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Culture

Library Goes up in Flames, Destroying Literary Legacy

A fire on Thursday night at the Duchess Anna Amalia Library in Weimar has damaged a unique collection of German literary works.

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Tens of thousands of irreplaceable books have been lost or damaged

Flames several meters high could be seen rising from the roof of the over 300-year-old library, a UNESCO world heritage site, in the eastern German town of Weimar.

Although a large contingent of fire-fighters managed to bring the blaze under control after two hours, and no injuries were reported, about two-thirds of the building's roof had been destroyed.

As if the damage to the 16th-century rococo-style palace weren't bad enough, up to 25,000 books were irretrievably destroyed in the blaze and another 40,000 damaged by water and smoke, said Ulrike Bestgen, an expert with the Weimar Classics Foundation. These, at least, can be restored, said Bestgen.

The loss is still considerable. Among the volumes destroyed were a collection of 18th-century musical works donated by Duchess Anna Amalia and the renowned book collection gathered by the city's first librarian, Daniel Schurzfleisch.

"This is a painful blow," said Weimar's mayor Volkhard Germer.

"A national culture catastrophe"

Around a million books and valuable art-objects are housed at the Anna Amalia library. Built in 1691, it specializes in German literature between 1750 and 1850 and comprises some one million books, including many rare first-editions and the largest collection of Faust by Johann Wolfgang Goethe, one of Germany's best known authors.

Brand in der Anna Amalia Bibliothek in Weimar

Firefighters battle the flames at the historical Anna Amalia Library in Weimar on Sept. 2, 2004.

Preventing the losses from being even greater, a chain of people battled the flames to salvage some 6,000 historical works, including a 1543 Martin Luther Bible and travel papers by naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt, officials said Friday. Unfortunately, the volunteers' rescue attempts had to be abandoned when the ceiling threatened to cave in, said Helmut Seeman, president of the Weimar Classics Foundation.

German State Secretary for Culture Christina Weiss has pledged up to €4million ($4.87 million) in aid to help repair the building and restore the damaged books. She called on the German public for donations. "This is a national culture catastrophe and a great loss for world heritage," she said at a press conference Friday.

No insurance cover

After the flames subsided, investigators were busy trying to determine the cause of the fire, which broke out in a top floor after closing hours.

Weimar city council issued a statement confirming the collection had no insurance cover. "The market value of the stocks damaged or destroyed cannot be estimated," it read, "because the stocks were unique and thus there was no insurance cover."

The blaze was particularly tragic given that the collection was set to be temporarily moved from the premises while the building underwent extensive renovation to the tune of €9 million.

German Library director Elisabeth Niggemann pointed out that like the floods in Saxony two years ago, the fire underscores how crucial it is that archives and libraries take preventative action against potential disasters.

The German Association of Technical Fire Prevention couldn't agree more. "Sprinkler alarms and extinguishing concepts non-toxic for humans can battle fires in historic buildings without damage to stocks," director Wolfram Krause told news agencies on Friday, and pointed out that emergency systems like these are all too often absent from buildings housing culturally valuable collections -- not least due to lack of funds.

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