When monasteries and convents were dissolved during the Reformation, the collections were often purchased or appropriated by secular sovereigns like the Dukes of Braunschweig-Wolfenbüttel. So one thing people will do is try to reconstruct the intellectual life of a monastery based on acquisitions of those books into other institutions.

In all the places I’ve worked, this is the one where the librarians are most calm about their oversight. I don’t mean “lax,” but this isn’t a library where anyone comes accidentally, or because they’re a student at the attached university. Probably three quarters of the users are fellows of the library or doctoral students working on a very specialized topic, or people who come the first time as part of a course that includes a session on how to treat early modern books. And there are comparatively few users — the Bavarian State Library might have 3,000 users per day; I’m guessing that the number in Wolfenbüttel is something more like a couple hundred on a really busy day. And only a fraction of those will use historical titles. So one can read to one’s heart’s content, without the typical anxiety I develop in historical collections about being watched.

So, of all libraries on the planet, most of all, this is the place to indulge in the true romance of the book.

What’s romantic about a book?

I’m not a maniac in the sense that I want to own old books. That, in itself, is its own kind of obsession, and to some extent it was one that the founders of this library suffered from. They were possessed with the desire to collect information and they kept agents in many European cities with standing orders to buy whatever seemed interesting or significant. They bought up old collections from monasteries and schools and antiquarian booksellers and they didn’t worry if they bought multiple copies. We owe many of our big historical book collections in the U.S. to that kind of love of books — people who wanted to own the books, not necessarily to read them. It can be a good way to be — I say that with reservations, because book collectors are a documented menace to historians and archivists. At times they steal and chop up things, especially maps; or they muddle up historical collections to suit themselves and they destroy historical contexts. In any case, that’s not me.

Cheap laced sixteenth-century parchment binding — you can see the laces on the left margin of the book — but still more durable than our glued bindings today.

But I still have some kind of tangible connection to the book itself. At least a third of the things I read for my dissertation were available on microfilm or in modern reprints, and I consulted those things — but still, when I had a chance, I read the physical, historical books themselves.

I think what sparked the romance for me is the fact of the book — the codex — as a technology carried over generations.

In the sixteenth century, when people bought books, they didn’t always come with bindings. You could get a simple binding from the bookseller, which typically meant calf parchment laced through the signature with thongs, or sometimes (for pupils) a sort of thickened paper cover with a paper back. But people who cared about their books — which was most everyone who bought them, due to the cost — bought the papers and then (if they wanted to and could afford it) had them bound separately by a bookbinder. If this interests you at all, there’s a really excellent, detailed discussion of the history of European book binding here, from which I have stolen several pictures typical of books I’ve used at TBLOTP.

A really common style of sixteenth-century binding in Germany — signatures were attached with cords and the exterior is pigskin stretched over wooden boards. A book like this will open up and close as well as or better than on the day it was bound, centuries ago.

The bindings were made to last. There are sixteenth-century books with bindings that are still as functional as the day they were bound. (Think about this in comparison to your five-year-old Kindle.) Sometimes the bindings are beautiful because someone wealthy owned the book: they have beautiful leather work and elaborate clasps or leather tie closings. A lot of the books I read had embossed portraits of Martin Luther on the covers. Sometimes they are historical — old parchment pages from medieval manuscripts were frequently used to bind sixteenth-century books, and when they are discovered, they are nowadays sometimes more valuable than the books they envelope. Or they have chains still attached because at some point they were in a university or monastery library where they were secured to prevent people from walking off with them. Sometimes many books were acquired in a rush and bound together (a so-called Konvolut), sometimes with related materials, sometimes not. Often their owners wrote in them — the most frequent way for me to run into Martin Luther was to order one of the books that he wrote in and see his marginalia. And people wrote the wildest things: diatribes, complaints of boredom, weird little drawings. And their traces are all left for me to witness.

So-called waste binding. This was a parchment page from a fifteenth-century liturgical manuscript. The Reformation got rid of much of the Catholic liturgy, so the books that held it were recycled.

