A telescope into the past

By Jörn Münkner and Jaqueline Krone

At the annual Future Day hosted by the Herzog August Bibliothek, pupils get to know the various working areas of the research institution in Wolfenbüttel. This year, the MWW project “Writers’ Libraries” received a visit from four inquistitive secondary-school students who dived into the world of books and demonstrated a knack for making them divulge the secrets of their former owners.


Research meets school: Jaqueline Krone (HAB, left) and Jörn Münkner (MWW, right) with their guests Paul, Johann, Tom and Maximilian. Photo: Sandra Ullmann

There they were, the four of them standing in the vestibule of the Bibliotheca Augusta: Johann, Paul, Tom and Maximilian, 13 and 14 years old, on this morning at the end of April. They had arrived by longboard from Braunschweig (13 km!), by car from Wolfsburg or on foot from downtown Wolfenbüttel.

The “Library Quarter” – An obstacle course of knowledge

After the official welcome, we took the students under our wings and for a stroll to the Leibnizhaus, home to the research department of the Herzog August Bibliothek (HAB).

On our way there, we pointed out the features of the “Library Quarter”: The Lessinghaus, the Kornspeicher (Granary), the sundial and the expressive Nathan sculpture on Paul-Raabe-Platz. Then we asked the students whether they knew anything about Duke August the Younger (1528-1589), the library’s patron. And yes, they were able to provide some details.

Although we had to correct them in their assumption that the Library was founded by August, when in fact it was founded by his predecessor, Duke Julius of Braunschweig-Lüneburg, they nevertheless knew that Duke August’s tireless commitment to collecting and cataloguing played a significant role in the expansion and organisation of the collection, which in turn greatly enhanced the reputation of the library throughout Europe. Two of the boys also knew that Duke August was a ruler of a branch of the House of Welf. They had also read that he had been “one of the most scholarly lords of the Baroque period”. They clearly knew quite a bit already!

Arriving at the clinker building where the research department is located, we directed their attention first to the Anna-Vorwerk-Haus with its Jugendstil stucco facade, and the Baroque-period Meissnerhaus. And then we went up to the second floor of the Leibnizhaus where we presented the day’s programme.

The motto

The motto of our programme was “A telescope into the past – Earning the inheritance of books”. We wanted to talk to our young visitors about the function and significance of books in general, and more specifically, about the value of historic prints and manuscripts.

We also wanted to discuss how media has changed over time and how this has impacted the nature and form of books, along with the task of libraries and special collections. Furthermore, we wanted to reflect on the saying “to earn one’s inheritance”. Quite an extensive programme!

The plan worked – thanks mostly to the fact that Johann, Paul, Tom and Maximilian were hard-working and curious and possessed quite a bit of prior knowledge.

What´s at the heart of research?

After we introduced ourselves and our research areas, the four students shared details about themselves, their academic background and career goals. Then we went on to talk about one of the central questions of the day: What, exactly, does research mean? Why do we do research and in what areas is it done? What are the prerequisites and conditions for conducting successful research?

They all had insightful answers in tow. For example, they were aware that curiosity is what drives us to acquire and produce knowledge. Thanks to their knowledge of Latin and ancient Greek, and the related subjects they had studied, the boys had little trouble taking the giant leap back in time to the age of Homer. They agreed it was plausible that Odysseus was one of the very first travelling researchers, even though books didn’t play a role for the Greek hero. Instead he communicated his knowledge verbally and relied on living memory.

Books through the ages

In the next step, we conducted a brainstorming session to help us understand the “evolution” of books in three large epochal steps – from the Middle Ages to early modernity to modern times. Through the ages, books have been and continue to be the fundamental medium for storing knowledge. However, their function has obviously undergone changes over the course of time: objects of splendour and the arcane, proof of literacy and education ...


Bernhardin von Siena, De vita christiana from 1475, book on the chain from the Franciscan Monastery in Gandersheim  © HAB

... symbols of erudition and instruments of scholarly work ...

The Herzog August Bibliothek, engraving in: Martin Zeiller: Topographie und Eigentliche Beschreibung Der Vornembsten Stäte, Schlösser auch anderer Plätze und Örter in denen Hertzogthümer[n] Braunschweig und Lüneburg, und denen dazu gehörende[n] Grafschafften Herrschafften und Landen, (Topography and Actual Description of the Noblest Sites, Castles and Other Places and Locations in the Duchies of Braunschweig and Lüneburg, and Counties, Principalities and Lands To Which They Belong), Frankfurt a. M. 1654. © HAB  


... and tools of intellectual argumentation and modern status symbols:


The poet and literary scholar Friedrich Gundolf (1880–1931) reading © DLA Marbach  

Scholars’ libraries and auction catalogues as source material

After that, using an auction catalogue containing a list of books from the library of the mathematician Benedict Bahnsen († 1669 in Amsterdam), we illustrated indirectly what one could learn by studying books and their respective catalogues.


Auction catalogue of the library of the mathematician Benedikt Bahnsen. Photo: Jörn Münkner

Then it was time for Johann, Paul, Tom and Maximilian to conduct their own research own.  Their task: to statistically investigate and assess a scholar’s library on the basis of its respective catalogue in just 20 minutes. We asked them to answer the following questions: Who did the library belong to? When was the catalogue produced? How is it structured? What does it tell us about the owner’s interests and the kind of books he passionately collected?

At first they had some problems deciphering the Gothic typescript, but by reading the text together, they quickly overcame their difficulties. The boys had fun completing the task, and the follow-up discussion was a mini fireworks display of questions and answers.

Quo vadis liber?

A rather irritating, but intriguing photo montage provided inspiration for our concluding discussion:

Illustration: Friedrich A. Kittler: Aufschreibesysteme 1800–1900 (Recording systems 1800-1900). Munich 1995 (back cover book jacket illustration)

The unreal situation, in which Germany’s most famous poet appears, elicited real questions about the status of books. The illustration suggests that the voice has supplanted the written word, or even rendered it obsolete. Although writings and books are depicted, what appears to really matter is the telephone.

The students wondered out loud whether Goethe and his works were also subject to changes in media. We reminded them of Goethe’s famous line from “Faust” (Part I, Section “Night”), in which Doctor Faustus declares in his monologue: “What you inherit from your father must first be earned before it is yours. What is not used becomes a heavy burden.”

Goethe had apparently taken this advice to heart and acquired the book-knowledge of his time. The great importance that we attach to his works shows that generations after Goethe have also read his works and safeguarded their legacy. Today it is up to us to continue acquiring knowledge: by physically preserving this heritage in which libraries play a vital role; and by studying, reading and reflecting on these works. Of course, this not only applies to Goethe’s works, but to the entirety of our book- and knowledge heritage.


Jaqueline and I were allowed to supervise four motivated, intelligent and respectful young guests, who showed interest in the meaning and working methods of research, and who were casually aware of their own future career opportunities. As mentors, we were excited and intellectually challenged by these four young men. We believe we were able to provide them some inspiring insights into our very fascinating field of work, just as much as they enriched us, especially with the experience of how productive it can be to work with young people. What a wonderful day it was!

Jörn Münkner is a research associate in the MWW research project „Writers’ Libraries. Materiality – Orders of Knowledge – Performance” and is studying early modern scholars’ libraries at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.

Jaqueline Krone is a research associate in the department Research Planning and Research Projects at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel.