"Establishing MWW as an independent authority"

A little over two years ago, at the beginning of September 2013, the Marbach Weimar Wolfenbüttel Research Association (MWW) entered its first five-year funding phase. In the following interview, Sonja Asal, managing director of the MWW, describes her goals for the coming years and explains, why she finds scientific management so fascinating, and to what extent the role of libraries and archives has changed.

Managing director Sonja Asal at the opening ceremony of the MWW Research Association at the Thuringian state representation in Berlin on 19 May 2014. (c) Susanne Schleyer/autorenarchiv.de

Ms Asal, your current position in scientific management has drawn you far away from active research. Do you regret that sometimes?

Absolutely not. Scientific management is a field which has broadened and become increasingly attractive in recent years, especially in view of the federal- and state-funded Excellence Initiative. For me, research and research administration are not opposites, but are part of a continuum. Particularly in the very dynamic field of research funding, one requires a good eye for the larger contexts of the system, as well as a keen sense for new developments and issues in the sciences. The association’s decision to devote itself to collection-based research didn’t happen in a vacuum. It came about thanks to a renewed focus on the archive and the investigation of material culture which has gained momentum in recent years in the humanities and cultural studies.

You became the managing director of the MWW Research Association in July 2014. What exactly are your responsibilities?

My primary task is to hold all the threads together – between the three locations of Marbach, Weimar and Wolfenbüttel on one hand, and the various research committees and our funding provider, the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) on the other. It is incredibly important – not least of all because of these rather complex structures – to ensure smooth communication. I sincerely hope that the individual projects, which currently comprise the association, will coalesce into a whole in the not-too-distant future. This also entails establishing MWW as an independent authority in the company of German science institutions and gaining public recognition as such. A press and public relations officer was hired at the head office in Berlin especially for this purpose, and now she supports me in my work.

Speaking of Berlin, why the decision to open the head office in the capital? What would you say are the advantages of this location?

To be clear, it was absolutely right and sensible to set up a head office at a fourth location. In contrast to the three major, historic institutions, the research association first had to invent itself. If the head office had been installed at one of these institutions, it could have become little more than one of many other departments. Berlin was an obvious choice. With its proximity to policymakers, universities, other research organisations and representatives of the major research funding institutions, the capital city offers an ideal environment for my work. And the head office of MWW being so close to the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin is a big advantage in that we are visible to an international community of researchers. The only thing I sometimes miss and what I envy most of colleagues in Marbach, Weimar and Wolfenbüttel, is the proximity to the collections. It’s a small consolation that I can at least visit the three institutions on a regular basis.

What opportunities do the three institutions stand to gain by cooperating in the research association?

The three institutions had already cooperated before on various occasions. For instance, they had gained years of practical experience collaborating on the joint publication of the "Zeitschrift für Ideengeschichte". With regard to the chances offered by the association, we have to work on several different levels. Currently there are three research projects which contribute greatly to the study of certain collection areas in a form which wouldn’t have been possible without the association. In each of these projects, the respective subject of research can be diachronically approached by referencing related subjects at the other institutions. Not only does this allow researchers to follow chronological developments, but to constantly open new systematic perspectives as well. And as such research questions are being generated from and examined at the collections themselves, this ultimately changes the role of the archives and libraries.

In what way?

As I see it, being involved in developing research questions instead of merely reacting to the users, they become more strongly recognised as agents in their own right. Moreover, we shouldn’t underestimate the potential which arises from the increase of resources through project funding. The research work, which can now be conducted in the field of Digital Humanities, pertains to central questions of archiving and would never have been possible in this form if left to its own resources. For example, in one of our projects we’re investigating the possibilities of long-term digital storage – a topic that no institution in times of digital change can avoid if they wish to safeguard data and make it accessible in the long term.

This text is a slightly abridged version of an interview which first appeared in the journal “Augusta. Wolfenbütteler Bibliotheks-Informationen. vol. 39 (2014)”.

Dr. Sonja Asal became the managing director of the MWW Research Association in July 2014. Prior to her appointment, she served as the deputy managing director of the Centre for Advanced Studies at the LMU München for several years.