The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 8
Dec 1996

Interview with National Librarian of Germany, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann

This interview was originally published in Der Spiegel, and was translated by Hans Rütimann for publication in the Newsletter of the Commission on Preservation and Access, Feb. 1997. It is reprinted here without modification (except for the title), from the CPA Newsletter for February 1997.

The German weekly Der Spiegal (5l/1996) published an article in December 1996 with the title "The Last Cathedrals," introduced as follows: "Paris, London, Frankfurt-in three European cities new national libraries will soon be in operation. Critics see these big buildings as obsolete temples of knowledge and put their faith in electronic networks. But even in the future, the cultural memory will require paper that needs to be collected in easily recognizable buildings."

Following the article is an interview by the magazine's editors with Board member Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, National Librarian of Germany, entitled "Books Do Have Advantages." The interview, held in Lehmann's office in Die Deutsche Bibliothek, covers a range of issues. Examples of the questions-and-answers follow.

Q. Why does a dying medium require such temples?

A. This building is not a temple. Did you approach it in a solumn mood? This should be a place of work. And as far as the dying medium is concerned: Of our 300,000 acquisitions per year, about 2-3,000 are in digital form. Everything else continues to arrive in printed form. This ratio will change very slowly, if at all.

Q. Even though, the challenge is here. How do you plan to deal with it?

A. Those who insist that the dissemination of knowledge should be exclusively digital are not considering the reader. I am in favor of choice. Of course, the new medium will be added, but one has to consider the advantages of the book. Significantly, the Internet is used primarily by researchers with pressures for timely information, who work internationally, live widely dispersed, and know English as a research language.

Q. You are obviously not a "Media-thekar," but remain a "Biblio-thekar."

A. Yes. Networks cannot replace the library. Networks are only for dissemination. There has to be a source somewhere. Of course, we will work differently than in the past. In the future, books and collections can be dispersed all over the world and the librarian selects them with the help of digital search mechanisms. What remains is the basic principle of order. Librarians have to master the chaos.

Q. Electronics is supposedly the storage medium of the future. Some years ago, many were still committed to microfilm as a storage medium.

A. This is still the case today. Silver film is not a dead-end street, but the most reliable storage medium-better than magnetic tape or CD/ROMs, which last only about 50 years. For example, we are preserving newspapers and periodicals on film or fiche. The image of a page can at any time be scanned and used digitally.

Q. Are some of your colleagues too quick to adopt the newest technologies?

A. In many ways, there is too great a rush. If you change the medium, you have to be careful not to discard the old collections. Digital networks are not wonder drugs for all our problems.

Q. Is preservation your major concern?

A. A very important one, as you can tell from our efforts to deacidify paper and now also to strengthen it. These efforts prolong the life of a book by a factor of seven. A book with a life span of 80 years will now last 560 years.

Q. And your library will become an old-age home for rare information?

A. It's unavoidable. The digital age is taking us out of the frying pan into the fire. Software is changing every five to eight years. The Internet is even worse. Imagine that someone published an article on the Net. Many have read it and cited the work. Then the author deletes the text and you can no longer find the source. We have to do something about that, perhaps with a form of authentication of the original. We have to preserve the original. After all, we are protecting intellectual property.

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