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Provenance, restitution and poison cupboards

10 September 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sharon Bacon

Books on a shelf

Provenance, restitution and poison cupboards

When Mareike Doleschal attended the largest library conference in Europe, she gained fascinating insights into intercultural work, government control and provenance and restitution research.

Librarianship is a global profession: this became clear to me when I attended a library conference (Bibliothekartag) in Berlin held at the Estrel Congress Centre in June. I met colleagues from many countries including France, Norway, the Netherlands, Greece, the USA and Switzerland. We ex-changed ideas, learned about each others’ – projects and visited some of Berlin’s 156 libraries. I had attended the conference in Frankfurt the previous year and found it beneficial, so decided to return.

Organised annually by the two German professional bodies for library and information professionals, the Biblio-thekartag is the largest library conference in Europe and it is well worth attending even if you don’t speak German. Although the conference is titled Bibliothekartag (literally translated “librarian day”), many of the lectures and library tours were in English. Financial support can be sought from the Federal Association of German Library and Information Associations, which promotes international dialogue and knowledge transfer and offers grants for international participants who would like to attend the Bibliothekartag.

Books on a shelf
Social media

I chose sessions that sounded innovative and relevant to my work. In my role as a rare book librarian at the Shake-speare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, I look after a collection of 55,000 books, which includes early print-ed books as well as items with international connections. I was keen to learn how to use social media to promote library collections and various workshops helped me hone my social media skills. Sessions on intercultural library work enabled me to discover how my colleagues engage with a multilingual and multicultural audience. As an editor and writer of a blog series entitled Translating Shakespeare which promotes the Trust’s international collections, I was drawn to sessions engaging with topics of intercultural work and languages. I was also hoping for inspiration for my blog series and to meet potential new contributors.

Multicultural and multilingual

The common issue facing European libraries is tailoring their services and stock to the needs of an increasingly multicultural and multilingual audience. This is mainly to do with the large numbers of Syrian refugees who fled to these countries. I learned about the many projects and services that librarians have initiated, organised and developed. For example, a German public library offers plain language library tours aimed at refugees. Librarians also developed an app intended to make refugees feel ­welcome and help them with settling into life in their new country.

A Norwegian speaker explained how ­Norwegian public libraries are seen as key places for integration and that pa-trons have a right to access materials in their native tongue.

Issues – similar and different

The issues European public libraries deal with contrast with those facing their British counterparts although there are also similarities, for example there are discussions on the use of volunteers and the negative effects such as deprofessionalisation. Librarians in Russia encounter different problems: the case study of one particular Russian library showed how the government exerts strong control over the acquisition of library materials, for example materials relating to Stalin or in non-Russian languages aren’t allowed to be acquired. There is no exchange with other libraries and English versions of academic library journals are only accessible to selected groups of people.

Provenance and restitution

Having researched and written about the provenance of various early printed and rare books held at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust for online and print publication, including an article for CILIP Update (June 2017, pp. 29-31), I had some familiarity with provenance research but not with tracing the provenance of stolen books that formerly belonged to groups of people persecuted by the fascist regime during the 1930s and 1940s and whose books were added to German library holdings. I was surprised to discover that so much provenance research still needs to be done.

One speaker said that it would take another 20 years until all books with suspicious provenances have been identified, researched and returned to the previous owners’ descendants. I learned about many cases of successful restitution; however not all cases are solved and sometimes the descendants don’t wish to be ­contacted.

These sessions raised my awareness of the moral and ethical issues facing librarians when dealing with stolen books in their collections. The foundation of the German Centre for Provenance Research in 2008 and the granting of state project funding gave new impetus to the investigation into and restitution of looted books and art works. Practical guidelines such as the database Looted Cultural Assets and a handbook on tracing works confiscated during the Nazi regime assist with the process of identifying and documenting the ownership status of books. The German Lost Art Foundation, which replaced The Centre for Provenance Research in 2015, hosts the database Lost Art, which contains details of works that were plundered.

Estrel building

Provenance, restitution and poison cupboards

Poison cupboards

I attended tours of public, university and special libraries, including one at the German Historical Museum, where a highlight was seeing a collection of banned books that librarians in the former East German Democratic Republic used to hide in cupboards which they referred to as Giftschränke (poison cupboards) and which only high ranking party officials could access.

I enjoyed the mix of practical workshops, tours and lectures but it was making contact with librarians from all over the world that was the greatest highlight. Many of the people I met at last year’s conference contributed to the Trans-lating Shakespeare blog, sending me filmed readings of Hamlet’s most famous speech in modern European languages, resulting in a video featuring the first line from Hamlet’s most famous soliloquy in 23 languages.

The next Bibliothekartag will be at the Congress Centre in Leipzig from 18-21 March 2019. It would be great to see you there!

Further information

Contributor: Mareike Doleschal is Collections Librarian at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust

Published: 10 September 2018

Related content: Related content link here


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