Next Monday, the Unter den Linden house of the Berlin State Library – Prussian Cultural Heritage will open digitally and can then unfold its full splendor again. With his speech, the President of the Bundestag Wolfgang Schäuble will add glamor to an event that, due to the pandemic, can only take place in the live stream.
After the end of the lockdown, this resurrected cathedral of knowledge will lead its users from the boulevard Unter den Linden on a true “via triumphalis” via the fountain courtyard, outside staircase and vestibule into the various reading rooms. What a great staging of arriving and climbing up by the architect Ernst von Ihne, which HG Merz brought back to life!
The building volume of the State Library is comparable to that of the Reichstag. So what does it say when the then young nation built a library that was hardly inferior to the Reichstag in terms of dimensions and splendor? What importance did the German Empire attach to science and education! It was one of the world’s largest library buildings of its time.
Together with its outstanding collections, the Berlin State Library, which is still Germany’s largest academic universal library, was able to compete with its competitors in Paris, London and Washington. The competition between the metropolises for national greatness also found expression in the scientific and cultural buildings.
The nights of bombing of the Second World War ended this splendor, the building was badly hit, its holdings relocated and scattered. In these days, the post-war history of the house is coming to an end.
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A torso became a great whole again, the wonderful historical halls bloom in new splendor, and the centerpiece of the central reading room has been given back to the house in a modern form with the glowing glass cube. With the latest research infrastructure inside, this building is both historic and ultra-modern.
The opening of the Humboldt Forum in the new Berlin Palace began almost at the same time. The nucleus of the State Library was in 1661 in the so-called pharmacist wing of the old castle. With the State Library, State Opera, Palace and Museum Island, the design of the historic center of Berlin is always nearing its completion and allows a unique educational landscape between the Brandenburg Gate and the Spree Island to emerge as a new center of power for cultural development.
Libraries are the new people’s palaces!
The State Library is at the center of this educational landscape. The question is often asked: do we still need libraries in the age of digitization? The world gives a clear answer to this. Never before has more money been invested in library buildings.
So the contradiction is only an apparent one. Berlin is not alone, spectacular new book palaces and reading spaceships are emerging everywhere: whether in Alexandria or Doha, Seattle or Sao Paulo, Sendai or Tianjin, Birmingham or Stuttgart. The best architects in the world compete in the design and creation of library buildings.
It’s money well invested. Libraries are the most visited cultural institutions, which underlines their social relevance. Libraries are the new people’s palaces! The reading rooms, which have often been declared dead, are overcrowded, although more and more literature is available on the home computer.
How can this be explained? Deepen yourself between others with a high level of concentration, feel society, communicate casually: Libraries are becoming social places, public and intimate at the same time, they have an extremely stimulating effect, a “third place” next to home and workplace, regardless of whether it is a district or research library.
At the interface of art and culture, science and research
The standard equipment of libraries today often includes conference rooms, computer laboratories and audio areas. Good service, a pleasant atmosphere, low thresholds, inviting interior design, promotional offers – all of this is what defines libraries today.
The new, ultra-modern and sometimes futuristic library buildings seem in many cases no longer built primarily for books, but for people. They act as covered urban spaces with media offerings and an integrative orientation into society. Library architecture creates community, which certainly has to do with the fact that digital people yearn more and more for analog society and real places.
The Unter den Linden house, however, is a historic one, and yet it managed the balancing act between the expectations of the past and those of the present very well. An ambitious program of events, educational offers, workshops for students, discussion evenings and concerts have long made the State Library part of urban society alongside its core tasks.
And yet, above all, it is also an institution of memory. No society can do without the binding power of memory in the long run. Knowledge captured on paper is kept available here for eternity, a high requirement. In this way, libraries enable the further development of knowledge and contribute to the sustainability of our society.
Today, however, the level of knowledge can only be expanded through a network. Simply focusing on your own collection is no longer enough. Libraries work more based on the division of labor and cooperate more than ever. And the international trend is clear: in recent years, especially in the Anglo-American area, libraries have moved ever closer to archives and museums because they have long shared essential values and practices. As networked knowledge stores, they make knowledge of the world available and new contexts of meaning visible. That is the real challenge for interdisciplinary institutions such as the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK).
Some pieces are part of the UNESCO World Document Heritage
The Berlin State Library preserves an outstanding part of our cultural tradition, including world-famous autographs by Bach, Mozart or Beethoven, medieval manuscripts, an original print of Luther’s theses and the Gutenberg Bible; some of it is part of the UNESCO World Document Heritage.
The task of maintaining and preserving written cultural assets definitely corresponds to that of a museum, digital and analog are closely intertwined. The relics of the oldest libraries of mankind, cuneiform tablets and papyrus scrolls, lie in museums. Libraries, like museums, are portals to the past and the future.
[Der Autor ist Präsident die Stiftung Preußischer Kulturbesitz. Eröffnungsfeier am Montag, 25.1.2021, 13 Uhr, Link zum Live-Stream unter staatsbibliothek-berlin.de.]
Everything is interaction, wrote Alexander von Humboldt. This also applies to the SPK: Alexander’s American travel diaries are kept in the State Library, his correspondence with the Prussian king is in the Secret State Archives of Prussian Cultural Heritage, the objects he has collected are in the Ethnological Museum, and in the Ibero-American Institute of the SPK is to researched him.
Interdisciplinarity and networking are more important than ever today, also for memory institutions. Because of its cross-disciplinary structure, the SPK therefore has future-oriented potential at the interface between art and culture on the one hand and science and research on the other. This interface needs to be redesigned. The Unter den Linden house of the Berlin State Library, which was once built for its treasures, now offers unique opportunities for research and yet also faces urban society, will be a decisive component in this.