The Amalia Library fire should ignite discussion of the library's primary role.
By Bruce McKinney
It's not supposed to be this way. A library accumulates a million old, and in many cases, rare books. The collection represents years and years of accumulation, care and veneration and then a fire destroys tens of thousands of books. This isn't simply a nightmarish fantasy. It happened this past September at the Anna Amalia Library in Weimar, Germany, and it happens with brain-deadening frequency elsewhere. Books perish. They were not made to survive centuries.
At the Amalia Library it is thought that about 100,000 volumes were seriously damaged or destroyed. Old and rare books are damaged every day. At some auction previews, the extent of casual damage that occurs during personal inspection can be astounding. Try to open a folded map without encouraging tears. Books are fragile, particularly when old and in original condition.
More than ten years ago I bought a first edition of William Bartrams's 1791 classic "Travels through North and South Carolina, East and West Florida, the Cherokee Country, the Extensive Territories of the Muscogulges, or Creek Confederacy; and the Country of the Choctaws." I was told by the seller that it was tender and I didn't fully appreciate what that meant. It was a condition rarity, an important book in very original condition. The front cover gave way after I admired it once too often. It has since been skillfully repaired but a portion of its value lost all the same. Wonderful copies are exceptional artifacts but their exceptional condition becomes a barrier to their use.
A question emerges. Which is paramount: possession or availability? For the collector it is primarily possession. In fact many collectors never connect the dots of their own collections. They tend to accumulate rather than to analyze. And this of course leaves them vulnerable both when buying and selling. They know their material only superficially.
With the internet we're starting to have both possession and availability. I personally favor books with important content. This doesn't mean that the book has to be well written. In fact, in the Americana field, the well written book is the exception. For the collector an understandable way to look at material is to consider the advance of information or successive development. This can be the printing history of a place, the development of an institution from the first pamphlets that promote it, or the pursuit of a category of material such as printings in Indian languages. In the Americana field there are thousands of roads that lead to personal Meccas. In the sciences there is development, categories, periods and types. Science, the timber frame of clear thought, is perhaps the easiest, though not the cheapest, collecting category to understand. Those who collect fiction can collect by type and/or period, by author or school and even by plot type. And there is of course nothing that limits book collecting to books alone. Every author has correspondence and ephemera. Book collecting can be a head-long commitment to acquire one of every printed and written document associated with an author. Collecting is what you make it but it has rarely been more than accumulation. Intellectual insight has tended to come from historians and other writers. Collectors acquire. Intellectuals evaluate. Libraries distribute.
Is it more important to repair damaged copies or elaborate the library's role as teacher?
The extraordinary collection at the Amalia Library was inevitably acquired using some or even many collecting techniques and strategies. The motivation was personal, the acquisitions personal and the total accumulation a matter of timing, luck and perseverance. Book collecting, at the highest level, is an obsession and the ex-post-facto imposition of an exoskeleton of collecting logic and justification does not change this fundamental fact.
So, how should a library, that reflects the fullness of collector obsession and has experienced an extraordinary loss, react? The Amalia Library is now a repository of great books rather than simply the manifestation of a collecting obsession born to epic levels. So it seems less important to repair or replace the lost material. If the library today finds its primary daily purpose for being in providing information for research then it's reasonable to acknowledge that many of the lost and damaged books are accessible elsewhere. Spending treasure to reconstruct damaged books may be a theme that inspires contributions and government support but the far greater good will be to spend this money to digitize as much of the collection as is practical and useful. In this way the material is no longer confined to the library's structure and will in time find its way into educational projects all the way from second grade Mozart reports in Tanzania to complex language analysis at the highest university levels in London, Cambridge, Chicago and Berkeley.
The Amalia Library long ago stopped being a collection. Today it is a resource and the money it receives because of the fire should be spent to further what it is today rather than to honor what it was in the beginning. Let us honor the past by embracing the future.