Call for help after records lost in Cologne collapse

March 26, 2009

When a six-storey building in Cologne collapsed into a new subway tunnel being drilled beneath its foundations earlier this month, the story made headlines worldwide.

For the press, the main interest was in the dramatic pictures of the building sinking into the ground, but for academics, the incident had wider implications.

In the pile of rubble, which left two people dead, was the city's Historical Archive. It was one of the largest municipal archives in Europe and held records dating back more than a millennium.

Among the many thousands of papers lost in the tragedy were the private papers of Heinrich Boll, the acclaimed German writer and Nobel laureate.

Debbie Lewer, a lecturer in history of art at the University of Glasgow, was in Cologne when the collapse occurred on 3 March.

She is urging academics in the UK to come forward with any material from the archive that they may have records of, to help it rise from the rubble in digital form.

Dr Lewer said that there had been the complete estates of 780 important historical figures, more than 100,000 maps and plans, 50,000 posters and about 500,000 photographs contained in the archive's 26 kilometres of shelving.

"My understanding is that only parts of the collection had been microfilmed, mostly in the 1970s," she said.

"A physical salvage operation has begun and many scholars and others have volunteered to help, but it is feared that a very large proportion of these fragile holdings have been destroyed."

Anyone who has reproductions of material that may have been lost in the collapse, whether they are photographed, noted or copied, is urged to submit them to the digital archive that is being set up.

For details of how to contribute to the project, email

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