John Hudson visits a national library with a difference in Frankfurt, home of the European Central Bank and the famous Buchmesse. The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek reflects the unique and often troubled history of Europe’s economic powerhouse…

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A model of The Deutsche Nationalbibliothek, Frankfurt, in the library foyer.

Unity, Diversity and a Touch of Love

"Welcome to the German National Library.”

I am greeted by Elke Jost-Zell. The two of us meet under a 3 metre high sculpture by German artist Georg Baselitz entitled Armalamor that resembles a 3d version of one of Picasso’s Desmoiselles d’Avignon.

“Libraries are a great place for romance,” says Elke, standing by the very nubile figure. “Baselitz knew this when he created Armalamor.”

She, or should I say it, is certainly striking, raised beneath the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek’s domed central entrance area. And I appreciate Elke’s point: libraries do not seduce by books alone and Frankfurt being a large university town, I am sure that young love’s lamp is lit across the hushed aisles and studied stacks of this impressive building.

“Over here we can get a better look at our building.” Elke leads me over to a scale model in a glass cabinet. “It was opened in 1997. What you see here is only half the building, though. There is as much below ground as above. We shall visit that later.”

I observe, as far as my preparatory research has shown, that Frankfurt am Main is but one arm of the national library.

“Yes, there are two branches. Here, in Frankfurt, which is the younger, and in Leipzig. But there are other historic libraries in Berlin, Munich, Göttingen and Wolfenbüttel who fulfil tasks of a classic national library.”

I have to confess that I had not heard of Wolfenbüttel. Elke smiles then goes on to give me a potted history of this diverse and fascinating institution.

“In 1912, the town of Leipzig and the Association of German Booksellers, agreed to found a German National Library in Leipzig. Starting in 1912, all books published in Germany were systematically collected including translations and books about Germany.”

I remark that the National Library is quite a young institution compared with many in Europe.

“German history is complex: principalities, religions, revolutions, wars. We are, to this day, a federated country, unlike the more centralised countries of Europe, such as France. After the Second World War, division becomes a political reality. So Professor Hanns Wilhelm Eppelsheimer, director of the Frankfurt University Library, established a German archive library based in Frankfurt. The city of Frankfurt agreed to support the library with staff and financial resources while the US military government gave its approval. As a result, there were two national libraries in Germany: one for the GDR and another for the Federal Republic. Two national bibliographic catalogues were published.

“With the reunification of Germany in 1990, the Leipzig and Frankfurt national libraries were merged into a new institution, The German Library (Die Deutsche Bibliothek). And then, in 2006, the ‘Law regarding the German National Library’ expanded the collection brief to include online publications while changing the name of the library and its buildings to "Deutsche Nationalbibliothek."

As we leave the atrium for a set of stairs to view the library’s art collection, Elke explains that the institution is still in a state of development. The all-important music archive, which collects printed and recorded music, moved from Berlin to Leipzig in 2010. For a country that might reasonably lay claim to making the most significant contribution to western music, the Deutsche Musikarchiv (DMA) surely represents one of the world’s treasures.

On an expansive landing on the first floor of the building, I am once again engaged by the German love of the human form, usually naked. Elke confesses that she doesn’t bring all her guests here as it is “rather revealing” but I am also struck by the sculpted metal busts of figures that are lean or enquiring, introspective, serene, noble or atavistic: heads that we might see bent over a book in the reading rooms around this building.

In the corridor leading from the sculptur