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portal: Libraries and the Academy 1.4 (2001) 445-453

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Academics Abroad: Conducting Scholarly Research in German Libraries 1

Dale Askey

Imagine this scenario: you travel all the way to Berlin to use library materials unavailable in North America. Upon arriving at the Staatsbibliothek in Berlin, you dutifully fill out a batch of sixteen paper request slips for books you need. Upon returning the next day to pick up the books--and already feeling inconvenienced by the delay--you go to the pickup desk and hand the attendant your library ID. The attendant goes to the shelf where the books should be, briefly glances at it, and then walks back to the counter and tells you that the books are not there and you will have to resubmit the slips. You politely ask if it is possible that the books are simply mislaid on the shelf, to which the attendant unflinchingly replies no. After walking away, seething with anger, you gather up your nerve, return to the desk, get a different attendant, and demand to know where you can lodge a complaint. This new attendant, having witnessed the previous trans-action, calmly takes your ID, walks back to the same shelf, takes a small step to the left and picks up your books and brings them to you. This scene should not be difficult to visualize; it actually occurred.

Any researcher accustomed to American libraries, and who has attempted to work in a German library, perhaps can empathize with this experience. Closed stacks, obtuse [End Page 445] card catalogs, a lack of expert reference assistance, indifferent customer service, and a host of restrictive policies place barriers between researchers and the materials they seek. While the significant collections of both great scholarly and material value held by German libraries tantalize researchers and lure them to Germany with the promise of unique resources, the barriers confound those who would venture into these sacred halls. It's a simple dilemma: one travels all the way to Germany for these materials, only to stand in the library without a clue as to how to coax them out of the cellar. If one understands and appreciates the philosophical differences between German and American libraries, however, it is possible to negotiate these and conduct efficient research.

My wife Jennifer, a Ph.D. candidate in German Literature, and I recently returned from Berlin, Germany after a year of research in German libraries. Our experiences with the policies and practices of the libraries in which we worked were rather disturbing. As an academic librarian, it was difficult to imagine that my frustration with German libraries stemmed from my shortcomings as a researcher. While in Berlin I had even taken courses in German librarianship at the Humboldt University in a deliberate effort to familiarize myself with German library practices. Upon reflection, however, it did occur to me that while my skills were mostly in order, my expectations were perhaps unrealistic. Furthermore, I simply failed to take into account the philosophy under which most German academic libraries operate and how vastly it differs from its American counterpart. Jennifer, while not a librarian, is well versed in locating and obtaining obscure materials in North America. Her frustration with the research process in Germany demonstrated that visiting scholars who have no training in German library practice might not fare well on a research trip to Germany.

The Difficulties with German Libraries

Not long after our return, an American scholar of German Studies sent an e-mail message to the "Women in German" mailing list (of which Jennifer is a member) asking for advice on using German libraries during an upcoming research trip. Seeing an opportunity to pass on painfully learned lessons, I wrote a brief description of some of the major obstacles she would face. The brief remarks evolved into a cathartic discussion about German libraries.

The rather polemical discussion focused on three major areas. The first of these is the lack, in Germany, of reference librarians of the type commonly found in the United States. American libraries and library schools...


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