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Celebrating excellence: a profile on German libraries

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.

Research and academic libraries

Germany has a number of excellent and well-stocked academic and research libraries, which are funded by both federal and national governments. The idealistic view of the DFG, that knowledge should be freely available, is symptomatic of a philosophy that asserts the importance of academic freedom, and is perhaps less comfortable with the rigorous managerial approach that pervades Anglo-Saxon universities. One senses that it is research, not business targets, which is the real priority.

Take the University of Constance Library in Baden-Württemberg, for example, which in 2010 was Library of the Year (an award from the German Library Association highlighting excellence and innovation). Here newly appointed faculty are interviewed to determine their research needs; the books and other items are then acquired, and may even accompany the faculty member should he or she leave.

Germany's 834 scholarly libraries fit into a number of categories:

  • Those that are purely research libraries, such as the Herzog August Bibliothek Wolfenbüttel.
  • National subject libraries, for example the German National Library of Economics (Deutsche Zentralbibliothek für Wirtschaftswissen, ZBW), which was founded in 1914 and is the world's largest library of economics.
  • University libraries, existing to serve their users and also maintaining special collections.
  • Some state libraries, such as Munich's Bavarian State Library or the Berlin State Library, also handle enquiries from the international research community.

An integrated research environment

The German academic environment may be idealistic, but it is also highly pragmatic. Collection development policy is highly centralized, with libraries grouping together in national or federal consortia.

The DFG, which aims to provide an "integrated research environment" and funds scholarly literature, equipment and infrastructure, has a system of "special collections" whereby 23 university and state libraries, as well as 3 national ones, each specialize in a particular area or areas in which they acquire everything that is relevant.

The idea is that there should be one copy of every item somewhere in Germany, available for inter-library loan.

  • ZBW (see above) collects and indexes grey literature as well as research and policy studies, holds 4 million volumes, adding 70,000 titles every year, and has 29,000 subscriptions to periodicals. According to Thorsten Meyer, head of department, collection development and metadata, "our task is to collect, archive and disseminate all forms of economic and business research". They hold the world's largest economic database, ECONIS, the virtual economic library, EconBiz, and EconDesk, where people can submit queries by chat, e-mail or telephone, in German or English.
  • The Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library in Frankfurt am Main, one of the largest academic libraries in Germany, has special collections in "general and comparative literature and linguistics", "German language and literature", and "biology, botany and zoology". Within the national collection of German printed literature, it is responsible for the period 1801-1870. It also provides major journals for German studies and linguistics in electronic form, and is building virtual libraries in several subjects, including German studies and Judaism.
  • The Niedersächsische Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen (SUB) is responsible for 17 subject areas, including English philology, history, politics, constitution of the Anglo-American cultures, forestry, geography and pure mathematics.

Photo: Figure 1. Niedersachsische Staats-und Universitatsbibliothek Gottingen Library (SUB)

Figure 1. Niedersächsische Staats-und Universitätsbibliothek Göttingen (SUB)

The DFG has been funding special collections since the late 1940s. Initially the collection was based on physical items, i.e. books, print journals, CD-ROMs, etc., but in 2004 it started to fund licences for online collections. Between 2004 and 2009, it purchased 124 products (single databases and periodicals archives) for around 68 million euros; in 2008 alone, it spent around 10 million euros on adding to the specialist collections, which was 20 per cent of the total funds for scientific library and information systems (Lipp, 2009).

The special collections do not constitute the whole of scholarly information provision; individual universities have to meet the specific needs and demands of their customers, so a large university will buy those items which are most needed by researchers. (Although in a time of budget tightening, they look first at "must have" as opposed to "nice to have" content .) Thus, the most used things are to be found at nearly every university or research library, but the more specific resources are only to be found in the relevant special-subject library.

As more and more current content becomes available online, the challenge is to find affordable licensing models for dynamic databases. This is one task of the priority initiative "Digital Information" launched by the Alliance of German Science Organisations.

The alliance comprises a broad network of individuals from all member organizations such as the DFG, universities and research organizations such as Max-Planck-Gesellschaft or the Leibniz-Gemeinschaft, who have considerable experience, and who operate at a very high political level. For licensing, it all adds up to a consortium with formidable negotiating power, helping German researchers ensure the widest possible access to online content.

The alliance works at national level, but there is also a strong network of regional consortia in Germany. The German, Austrian and Swiss Consortia Organisation (GASCO) is the body that coordinates consortia throughout the German-speaking world. Regional and national consortia complement one another in ensuring a supply of electronic literature for academic libraries.

Tightening the belt

German libraries are subject to the same market forces and trends as libraries in other western countries. In a time of fiscal restraint academic libraries are not immune from cuts in public funding, while librarians have to deal with the same "Google instant information" culture which disdains complex searching and with which their colleagues all over the world are familiar.

Prices are rising, as in Germany are student numbers (1.8 to 2.1 million in the last decade), but, with some exceptions, such as ZBW, budgets have been cut, or not adjusted to the price increases, so libraries are faced with the need to do more with less.

Cuts tend to be in the area of content rather than jobs – library employees are public servants and therefore protected by strong employment laws, although there is some natural wastage through retirement, etc.

According to Thorsten Meyer, less content means concentrating on that which is most urgently needed, rather than that which would be nice to have. And whereas previously print was bought as well as the digital version of something, now the tendency is to buy online only.

Developing a service orientation

Two librarians, working at the Technical University of Cottbus and the School of Library and Information Science, Humboldt University of Berlin, maintain that the lack of flexible employment, and a management structure which fosters long, drawn-out decision making, impedes attempts to integrate the library with other information service providers (Degkwitz and Schirmbacher, 2008).

Integration is a trend that started in the UK and the USA in the 1980s, and now almost 50 per cent of English colleges and universities have merged library, media, and computer centres.

Photo: Figure 2. The curvilinear form of the library at Cottbus.

Figure 2. The curvilinear form of the library at Cottbus

The Brandenburg Technical University in Cottbus, where Degkwitz works, is an exception: the library is closely integrated with the multimedia centre, computer centre and data processing unit in the Information, Communication and Media Center, and the library is a centre for e-learning.

Degkwitz and Schirmbacher (2008) also claim that German libraries are characterized by "a relatively weak service orientation".

It may be that whereas British and American librarians are falling over themselves to embrace the service ethos, German librarians have a stronger sense of professional self-worth, perhaps a reflection of the high status accorded to research.

In its report on the position of libraries for 2010, the Deutscher Bibliotheksverband (German Library Association, DBV) described the librarian as "the modern information and knowledge manager", a "specially trained professional able to help users in a targeted search for information on the Web", and as someone who is trained to know not only the basics of information technology, but also how to use it for the benefit of science, as well as being able to work on their own digitization projects and on electronic publishing platforms (Deutscher Bibliotheksverband, 2010, p. 7).

And commenting on the Google trend, Thorsten Meyer maintains that, "we librarians tend to believe that we are the better customers", with a detailed knowledge of search terms and thesauri which the "normal user" cannot be expected to possess easily.

He acknowledges, however, that,

"we have to accept that Google is the level we have to reach when it comes to usability, even though we do not like Google because their information retrieval is not good ... so we have to find ways of adding value to pick up our users where they are, even though this is at Google".

Nor do German libraries lack examples of a service culture.

Take for example the University of Constance Library, the first university library in Germany to introduce 24-hour opening, and whose director believes that "information must be available round the clock – otherwise it's dead capital".

Information literacy is becoming a very important part of the academic librarian's outreach everywhere, with many assuming an educational role. The University of Constance Library has pioneered modular and curriculum-integrated information skills courses, generally perceived as the best model.

Lower Saxony State and University Library Göttingen (SUB) has also introduced targeted information literacy classes, which move beyond research training and links information skills with core competences.

SUB is also aiming to change the physical library to a "learning landscape", which includes a medical training centre, a learning resource centre with group workstations, multimedia services, and, of course, books.

German libraries are benchmarked for quality by the BIX – the Library Index project, which is based on the balanced scorecard, and which uses the indicator sets of resources, usage, efficiency and development.

Read more about BIX in Wimmer (2009).

SUB took first place in the BIX library index four times in a row, while the Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library was the winner in the latest use category, which took account of physical visits to the library, and borrowings.

Supporting researchers

Many academic libraries, however, go much further in the help they provide to researchers. ZWB's Thorsten Meyer, for example, sees his library's role as providing,

" ... products and services that support researchers through the whole process of research and publication of research output and dissemination".

There are a number of examples of cooperative publishing arrangements. For example, ZBW cooperates with the Kiel Institute for the World Economy to publish the open access journal Economics. The latter organizes peer review and runs the editorial board (which includes Nobel prize winners); the former runs the editorial platform for production and peer review, and provides the metadata for the articles.

Libraries are also involved in providing support for the pre-publication process of research, through virtual research environments (VREs). VREs are tools which help researchers collaborate across boundaries and institutions (read more about VREs here).

One example is TextGrid, the VRE for arts subjects which SUB helped construct.

Open access

As part of its policy that knowledge should be freely available, the DFG is a strong supporter of open access. It favours the "green road", whereby scholars store their paper in a repository in addition to publishing in a peer reviewed journal. It also funds discipline-based and open access repositories, for example, the Social Science Open Access Repository, which has more than 3,400 publications (Lipp, 2009).

Currently, there are plans to amend copyright law so that authors have the legal right to publish their work in a repository, after a stated time period (usually a year or 18 months).

The DFG believes that if they have funded the research, then any resulting publications should be freely available in final PDF version, after a "reasonable" period.

The DFG also supports open access journals, of which there is a growing number (including the journal Economics referred to above).

Open access is not only supported by national bodies: for example, the German (in origin, it's now international) publisher Springer Verlag has developed an open access model whereby the author (or more usually the institution) pays the publisher, and his or her works are then freely available, without the need to purchase a licence.


Having universal access to born digital material is one aspect of the DFG's strategy of freely available knowledge; however, much material is only available in print or manuscript, so the other part of its strategy is retrospective digitization.

Because of the sheer volume of material, and copyright restrictions, this is an enormous task, and priorities are necessary. As a way of quickly setting up a digital library, it is digitizing the most important handwritten and printed materials from the sixteenth to the eighteenth century.

SUB has also developed considerable expertise in the area of digital preservation, in the form of the Göttinger Digitalisierungszentrum (Centre for Retrospective Digitization in Göttingen). One example is the famous Gutenberg Bible, the most valuable item in the library, which is now available in digital form at

A number of German organizations, including ZBW, the German National Library for Medicine, and the German National Library of Science and Technology (TIB), are working on initiatives to preserve digital objects in easily readable form (for example, a PDF document may no longer be readable if there is a new version): see

Many individual libraries also have important digital collections. For example, the Johann Christian Senckenberg University Library has collections of pamphlets from 1848, the year that revolution flared up over Europe, Yiddish prints, photographs from the archives of the Deutsche Kolonialgesellschaft (German Colonial Society) which constitute the largest digital photograph collection from Germany's African and Pacific colonies, and "Compact Memory", which is a collection of Jewish historical journals and newspapers from the German-speaking world prior to 1938.

Libraries for the public

Despite an atmosphere of severe fiscal restraint, complaints about lack of density of service, and swingeing cuts in branches, services and opening hours, Germany has some excellent and innovative public libraries.

In Baden Württemburg, described by the German Library Association as a "model region" as far as library provision is concerned (although even here, one in five live in a community without a local library), libraries are the:

" ... busiest educational and cultural institutions in the country" (Deutscher Bibliotheksverband, 2010).

