Iconic books are texts revered as objects of power rather than just as words of instruction, information, or insight. In religious and secular rituals around the globe, people carry, show, wave, touch and kiss books and other texts, as well as read them. This blog chronicles such events and activities. (For more about iconic books, see the links to the Iconic Books Project at left.)

Friday, March 6, 2009

Cologne's Archives Collapse

Spiegel reported Tuesday on the sudden collapse of the building housing the city of Cologne's archives:

Disaster struck in Cologne on Tuesday, as the building housing the city's Historical Archive suddenly collapsed. According to city officials, two people are officially missing and believed dead. And hundreds of firefighters were on the scene Wednesday looking for survivors as Cologne historians and archivists mourned the apparent destruction of Germany's largest municipal archive.

... Cologne's archives are one of the only collections in Germany to have survived World War II completely intact. Because of Cologne's long history, much of its heritage was stored locally rather than in a state archive.

Cologne's history goes back more than 2000 years, when it was the Roman city of Colonia. In the Middle Ages, the city's prime spot along the Rhine River made it one of northern Europe's trading powerhouses, part of the Hanseatic League and a gateway between France and Germany. The Historical Archives contained extensive documentation from the city's Hanseatic period, as well as the archives of other Hanseatic League members, invaluable for historians looking at Europe's economic development.

The sheer numbers -- in total, the building had more than 18 kilometers of shelves -- reflect the rich history of what was once Germany's largest metropolis. The archive's collection of original documents included thousands from Cologne's golden age. The founding charter of the University of Cologne, signed in 1388, was inside, along with the documents that established Cologne as a free imperial city under Emperor Friedrich III in 1475. Two of the four manuscripts in the hand of Albertus Magnus, considered the greatest German theologian of the Middle Ages, were kept in the archive's rare books collection.

For historians trying to reconstruct the past, the greatest loss may be the more quotidian papers: Tens of thousands of receipts issued by the city government between 1350 and 1450, for example, or the 358 volumes of decisions and minutes of the Cologne City Council dating back 700 years.

The archives also contained the personal papers of almost 800 prominent German authors, politicians and composers, including Konrad Adenauer, the first post-war chancellor of Germany. The manuscripts and letters of Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll and Jacques Offenbach, a 19th century cellist and opera composer, were stored at the archive. Weimar Republic politician Wilhelm Marx and German-Jewish composer Ferdinand Hiller were among the other notables whose collections have been buried under tons of concrete. "These are fragile papers, that are now ground to dust," Illner told the daily.

... There may be no way to recover the lost collections. Large parts of the pre-1945 documents were put on microfilm and stored in a bunker in the Black Forest, but according to Illner the microfilm is of poor quality. And the post-war collections -- including records from the Cologne Art Association used to track the provenance of artworks -- have no back-up at all.

From the outside, the Historical Archive certainly looked indestructible. The bunker-like concrete structure was built in 1971, with a raw concrete façade and slit-like windows. Designers hoped the mass of concrete would keep the temperature inside constant without expensive air conditioning systems, an archive design that became known as the "Cologne model."

... The collapse may be connected with the construction of a new subway line under the street out in front of the archive.

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