Thursday, March 12, 2009

Thoughts on Cologne

I somehow missed an interesting commentary that appeared last week in the English-language section of Die Welt's Web site. The popular and official attitudes toward archives that Hildegard Stausberg identifies are by no means unique to Germany:
There are certain words that tend not to engage very much sympathy in a person, and "archive" has traditionally been one of them. It is generally associated with something dried out and perhaps a little dull. Could it be that the collapse of the Cologne city archives building will mark a change in this mentality in Germany?
Noting that "the narrowing of German history to the twelve revolting years of Nazi rule" is yielding to a fuller understanding of the nation's past, Stausberg highlights how the holdings of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne contributed to this development:
Heinrich Böll’s original school grades, the birth records of Konrad Adenauer, the scores of Jacques Offenbach, Sulpiz Bisserée’s Cathedral designs, the diary of the 16th Century alderman Heinrich von Weinsheim were all buried in the rubble. Merely the example of the Cologne “Schreinsbücher”(business records of plots of land) allow a glimpse at the scope of Cologne’s city history within the larger narrative of Germany; the records were a predecessor to land registration and therefore belong to the foundation of German law. And it only becomes clear in the instant that it disappears that the ruin of the largest city archive north of the Alps wasn’t only significant locally: Cologne’s catastrophe has European dimensions.
All too often, historical records really aren't missed or thought about until they've been lost or destroyed. I suspect that many Cologne residents who gave little thought to the Historical Archive while it was still standing are starting to realize that their city has suffered a staggering blow, and that many other people throughout Germany and the rest of Europe are beginning to grasp the enormity of what just happened.

We archivists have always tried to convey to the public, in plain and viscerally affecting terms, the importance of historical records and the cultural, legal, and economic losses that occur when archives are destroyed. As Stausberg points out, the disaster in Cologne may help to make the case for us:
What lessons can we take away from such a tragedy? The ruling school of thought in the Federal Republic of Germany has so far operated on the assumption that something stored in a distinguished city archive is safe – but the war generation [which kept the city's records safe despite heavy Allied bombing] certainly didn’t see things that way. Archivists and restorers will certainly do more work to document the treasures in future, both within Germany and abroad; copies of some sort will have to be made.
These are good, broadly applicable lessons, and the cost of learning them has been horrifically high. We should strive to reinforce them whenever possible.

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