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Redefining Order in the German Library, 1775-1825

From: Eighteenth-Century Studies
Volume 33, Number 1, Fall 1999
pp. 103-123 | 10.1353/ecs.1999.0049

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Eighteenth-Century Studies 33.1 (1999) 103-123


For all its pregnancy as an image in Western thought and literature, the library, as a real existing site of memory, order, and meaning creation, is commonly overlooked in the framework of cultural-historical studies. This omission is unfortunate, since, as Roger Chartier observes, "no 'order of discourse' is separable from the 'order of books' with which it is contemporaneous." Indeed, to use the categories Foucault introduced in The Order of Things, the library spatializes some of our most important cultural discourses, in particular those of general grammar and natural history. But the reverse of Chartier's dictum is true, too: the order of books cannot be understood without reference to the order of discourse of which it is both a part and an expression. This broader consciousness could guide the work of library historians, but it rarely does. Instead, students of library history seem to cultivate by choice a theory-free antiquarianism in treatments of their topic. Perhaps the astonishing fecundity of the library as a topos in modern literature, from Musil to Eco, is an attempt to create an alternative venue for a discussion that cultural historians and library historians alike have been reluctant to undertake.

In this essay I hope to address this deficit by applying a Foucauldian "archaeological" approach to the history of German libraries between 1775 and 1825, the period in which Foucault situates a fundamental epistemic rupture, "certainly one of the most radical that ever occurred in Western culture," which brought about "the dissolution of the positivity of Classical knowledge," and the constitution of "another positivity from which, even now, we have doubtless not entirely emerged" (OT, 220). This approach first requires a description of the very different "system of positivities" (OT, xxii) that European and therefore also German libraries embodied through the end of the eighteenth century. Against this background, then, we can begin to examine the manifestations of a new order of thought -- the new episteme -- in the way libraries came to be organized. To concretize this discussion, I will focus on a single German library for which the historical record is especially rich: the Hofbibliothek, or court library, in the Bavarian capital of Munich. This microstudy will show the painful disengagement of this library from the "space of representation," where it had become increasingly comfortable during the preceding two centuries, and its redefinition as a space that was "no longer that of identities and differences," but instead "of organic structures, that is, of internal relations between elements whose totality performs a function" (OT, 218). Perhaps for no other European library can the ultimately successful struggle to introduce a new bibliographical (and hence epistemological) order be so clearly documented as in Munich, a distinction largely due to the copious diaries and chronicles kept by Martin Schrettinger (1772-1851), a Benedictine monk and librarian who brought a reception of Kant to bear on the problems of knowledge organization in libraries, and whose theories, from 1814 on, were actually implemented.

The Library of the Classical Age: The Visuality of Order

In his Museographia of 1727, Kaspar Friedrich Neickel offered up the following description of a contemporary German library -- in this case the city library of Hamburg: On one side of the library hall (he writes) stood large wooden cabinets with glass doors through which visitors could see, in roughly the following order, rows of human and animal skeletons, taxidermically prepared fish, snakes preserved in spirits, snails, various marine organisms, rock specimens, the head of a walrus and of a peacock, samples of fragrant woods, urns, funerary lamps, a specimen of human skin (tanned), surgical, mathematical, and physical instruments, a metal burning mirror, and two globes. On the other side of the hall stood the repositories for books. On the columns that supported a level of galleries, portraits of scholars were hung. A long table with chairs was set up in the middle of the hall for the comfort of the public.

Other libraries in Germany of the age were not much different. In the city library of Nürnberg, for example, books and manuscripts were displayed next to the drinking cup and black satin cap...

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