December 17, 1999

Reunification of East and West Berlin was no easy task but reuniting the divided city's libraries has proved even more difficult. The Wall had made the Prussian National Library, sited alongside Humboldt University, inaccessible to West Berliners.

But political priorities meant West Berlin's replacement Staatsbibliothek only materialised in December 1978, after a university, opera house and symphony hall were built.

Under the 1990 reunification agreement, the "old" and "new"libraries were merged. But they are competing for assets. When the Allies started bombing Berlin, much of the collection of books, incunabula and autographs established in 1659 by Prussia's Grand Dukes was moved to "safer" areas. Thirty per cent were lost to fire, water or to libraries in St Petersburg, Moscow and Cracow, where they remain. Those items liberated by the Allies in towns such as Gottingen and Marburg later went to the Staatsbibliothek to give it a start. The rest returned to the Prussian National Library.

West Berlin's library is not pleased about possibly relinquishing its Gutenberg Bible, while the National Library needs to rescue and restore deteriorating holdings. The desperate plight of its shelved assets is exemplified by J. S. Bach's autograph compositions, 80 per cent of which belong to the library. Thirty per cent are said to be at risk.

A stabilisation method perfected by Gunter Muller of the University of Thuringen and Wolfgang Wachter of Leipzig's Centre for Book Control will be used for the 8,000 most fragile pages. Library director general Antonius Jammers says the cost of remedying all damage is E1.5 million (Pounds 940,000).

Despite its youth, the Staatsbibliothek storage system is outdated. Expansion has had to be confined to the underground parking where books supplant cars. An inadequate computer system, longer opening hours, a researchers' reading room, speedier loan service, and improved direct access to books emphasise how much remains for Berlin to do to keep abreast of demand, not least from students from the Free University whose library struggles under severe constraints.

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