The Herzog August Bibliothek was going to be my sanctuary

By Ranjamrittika Bhowmik

Ranjamrittika Bhowmik participated in the MWW Research Internships programme at the Herzog August Bibliothek in Wolfenbüttel. In her report she shares her impressions of what she experienced during her four-week stay.

Herzog August Bibliothek (photo by author)

On a scorching summer August afternoon, I arrived in the quaint town of Wolfenbüttel. It was like a tiny picture postcard in a timeless capsule, nestled in the lap of a prolific historical and cultural landscape. The Herzog August Bibliothek was going to be my sanctuary for the next four weeks, etched in my heart as a truly unforgettable experience.

The MWW Writers’ Libraries project is a unique venture which unravels magnificent worlds of writers’ personal collections while disseminating valuable knowledge through a digital medium. This, in turn, enables one to navigate between material and visual cultures while expanding the paradigm of studying the book as an object. I learned to look at a bookshelf differently which could reveal both the private and public self of an author.

I worked on a letter correspondence between Duke Augustus and Benedict Bahnsen, and reconstructed a 1677 catalogue entitled “Catalogus, Derer Bücher/ so in Lüneburg und Wolfenbüttel von denen Sternen”. I began by investigating the essence of collecting bibliographical data while reconstructing early modern book catalogues of private libraries – in this case, an auction catalogue of a famous publishing house in Wolfenbüttel that had not yet been reconstructed. The first task gave me the interesting opportunity to go through an old alchemical catalogue; I had to excavate matching titles with letter number 236 by Benedict Bahnsen.

The reconstruction of the catalogue (“von denen Sternen”) confronted me with the challenge of finding matching titles in various online international and national databases and catalogues. It was like donning the Sherlock cap while meticulously investigating every single matching reference or mention of old book names and classifying them into various subject groups. Reconstructing a biography of an object or a book catalogue actually helps reconstruct a person’s biography. A very significant aspect of this project is related to the idea of provenance research. According to my supervisor, Dr Jörn Münkner, the provenance of every private book collection deserves investigation regardless of whether it is dispersed or has been preserved as a whole. It should be remembered that although an auction catalogue offers only a momentary image of a library, it is also a reservoir of memory. Time may have engulfed the volumes, as they may no longer be physically available or tangible. But we still possess the catalogue which is an ephemeral testimony to their existence and serves as a valuable source for exploring historical book collections. The catalogues help us identify the name of the book owner, sales information as well as the location of the library. It gives us near telescopic vision like a time machine, as it focuses on educational, religious, professional and scientific interests, attitudes, and preferences of the former owners and users. Moreover, catalogues possess an inherent bibliographical potential which is not always easy to access due to inaccurately transcribed or frequently abbreviated titles. I learned that one has to be playful while dealing with such lists and use one’s common sense and discretion as a part of the modus operandi. 

The MWW project is an ideal platform and example of a synergy between humanities scholarship and the utilisation of digital humanities (DH) tools. Detailed bibliographical evidence can be found by searching through online catalogues. Using various DH transformation and visualisation tools, the collected and researched catalogue entries are presented in a way that is clear and quickly comprehensible (“open access” in most cases). The researcher is granted access to the actual books which allows him or her to trace provenances; based on annotations made by the former owners, one can draw conclusions about the collection owner and users as well as the origin and migration of the books.

Zeughaus (photo by author)

Reconstructing this catalogue helped me understand that auction catalogues provide valuable clues and guidelines for library reconstruction and are always subject to critical conjectures. However, these catalogues and their composition can also provide clues about the former owners’ intellectual outlook, ideological complexities and convictions. The Writers’ Libraries project is indeed a microcosm of a larger universe reflecting the site of memory of an epoch through the traces of bibliographical records. These traces help researchers reconstruct the social-cultural backdrop, retraceable through the gaps and fissures which makes the studying of history (and in this case, a library) all the more fascinating! The differentiation and classification into different subject groups determine the cultural and historical guidelines for reflecting upon ideological underpinnings, doctrines, scholarly culture and life.

Klein Venedig (photos by author)

The exciting four weeks came to an end all too soon. The “fellows’ coffee breaks”, weekly seminars, exhibitions, address by the director, the visit to the neighbouring fairy-tale town of Goslar in the Harz Mountains and the Jägermeister factory in Wolfenbüttel, were some of the highlights of this trip. Interestingly, William Wordsworth had started penning The Prelude in the winter of 1798 while staying in the enchanting town of Goslar at the foot of the Harz.

Goslar (photo by author)

While touring the famous castle of Wolfenbüttel, I came across an interesting story about Anton Wilhelm Amo, the famous eighteenth-century German philosopher, a person of African origin who was educated under the tutelage of Anton Ulrich, the Duke of Brunswick-Wolfenbüttel.

Schloss Wolfenbüttel (photos by author)

My visit and research experience would not have been possible without the incredible support and encouragement of Marie von Lüneburg and Jörn Münkner. Their trust in my abilities and invaluable guidance helped me navigate through this unknown place, and work in an area not squarely related to the field of my doctoral research. I am very grateful that I received this opportunity to work in one of the most prestigious libraries in the world under the supervision of these two eminent scholars and wonderful human beings.

Ranjamrittika Bhowmik is a PhD student in Oriental Studies at the University of Oxford. Her research interests include medieval yogic traditions, Bengalese texts and the study of German language, literature, philosophy and culture.