I can’t even tell you what that is like, to be sitting in a library in my own day, with a book anchored open in front of me, and knowing that it was the same book that Martin Luther wrote in himself almost a half-millennium ago. Or to know that really generations of Lutheran pastors consulted this same book and I can identify the separate handwritings of three of them.

In short — I never felt so connected to the past as when I was sitting with those books. I lost all sense of time and even all sense that I should be taking notes on what I was reading. It was just me and the books and no place on earth ever facilitated that in the way that TBLOTP did.

Wolfenbüttel is not the most exciting place on the planet (as they said, they roll up the sidewalk at 8 p.m.). There aren’t many great bars or interesting restaurants (although the cake offerings are spectacular). It’s a little out of the way if you don’t have a car. The region has a reputation for being a little “brown” politically (German slang for people who are likely to have extreme Right sympathies — the Nazis wore brown shirts). Still, I have a lot of positive memories there. As my first “place” in Germany, it introduced me to black current juice (Johannisbeersaft), the German ice cream parlor and the German strawberry parfait (Erdbeerbecher) and a number of things on that level. I watched O.J. Simpson in his Ford Bronco on a TV in a pension room there — a memory I’ll never detach from that place.

But it’s one of two places in Germany where I thought, I could buy a house here and retire.

With 75,000 early modern items, I’d never have run out of reading.

[possibly to be continued, possibly not. I have a lot more library experiences to report, but I get the feeling I’m the main person interested in this.]

~ by Servetus on March 9, 2017.

20 Responses to “Libraries I have known: The best library on the planet (TBLOTP)”

  1. […] Continues here. […]

  2. This is a fab post Serv! Perhaps you missed your vocation? 😉

    • I don’t think I have the temperament to be a librarian. And I didn’t know there was such a thing as “book conservator” until this trip, actually. I was a pretty straight-laced intellectual-cultural historian by inclination and I read everything in modern editions until Germany. To be fair, there was a decent rare books collection at Madison but its strengths were in French history. On this trip we got a tour of their preservation lab and it was really neat. But I’m not that “crafty” either — so I don’t know.

      Now if there was a job where you just sat in a library and made sure that the books all got some love by being read — that would be a great job for me!

  3. Hi Serv, it’s a pleasure to find another manuscript enthusiast : the RA-world is full of wonderful surprises. I’m with you about the romance of a book (in its wide context) and that’s what attracted me in the first place. Having had good teachers did help, too 😉 I’m specialised in early middle ages – and I assure you pre-Carolingian scripts ARE worthwhile to cover, and very useful for the training to read C15-16 handwritings! I’m lucky enough to be working with my beloved MSS as a conservator: if you happen to be in Italy, I’ll be happy to welcome you.

    • Thanks for the invitation and welcome!

      I don’t think that the instructor (it was Wolfgang Milde) thought that it was not generally worthwhile to study pre-Carolingian scripts, just that it wasn’t that useful for most of us in the course (we weren’t all studying the sixteenth century — most were working on later periods). He had 2.5 weeks to get us through all of German paleography and do something relevant to each person’s dissertation topic. And to be fair, we were really studying “how to read old hands” and not paleography proper. We had a day of “vocabulary for describing letters” and bibliographic aids for paleography, so I know what a minim is and how to look up an abbreviation in Capelli and so on, but it was a lot of sitting with photocopies of sources and trying to decipher them.

      When I got to Göttingen the next year, I could have taken a semester course and I probably should have. My home university only had Latin paleography.

  4. Mit der Bahn nur zwei Stunden bis Berlin und auch nicht brauner als anderswo, ein guter Platz für den Ruhestand. Meine einprägsamste Erinnerung an Wolfenbüttel ist die Kopie des herzzerreißendes Briefes den Gotthold Ephraim Lessing nach dem Tod seiner Frau an seinen Freund Eschenburg schrieb, den konnte ich nie vergessen. Damals hing im Lessinghaus eine Kopie. Auch die Briefe an seine Frau Eva König immer noch amüsant zu lesen.

