Research Project Writers´ Libraries: Materiality – Orders of Knowledge – Performance

PD Dr. Stefan Höppner, Caroline Jessen, Dr. Jörn Münkner

Writers’ libraries are still new territory in literary studies research. This is astonishing, considering that such libraries offer more insights into the thought processes and writing practices of writers and scholars than almost any other source. They make possible references to the cultural contexts and social conditions of writing and reading. Spanning a period of almost five hundred years, our project explores the work of writers in relation to their books, collection interests, systems of organisation and library traditions.

Each sub-project has its own temporal focus. The collections examined – early modern scholars’ libraries, Goethe’s libraries and the now fragmented library of the Jewish poet, Karl Wolfskehl - are points of departure for questions on philology and the history of ideas against a backdrop of political, social, aesthetic and medial change.

Thanks to the complementary character of the collection foci in Marbach, Weimar and Wolfenbüttel but also additional perspectives, the writer´s library, for the first time, will be examined systematically as a phenomenon overarching eras. Not least, the library collections on all three sites serve as the basis for the exploration of the collection history and practices of these institutions. The writers’ libraries raise questions about provenance, symbolic representation and the materiality of communication; in other words, the entire “life stories” of books become visible.

Early modern scholars’ libraries (Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel)

Printed catalogues of scholars’ libraries of the 17th and 18th century at the Herzog August Library (© HAB Wolfenbüttel, Foto: D. Hakelberg)

In the early modern era (16th–18th century), many scholars had their own libraries. When they died, their collections were often sold off and scattered to the four winds. However, auction catalogues and other inventories, which were often preserved, enable us to reconstruct profiles of c  collections which are no longer accessible. They provide clues as to the reading and research interests, passions, and possible contact networks of the library owners, as well as an insight into sales practices and pricing.

A representative body of significant items from the Herzog August Library’s unique collection will be selected and the following key questions will be addressed:  What do these books tell us about their owners? Which books were popular and which topics were prominent? What knowledge existed at a particular time, and what does this infer about what was not known? The project aims to create a database of these catalogues with exact bibliographical and systematic classifications and supporting sources for the electronic edition. The project will also address issues related to the overarching history of science and the presentation and accessibility of the catalogues and books in a database. 

Dr. Jörn Münkner

Goethe’s libraries in Weimar (Klassik Stiftung Weimar)

Books in a room - a look into Goethe's private library (© KSW, Foto: Jens Hauspurg)

Johann Wolfgang Goethe had two first-class archives at his disposal in Weimar: his own private library and the Ducal Library in the Green Castle, which he supervised from 1797 until his death. Together, these libraries formed the reservoir on which he based his writing. This Klassik Stiftung Weimar sub-project will electronically process the over 11,000 volumes to create a digital catalogue in line with current library standards to provide an entirely new tool for research on Goethe.

It is our future aim to digitalise selected sections of the collection and make them available to researchers; these will include Goethe’s personal copies of his own work and books which show evidence of use by the writer or contain dedications from other authors such as Heine, Hegel, Schelling and Byron. Along with his private library collection, the volumes borrowed by Goethe will be catalogued and classified thematically. In addition, a monograph about the history and study of Goethe’s private library will be produced. The work will be accompanied by individual philological studies on topics such as Goethe’s library practices, his work with individual volumes, and his intellectual networks, which are documented by the hundreds of books presented to him as gifts. 

PD Dr. Stefan Höppner

Destroyed traditions, exposed provenance: Karl Wolfskehl’s Library after 1933

Visible provenance: Volume belonging to Karl Wolfkehls, purchased 1939 in exile. © DLA

This project examines the post-1945 handling of books which belonged to Jewish writers with a particular focus on one exposed case: in 1937, the poet Karl Wolfskehl sold his collection of over 8,800 volumes to the publisher Salman Schocken. With the proceeds, Wolfskehl was able to emigrate to New Zealand, taking only a few books with him into exile. Schocken was purchasing a collection for the planned “Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry” in Jerusalem, which was dedicated to literature from the early modern era to the present, with an additional reference to the idea of a hidden German-Jewish tradition. The library remained unused and, aside from the Judaica and Hebraica, all of Wolfskehl’s books were put up for sale after 1975 and merged into new contexts. Given the library’s relevance as a philological work and a symbolic marker, this project will set out to virtually reconstruct the collection and trace the paths of the books. Wolfkehl’s scattered collection is also significant because of the new perspective it provides on his work

Caroline Jessen