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Scene in Berlin

Stuart Braun, BerlinJuly 1, 2015

Some of Berlin's libraries plan to streamline their inventory, which could lead to massive cuts. As concerned library goers fight for their right to read, DW's Stuart Braun reflects on a sacred public institution.

Berlin's State Library, Copyright: picture-alliance/akg-images/L. M. Peter
Image: picture-alliance/akg-images/L. M. Peter

I've spent a lot of time in libraries. They are places in which I research and write, but where I also go to escape, and to ponder in glorious silence. I once spent some weeks in the grand domed reading room of the old British Library before it was closed in 2007. I liked to sit near where Karl Marx wrote "Das Kapital."I've hung out in libraries from Iran to Tasmania and Copenhagen.

When I moved to Berlin, I was impressed by the many libraries that I could access day and night and sometimes even on Sundays. I suppose a German invented the book, so it wasn't so surprising.

But Berlin's myriad libraries seemed to be essential - and mostly free - public spaces to which residents commonly retreated from their tenement lives, finding solace amid wise walls stacked with old and new tomes. I also began to realize that Berlin's whole history is enmeshed in its libraries, which have been victims of fascism, Allied bombing and Cold War, but that have since become scenes of resistance and reunification - and, inevitably, politics.

Scene in Berlin logo, Copyright: DW

The anti-Reformation

I was recently forwarded a petition by concerned citizens in Berlin who warned that the Central and Regional Library network, known as ZLB, is faced with major restructuring and rationalization. The decisions are apparently being made behind closed doors.

Under the guise of digitization, the library network's "diverse holdings are slated to be dismantled," says an organization of cultural producers, writers, students, filmmakers, retirees, curators, academics, parents, artists, publicists, book dealers, theater professionals and intellectuals who oppose the move - and who in June submitted its "Save the ZLB" petition to the Berlin Senate with over 20,000 signatures that calls for the reforms to be publicly debated. ZLB's plan is allegedly to standardize its offerings, which would save money but could mean that less popular subject areas and foreign language books will no longer be represented. Instead, popular mainstream fare could gain the upper hand.

I love how, in their inimitable way, Berliners are agitating over their precious public libraries. The director of the ZLB, Volker Heller, has publicly defended his plans, saying that although the library budget hasn't been cut, staff numbers are too low to handle the demand for new digital media, which is why much of the library's unique hard copy holdings will go into far off external storage and a few bestsellers might take their place.

E-books only make up roughly six percent of books sold in Germany, compared to well over 30 percent in the US. Critical is that while paper books get a tax break in Germany, e-books are treated as standard retail goods and subject to the full 19 percent sales tax. That makes them prohibitive for libraries with small budgets. And yet, attendance at traditional libraries in Germany that rely on tangible media and hard cover books is on the rise, according to a study released in May.

Amerika Gedenkbibliothek in Berlin, Copyright: picture alliance/dpa/P. Zinken
The American Memorial Library was a post-war giftImage: picture alliance/dpa/P. Zinken

I wasn't surprised to hear that. I suppose this vindicates the supporters of the ZLB - "Berlin's most popular cultural and educational institution."

Angel's lair

I'm one of the many readers that make the ZLB so "popular." I explored a range of local and university libraries in Berlin before discovering the riches of the Staatsbibliothek, or State Library, designed by the architect behind Berlin's Philharmonie concert hall: Hans Scharoun. For four years, I have retreated almost daily to this vast glass and concrete monolith of ideas, and in that time have completed a book on my adopted city.

Arguably the biggest research library in Germany with millions of volumes in its collection - including an original Gutenberg Bible - and nearly always packed with thinkers and scholars of all types from all over the world, this West Berlin branch of a once-divided library was immortalized in the Wim Wenders' film "Wings of Desire." Angels loitered in its upper echelons before returning to the golden-winged Victory Monument that I can now see through the library's huge windows that take in the Tiergarten park.

The State Library's original location on Unter den Linden (now its East Berlin branch) once had a classical domed reading room modeled on the British Library. But a bomb was dropped on it during World War II, and the Nazis harassed its staff, burnt some of its books and refused to fund the purchase of foreign materials before it fell under Soviet control. Today, on Bebelplatz across the road, one can see an inscription of the prophetic Heinrich Heine poem written in 1820: "That was only the beginning. One starts by burning books, soon human flesh will burn."

Berlin State Library, Copyright: DW/S. Braun
Stuart Braun's favorite spot at the Berlin State LibraryImage: DW/S. Braun

But Berlin has so many different kinds of libraries, among them the Amerika-Gedenkbibliothek (American Memorial library) that was gifted to the city by the occupiers after the war, and that provides a rare combination of academic and popular materials from around the world. That's why my partner goes there to borrow much of her university reading material, thereafter retreating into the reading room to get some work done.

This unique public institution might be threatened, however, by a scourge that could transform hallowed libraries all over the world. It's called digitization. Its historic volumes and academic materials could well soon land in storage.

Whatever happens, libraries everywhere, and not only in Berlin, are like churches for me. Any decisions on their reformation need to be debated very publicly.