    • Stimmt.

    • Brauner als Göttingen allemal. Keine Frage, mindestens bis zu der Zeit um meinem letzten Besuche (2010). Aber ich bin einverstanden über die Briefe — das Museum, wenn auch so einfach, ist tatsächlich herzzerreißend.

  5. Very interesting read! Thanks a lot for posting it.

  6. Funnily enough, I grew up about a stone’s throw away from Wolfenbüttel. Visited that library fairly regularly during my uni years when I was back at my parents’. Cute little place (I.e. the town back then)

    • It is cute. And like a lot of that level of German city it’s surprisingly livable — it has (or had) good stores in the Innenstadt, a solid Wochenmarkt, etc. The schedule of travel to and from Braunschweig was frustrating — in that sense, almost everywhere I lived other than Erlangen was better connected to the national rail system (well, and Ostfriesland). But I would move back there in an instant if I had a good reason.

      • 😉

        I know that Karstadt closed down a couple of years ago. Since then I think the town centre suffered and is not as nice and lively as it was in the 1990s.

        My brother still lives in Braunschweig, but even there you notice (okay, it may have to do with me having the London comparison which is not really fair) a degree of neglect and once well-established businesses closing their doors due to market changes. A sad trend these days everywhere.

        • I used to eat in their cafeteria about three days a week some years … but I remember it closed. That either happened the last time I was there (2010) or shortly thereafter. I know there were public meetings about how to deal with the building.

  7. This was a great read, Serv. Not only does your post really bring across your love of books and libraries, but the whole text was so descriptive and interesting – I’d love to be able to look inside those places, feel the books (a big no-no, I know), smell the parchment and just soak up the atmosphere of history and learning. – Do you sometimes miss being in these libraries, researching and poring over old manuscripts?

    • re: feeling the books, it varies a lot. At the HAB you can touch anything that’s not considered rare with your bare fingers. (In contrast to some places that make you use cotton gloves for everything.) But no, they won’t let you touch things like Heinrich der Löwe’s evangeliar. I do remember one summer where I was sick a lot — I think exacerbated with allergies — and I was sneezing like crazy, and they asked me to put a clear plastic layer between me and the books — but for something with a typical binding that they have 20 copies of, they will let you touch it. However, they will not let you have a pen on the same table!

      I do miss the old books sometimes. More than that, I miss the experience of sitting for long periods of time and reading them. It was something that I thought about when leaving the professoriate (even the possibility of doing a MLS and trying to find a job in rare books). In the end the other factors pushing me away were more important.

  8. I have at least a dozen more libraries I could write about but I think I will stop for now. Keeping the topics in mind for the future, though. Thanks to everyone who commented here!

  9. Oooh, I adore the look of that Zeughaus first floor entrance!
    I never had cause to actually study historical books like that, so I have only rarely actually used an old book like that. That sense of history, imagining people hundreds of years ago also enjoying the books, I always get that when I see old books like that and love that feeling of awe.

    • I’m in awe of the bookbinders, too. They were artisans who were proud of their craft, no doubt (interestingly, they were often among the first to conver to Protestant Christianity) but if you’d asked them — will this be around in 500 years? — I doubt they were thinking quite that much about posterity. And yet their work is still around for us to appreciate and use, actively. It’s humbling.

      The first floor of the Zeughaus is really well engineered — warm in winter, cool in summer. That’s where most of the “Handbibliothek” for history and literature is, and they have little desks for scholars (that one can reserve) built into a metal gallery that they built into the sides of it. So cozy.

  10. […] Servetus nimmt uns auf eine Reise durch einige ihr bekannte Bibliotheken mit: Bibliotheken ihrer Kindheit Bibliotheken während ihres Studiums Servetus Bibliotheken von 1991 bis 1995 Die beste Bibliothek der Welt […]

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