Munich City Library is the largest municipal library system in Germany, with more than 18,600 visitors every day. Besides the Am Gasteig Central Library, the system includes 24 district libraries, five mobile libraries, seven hospital libraries, a mobile home delivery service, a law library, and Monacensia, which has a large literature collection.

Educational outreach

Progressive public libraries everywhere are far more than places where you can browse and borrow: they have a strong cultural and particularly educational outreach mission. The German Library Association sees libraries as encouraging reading, learning, and digital and information literacy.

Munich City Library is situated within a cultural centre that includes the Adult Education Centre, the Munich Philharmonic, and the Richard Strauss Conservatory. It takes full advantage of its position with a number of joint projects.

For example, a few years ago the library teamed up with the Adult Education Centre to invite people to partake an "aperitif" in the library, a kind of teaser for the wide offerings in adult education, ranging from applying for a job to style counselling.

It also works with schools to provide information literacy training – students are invited to the library to learn about various ways of researching their projects.

Educational outreach involves all age groups, however, and not merely young people. Biberach City Library in Baden Württemburg won a Library of the Year Award in 2009, and its programme "Reading and Learning: All Life Long" has around 40 age-specific offerings.
These include a research training course for elderly people, reading groups for adults with small children, and theme-based exploratory trips (for example, detective stories) for schools.

Libraries for young people

German libraries take their responsibility towards children and young people very seriously, with a dedicated number of specialist libraries.

The focus is not only on reading, but also on helping children's speech development through play, and giving them plenty of attention which they may lack in their home environment.

One particularly successful initiative, which has been developed in partnership with local schools, kindergartens and families, is "Kinder werden WortStark" (children become wordsmart), located in the inner-city Berlin Kreuzberg area. There are all sorts of activities, from picture-book stories for the small ones up to library skills for the older children.

Much emphasis is laid, in terms of both the physical and virtual space, in appealing to the imagination and the senses, as well as establishing libraries in places where people live.

Sadly, the Hamburg Public Library children's library in Grindel, a shining example of a library in a deprived neighbourhood, has closed. However Hamburg has a whole network of "book halls" (Bücherhallen), mostly district libraries with a youth corner – Hoebu4U.

An imaginative example of a virtual space appealing to the imagination can be found in the lively Munich City Library Kiribu (Figure 3).

Photo: Figure 3. Home page of the Kiribu website.

Figure 3. Home page of the Kiribu website

Small is beautiful

Small libraries have the great advantage of being close to the communities they serve. The English public library system is controversially enlisting the help of volunteers to blunt the limits of public spending cuts; in Germany this is already happening.

Churches (both Protestant and Catholic) play a prominent part in maintaining voluntary libraries; over half are supported either fully or partially by the Catholic Church, and tend to concentrate on the needs of children and families.

One of the most remarkable initiatives is the "Random Libraries" or "Open Bookshelves" that originated in Bonn in 2003 as the result of an ideas competition, and which are gradually spreading to other towns.

As their name suggests, these are just bookshelves placed on the street, and they are run for the community by the community: anyone can borrow – or donate – a book, without any form of paperwork needed.

Photo: Figure 4. Example of an 'open bookshelf'.

Figure 4. Example of an "Open Bookshelf" (© Goethe Institute)

The community also takes responsibility for keeping them clean, and ensuring that the collection does not contain pornographic or extremist literature.

Digital libraries

All libraries need a strong virtual presence, and there are many examples not only of innovative websites – as in the Kiribu example above – but also of genuine online libraries where it is possible to download digital media. According to the Goethe-Institute, over 50 German libraries now offer this facility.

National and state libraries and archives


As mentioned in the introduction, Germany's federal structure has an impact on its libraries, with important libraries at both state and national level. The post-World War II division of Germany has also had an impact on the latter.

Germany's National Library was founded in 1912 as Deutsche Bücherei in Leipzig, the then centre of the book trade, with the mandate to archive and catalogue everything that was published since 1913.

