Writers’ Libraries

The research project “Writers’ Libraries. Materiality – Orders of Knowledge – Performance” consisted of three subprojects: Early Modern Scholars’ Libraries” (Wolfenbüttel), Goethe’s Libraries in Weimar (Weimar) and Destroyed Records, Concealed Provenance: The Library of Karl Wolfskehl after 1933 (Marbach), supervised by Jörn Münkner, Stefan Höppner and Caroline Jessen, respectively.

The working libraries used by writers represent largely unexplored terrain in the literary research field – which is rather surprising as such libraries offer fascinating insights into the thinking and writing processes of writers and scholars like few other sources do. They enable researchers to establish links to cultural contexts and the general social conditions of writing and reading. Our project examined how writers used their books, highlighting their collection interests and classification systems, and how such libraries were passed to future conservators. The project focused on a period spanning almost five hundred years.

Each subproject focused on a specific period. The investigated materials – early modern scholars’ libraries, Goethe’s libraries, and the now widely dispersed former library of the Jewish poet Karl Wolfskehl – served as the starting point for philological and idea-historical topics against the backdrop of political, social, aesthetic and media-based upheavals. Thanks to complementary collection focuses in Marbach, Weimar and Wolfenbüttel and various perspectives, researchers succeeded in systematically investigating writers’ libraries as a phenomenon that spans multiple epochs.

The collections managed by the three institutions served as the basis for examining their respective collection histories and practices. Writers’ libraries are linked to related issues on prevenance, symbolic representation and the materiality of communication. In other words, there are entire “biographies” behind each book which were made visible thanks to this project.

In the following, the individual projects are described by the responsible researchers:

Early Modern Scholars’ Libraries (Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel)

In the early modern period (16th – 18th century) many scholars had libraries of their own. After they died, the books were often sold and scattered to the four winds. However, their original composition can often be reconstructed on the basis of auction catalogues and inventories. Like a telescope, we can identify the contours of these collections, the passions and possible networks of their former owners, and information on sales and pricing conventions. Based on the extraordinary collection of material stored at the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel, we selected a representative body of compelling exemplars. The investigation was guided by the following key questions: What conclusions about the books’ owners can we draw from the books themselves? What books were popular, what topics were prominent? What elements comprised the state of knowledge at a certain time, and what can we deduce about what was not known at the time? The goal of the project was to conduct a thorough bibliographical, thematic and systematic investigation of the catalogues, the sources flanked by electronic editions, the discussion of overarching historical topics, and the presentation and creation of a searchable database of catalogues and book titles.

Dietrich Hakelberg (2014-2015), Jörn Münkner, Katrin Schmidt

Goethe’s Libraries in Weimar (Klassik Stiftung Weimar)

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe had two first-class archives at his disposal in Weimar – his private working library at his residence on Frauenplan and the Ducal Library in the Green Castle, where he served as library director from 1797 until his death in 1832. Together they form the reservoir of knowledge from which he wrote his works. This subproject by the Klassik Stiftung Weimar aimed to electronically incorporate more than 11,000 works into a digital catalogue that adhered to current library standards. The goal was to create an entirely new working aid for Goethe researchers. Ultimately researchers hope to digitise a portion of these books – including Goethe’s personal copies of his own works, books with handwritten marks and comments by the author, and personal dedications by writers such as Heine, Hegel, Schelling and Byron. His borrowed books and private library were examined and classified based on a standard set of criteria. This was accompanied by the production of a monograph on the history and study of Goethe’s private library. The work was accompanied by individual philological studies on such topics as Goethe’s collection practice, his work with individual volumes and his intellectual networks which are documented by hundreds of books he received as gifts.

Kirsten Krumeich (2014-2015), Stefan Höppner, Ulrike Trenkmann

Destroyed Records, Concealed Provenance: The Library of Karl Wolfskehl after 1933, (DLA Marbach)

This project focused on what happened to the books formerly owned by Jewish authors after 1945 based on a singular example. In 1937, the poet Karl Wolfskehl sold his library of more than 8,800 books to the publisher Salman Schocken. The proceeds allowed the author to emigrate to New Zealand, where he could only take a handful of his books with him. Schocken purchased the collection dedicated to works dating from early modernity to contemporary times for the “Research Institute for Hebrew Poetry” which peripherally touched on the idea of a hidden German-Jewish tradition. The library remained unused in Jerusalem for many years, and with the exception of the Judaica and Hebraica, was mostly sold off to new owners on the open book market. Based on the collection’s relevance as a philological entity and symbolic marker, the project was able to virtually reconstruct it and retrace the paths the books had taken. By addressing the relevance of Wolfskehl’s scattered library, the project also offered a new perspective on the poet’s oeuvre.

Susanna Borgi (2014-2015), Caroline Jessen