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Fire at Anna Amalia Library
Faulty wiring probably caused the massive blazeImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Rising from the Ashes

Interview: Jefferson Chase
October 24, 2007

A fire at Weimar's historic Anna Amalia Library destroyed some 60,000 books and damaged 118,000 others in 2004. Ahead of its reopening on Oct. 24, DW-WORLD.DE spoke with book restoration director Matthias Hageböck.


DW-WORLD.DE: This was the worst library fire in postwar German history. What was your initial reaction when you learned of the extent of the damage?

Matthias Hageböck: Immediately after the fire, I was just happy that the building hadn't completely burned down. As it became clear just how many books had been damaged, my mood took a turn for the worse. It was in the tens of thousands, and I thought, there's no way we'll be able to get this done within our lifetime. It will be a task for several generations. I feel a bit different now because I've got an overview.

The Anna Amalia Library is a major historic institution, one where Goethe himself used to work. What sorts of material are you trying to save?

Restorer holding up books
The library's team of restorers has preserved thousands of old volumesImage: AP

Both the library building and its holdings are a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, and most of the books come from the period between 1750 to 1850. Every single book is significant insofar as Goethe, Schiller and other leading figures of the Enlightenment used them. That doesn't mean that every individual book is extremely valuable. But of course many of them are first editions and are worth a lot of money.

Many books were damaged by water used to put out the fire. How can they be saved?

With water damaged books, we're not interested in stains, which are merely aesthetic flaws. We're working mainly on the bindings. That's a big challenge. With leather-bound books, for instance, the leather has contracted in the drying process. There are tears in the material so the books can't even be opened, let alone read. Replacing these sorts of brittle, dry leather bindings is one of our main challenges.

And how do you handle books that were actually burnt?

A woman reads in a book in the restored 16th century rococo-style palace
The library is a UNESCO world heritage siteImage: AP

First of all we divided them up into four different categories, depending on the extent of the damage. We can only restore those in the "slightly damaged" category -- they're around 8,000 in number. Here we're not working on the bindings, but rather the paper itself. There are three basic methods of paper restoration. The most drastic is to split the page, insert some stable, replacement paper in between the damaged halves and then glue them back together. An alternative is to cover the surface of the page with an ultra-thin, transparent layer of paper. And then there's the option of applying additional paper fibers on burn spots on pages.

This is a very expensive process. Does it make sense to restore books physically in the digital age?

There are some things that you can only see in the book itself. The information within the text, of course, can be digitalized, but other things can't -- for instance, markings within books. They can tell you a lot about the history of a book, such as where, when, and often by whom it was bound. Sometimes, you can tell who the owners were, for instance, when a priest has made notes for his sermons in the margins. These are things that can't be digitalized. You can only discover them in the original volume. And you can learn things from examining the material. For example, an Australian colleague of mine was examining the log books of the 18th-century Captain William Bligh from the HMS Bounty. He discovered that the sand used to dry the handwriting on the page from the day of the mutiny came from England, and not Hawaii. And the watermark on the paper was different. That meant that Bligh had replaced the page later on -- probably to offer a milder account of the events so the officers concerned could continue their careers. Those are all things that can't be digitalized.

Matthias Hageböck
Matthias HageböckImage: picture-alliance/ dpa/dpaweb

How much restoration work do you have left to do?

We aim to repair the entire damage from the fire by the year 2015 -- that's 20,000 water-damaged and 8,000 fire-damaged volumes. But we can only succeed if we have enough money, and the sums that have been donated thus far won't be sufficient. So we'll be dependent in future as well on people's generosity.

What are your feelings ahead of the reopening ceremony?

Of course, they're very positive. In the run-up to the reopening, there's been a lot of stress, which has distracted us somewhat from how happy we are. But I'm really looking forward to Wednesday. It will be one of the best days of my life, whereas the day of the fire was one of the blackest.

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