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Celebrating excellence: a profile on German libraries

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By Margaret Adolphus

Berlin celebrated the 100th anniversary of the German Library Conference (Deutscher Bibliothekartag) in June 2011. To mark the occasion, Margaret Adolphus spotlights just a few of the many initiatives and achievements of German libraries/librarians in this viewpoint.


The very name "Germany" conjures up an image of culture, learning and openness to new ideas.

Moreover, it is the home of Johannes Gutenberg, the inventor of the printing press, which largely contributed to the biggest form of mass communication of ideas before the Internet. So it's hardly surprising that Germany's 10,855 libraries (figures from the German Library Association [Deutscher Bibliotheksverband, 2010]) are seen as an important part of the country's social, cultural and educational life.

And yet, the picture is full of contradictions. On the one hand, there are lofty ideals – the Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft (DFG, German Research Foundation) believes, for example, that every researcher should be able to access all the information needed for scholarly work, including both scholarly publications and primary research data, from his or her workplace.

On the other hand, like many Western nations, Germany has had to undergo stringent cuts in public spending. Public libraries have been particularly badly hit with closures and reductions in service.

Indeed, the German Library Association complained bitterly that per capita spending on libraries is 8.21 euros compared with 54.55 euros for Finland, and US$36.36 (€27) for the USA; while only every third town with 5,000-10,000 inhabitants has its own municipal library (Deutscher Bibliotheksverband, 2010).

Politically, Germany has a federal structure, with much being decided at local Länder level. This means that each region has its own Staats- or Landesbibliothek (state or regional library).

Two of them, the Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin (Berlin State Library) and the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) form Germany's virtual national library together with the Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (German National Library) or DNB, the equivalent of the British Library or the Bibliotheque Nationale.

There is no national legislation prescribing a particular level of service, although the German Library Association is trying to introduce this.

Publisher's note

The author is grateful to Thorsten Meyer of ZBW and Ortwin Guhling of the Bavaria State Library for their help with this article.