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Anna Amalia Library director recalls historic blaze

It was a cultural catastrophe: 10 years ago, Weimar's Anna Amalia Library caught fire. Director Michael Knoche tells DW about rescuing books with his bare hands and why a valuable Copernicus work only recently turned up.

Even 10 years after the blaze at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar on September 2, 2004, works believed to have been lost turn up now and then. The first edition of "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium" by Nicolaus Copernicus was recently discovered among the ash. In 1543, Copernicus had turned the entire medieval world upside down with his new theories regarding the earth and the solar system.

Since 1991, Michael Knoche has been director of the Anna Amalia Library, which contains over 1 million books, many of them historical, as well as manuscripts, maps, musical scripts and other valuable documents. Knoche told DW about the night of the blaze and explains the significance of the recent finding.

DW: Almost 10 years have passed since the night of the blaze. What do you remember about it?

Michael Knoche: The events of that night still come alive as if they'd happened yesterday. At 8:25 pm a member of staff informed me that flames had been detected in the original building of the library. Since I live nearby, I arrived there only six minutes later and saw with my own eyes that smoke was coming out of the attic. My knees started to tremble when I realized that this wasn't a false alarm,but a catastrophe.

We then informed a local relief organization for cultural institutions. Aid workers came to help us out shortly after the fire department arrived at 8:31 pm. Together with these aid workers, we immediately started carrying out particularly precious art works and books that were stored in the Rococo Hall.

And the fire department didn't object to you running into the burning building?

Dr. Michael Knoche, Copyright: Klassik Stiftung Weimar/Maik Schuck

Michael Knoche has directed the library since 1991

The fire broke out in the attic and the Rococo Hall there is located on the first floor. So there were two floors between us and the burning attic. The fire department let us continue for one and a half hours, since they didn't think it was dangerous. Only the attic and the roof were on fire, but it was still possible to save books in the lower parts of the building.

You even carried out an original Luther Bible with your own hands…

That happened later, after the fire department deemed the situation too dangerous and feared the house would collapse. Then, civilians and even the fire fighters were not allowed to go back into the building. Only then did it occur to me that our most significant piece was still in the Rococo Hall. I went back in with a firefighter to bring the book out.

It turned out afterwards that some of the fears had been unfounded, since the building did remain stable. The reason why this particular episode became so well known is that this book was the famous Luther Bible of 1534. In my view, the act wasn't so special. There were other people who acted just as courageously and passionately as I did in trying to save the books.

What feeling did you have when you realized what was happening that night?

We continued with our evacuation efforts throughout the entire night, including first aid for the books which froze during the night. We didn't think for a second about what was happening, we simply functioned, just like paramedics at the scene of an accident can't afford to think about how bad everything is, they just have to act. A great sense of resignation and disappointment didn't come until two days after the blaze, when we finally had some time to fully realize the dimensions of the disaster.

Support then came from all over the world. Who were the donors?

The world-famous Rococo Hall after the fire in the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Coypright: AP Photo/Maik Schuck

The world-famous Rococo Hall after the fire

A group called American Friends of the Herzogin Anna Amalia Library was formed, which collected the donations. Financial support also came from Japan, the Goethe Society of South Korea, a school class in Brussels, and the French city of Blois, which is the partner city of Weimar. A total of 22,000 individuals were involved in saving the books.

What is the biggest challenge today?

As far as restoration goes, it is the so-called ash books. The library is a research library that faces all kinds of challenges that aren't directly connected with the blaze. The key word there is digitalization. But concerning restoration the biggest challenge is posed by those charred and seemingly unusable lumps of ash which we managed to salvage from the debris. After having removed the outer casing, their interior usually turns out to be rather intact. We still have to work on numerous texts, notes, manuscripts and prints sometimes lacking their bindings or title pages, but the remaining parts of the books are still in order. So the biggest challenge is identifying and restoring this enormous heap of 25,000 ash books.

One of these ash books proved to be a sensational find. Why did the Copernicus book surface only recently?

That's because following the blaze we categorized the books according to the degree of the damage. Category one contains books only slightly damaged; the worst ones are in category four. We tackled categories one, two and three before turning to category four. This finding belongs to category four, which we only recently started to work on. We haven't even completed the identification of the ash books yet, just for that we will need two more years. That means other sensational finds might be coming up during the next two years. There isn't much we can do to speed up this procedure because it takes so many different specialists to identify a print from the 16th century. It was in one of these category four boxes that the Copernicus book turned up.

This print is entitled "De revolutionibus orbium coelestium." It is the first edition of Copernicus' work from 1543, in which he presents his new world view that the Earth turns on its own axis and is part of a solar system that rotates around the sun. That thesis completely contradicted the medieval world view. That's why this book is so significant.

There are other copies scattered in libraries all over the world. They are all extremely valuable and sought after because each one of them has been commented on in different ways. Works like these would sell for 1.4 million euros ($1.8 million). That was the price paid at a New York auction in 2008 for the last copy of this Copernicus print.

It must be extremely costly and time-consuming to restore a charred book...

Each single page must be treated. The first step is to wash it to remove the contamination. Then the page is meshed with a new paper substance so that it can be handled. Then the book is dried and covered with very thin Japanese tissue paper. Then single pages are stable enough to be rebound into a book.

Can the handwriting in the margins of some in the pages of the Copernicus work possibly be attributed to Goethe, who used to be director of the library? He mentioned the work in some of his notes.

One thing we can say for sure is that this was not Goethe. It looks more like handwriting from the 16th century. However, we still haven't finished restoring the pages and haven't yet determined the significance of these comments.

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