Then after the war, Deutsche Bücherei, being located in the Eastern zone, lost its pre-eminence, and a West German counterpart was established in Frankfurt am Main. After reunification, the two libraries were merged together alongside the Deutsches Musikarchiv (German Music Archive) in Berlin.

The year 2006 saw two changes: the library with its three locations was re-named Deutsche Nationalbibliothek (German National Library, DNB); its archiving mandate was extended to include digital as well as print-based publications. These included electronic magazines (e-zines), e-books, digital theses, electronic journals, and entire websites.

DNB projects

The DNB has launched a couple of projects to enable long-term storage of digital publications. The first was Kopal, a preservation and archiving system for digital documents.

For more on Kopal, see, and also Altenhöner and Steinke, 2010.

A subsequent project, DP4lib, aims to provide a tool for memory organizations, making it easier for them to import material into Kopal.

Nestor has been formed by a network comprising the DNB and a number of other organizations with an interest in digital preservation (see

State libraries

There are a number of other important state libraries, for example, the Bavarian State Library in Munich. This houses nearly 10 million volumes, with 50,000 print and electronic magazines, making it Europe's second largest magazine library after the British Library.

It has four central responsibilities: it is the central state and archive library for Bavaria, serving both as legal deposit for the state's publishers and an archive of the state's treasures including texts from eastern Europe, the Orient and East Asia, as well as a central point of contact for libraries in the area.

It is also an international research library, with queries coming from all over the world, as well as serving Munich's own students and researchers.

Finally, it is part of a virtual German national library; its digitization centre (Münchner Digitalisierungszentrum) opened back in 1997. The library is working with Google to make copyright-free works available on the Internet.

One of its most interesting ventures is the development of a scanning robot, which can scan about 1,000 pages an hour.

Other issues

Germany's Library Association (Deutscher Bibliotheksverband) is lobbying legislators to introduce library laws. Thorsten Meyer, however, is not sure that national legislation will necessarily improve matters, pointing out that the real problem is not funding (money is circulated as rich states have to subsidize poor states), but rather that each state sees itself as unique.

Some issues, such as the fair distribution of licences and the special subject collection system, are worked out fairly at a national level, but by cooperation not legislation. It would, he maintains, be helpful to see the same spirit of cooperation and coordination in other areas, such as library service centres, where there is often duplication of effort over matters such as cataloguing.


This article has given a brief overview of some of the developments in German libraries. It is far from comprehensive: many excellent research and public libraries have been omitted, as has the work being done in prison libraries and with minority groups.

What emerges, however, is a picture which combines both the German respect for knowledge and research, as well as the more Anglo-Saxon "big society" approach with churches stepping in to help libraries in parts which the "official" public service cannot reach.

Idealism – the view that all knowledge should be freely available – is balanced by pragmatism and efficiency, with licences being parcelled out according to need, and different centres specializing in particular subjects. And there are plenty of examples of innovation.

All in all, despite the concerns of the German Library Association, libraries are generally thriving and offering plenty of examples of good practice for the rest of the world.


Altenhöner, R. and Steinke, T. (2010), "Kopal: cooperation, innovation and services: Digital preservation activities at the German National Library", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 28 No. 2, pp. 235-244.

Degkwitz, A. and Schirmbacher, P. (2008), "Information management and service integration at German universities", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 26 No. 4, pp. 654 -662.

Deutscher Bibliotheksverband e. V. (2010), Bericht zur Lage der Bibliotheken (Report on the State of German Libraries), Deutscher Bibliotheksverband, Berlin.

Lipp, A. (2009), "An integrated digital research environment: DFG perspectives", Library Hi Tech, Vol. 27 No. 4, pp. 496-504.

Wimmer, U. (2009), "What do higher education management and administration expect of library benchmarking? Results of a workshop on BIX – the Library Index for Academic Libraries in Germany", Performance Measurement and Metrics, Vol. 10 No. 2, pp. 116-121.


Some information on particular libraries was taken from "German Libraries: A Portrait", website produced by the Goethe Institute,