2012 Oxford Conference on the Secularization of Monastic Libraries

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2012, Vol. 36, No. 1


My 1998–99 WESS Nijhoff grant funded a trip to Munich to research the end of monastic libraries in Bavaria in the early 1800s, along with the impact the ensuing flood of monastic books had on the library landscape of Europe. Of less interest to me then was the value of the individual artifacts, e.g., the Carmina Burana manuscript confiscated by Bavarian officials in the abbey of Benediktbeuern. Instead, what interested me most was the transformation the events of those years had on theories of library organization. Traditional early modern librarianship, based on the visual order of books and the memoria localis of the librarian, completely failed to cope with this early instance of information glut. In scenarios worthy of Borges, several prominent librarians of the age actually went insane as they were gradually overwhelmed by hundreds of thousands of monastery books. In Munich, I was able to study the diaries of the Benedictine monk Martin Schrettinger (1772–1851), personal librarian to the Bavarian minister Maximilian von Montgelas—and the inventor of what he called (and we have called since) “library science.” This research was captured in several articles I published over the following years, most of them listed on WESSweb.

Scopus records a handful of citations of this research—a good number of of which comprise articles I wrote myself. One respected colleague vigorously attacked my work in an article published in 2006; another used it in connection with the fight to keep the library school at Humboldt University in Berlin open. Still, it became pretty clear that if you’re in it for the fame and the recognition, you should do your best to avoid researching topics in Central European library history of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

Then, though, Oxford called—as I knew someday they would! In early 2011, I received an invitation to speak at a conference organized by the Centre for the Study of the Book at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, on the topic “How the Secularization of Religious Houses Transformed the Libraries of Europe.” The conveners asked me to give the overview presentation on “The Expropriation of Monastic Libraries in Central Europe, 1773–1814.” I never dared ask “why me?” Could it have been my widely overlooked article “Aufhebung im doppelten Wortsinn” published in Hungary in 1999? Or had someone read Eric Garberson’s critical reaction to my work and was looking for a punching bag? Prominent Central European experts on the topic—Elmar Mittler and Bettina Wagner from Germany and Rudolf Gamper from Switzerland—were also invited. Prof. Mittler, well known to WESSies from a variety of joint enterprises, was himself the author of a work that discussed the end of monastic libraries in Baden—and their incorporation into secular libraries, such as that of the University of Freiburg. It was humbling having them in the audience—and commenting critically, but constructively, at the end.

The conference took place at St. Anne’s College in Oxford on three uncommonly warm, sunny days in late March of this year, and the moderators included our hosts, Cristina Dondi and Richard Sharpe, both Oxford medievalists, as well as Kristian Jensen of The British Library. A dazzling array of scholars were invited from all over Europe, from Spain in the far southwest (e.g., María Luisa López-Vidriero Abelló, director of the Royal Library in Madrid) to Poland and the Baltics in the far northeast (Marek Derwich and Marek Wójcik, both of the University of Wroclaw). French and Italian scholars were particularly well represented. Several Americans also spoke, other than myself, including Richard Linenthal, now an antiquarian bookseller in London and earlier the director of Bernard Quaritch Ltd. for 25 years; and William Stoneman, the Florence Fearrington Librarian of Houghton Library at Harvard University.

In the course of the meeting, it became clear that all of bibliothecarian Europe was rocked by the same events: first, the dissolution of the powerful Jesuit order in 1773 and the passage of their scholarly libraries to the state, to universities, and to other orders—chiefly the learned orders of the Benedictines, the Augustinians, the Praemonstratensians, but also others. Second, the French Revolution of 1789 not only flooded the depots littéraires of the state, but also triggered copy-cat confiscations across all of Europe, e.g., in the German states of Baden, Westphalia, and, above all, Bavaria. In between these two events, during the 1780s, Austrian emperor Joseph II conducted his “great remediation” (große Remedur) of hundreds of monasteries across the Habsburg Empire, liquidating many and passing their library assets on to new state libraries or to the university libraries of Innsbruck, Vienna, Bregenz, and elsewhere, which effected seismic changes in the European library landscape.

Biographies of all speakers and abstracts of all papers are available online. A proceedings volume will be published by Brepols in 2013.

It was such a heady and gratifying experience to attend and speak, and I made so many new and valuable contacts. Above all, I can now easily wait another ten or fifteen years for the next indication that someone out there is actually paying attention to my published work.

Jeff Garrett
Associate University Librarian for Special Libraries
Director, Special Collections and Archives
Northwestern University