An Alaskan Librarian (and New WESS Member) Visits Humboldt University

WESS Newsletter

Fall 2015, Vol. 39, No. 1

In June 2015 I had the opportunity to visit Humboldt University while on vacation in Berlin, Germany. I’ve always wanted to see this university, whose alumni, professors, and lecturers include Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels, Max Planck, W.E.B. Du Bois, Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, and many more notable scholars. My last visit to Berlin was in 1984 when I was a high school student, and I vividly remember the Berlin Wall, the East German border guards with their rifles, and my overall impression of awe mixed with a little fear. It was an incredible feeling to be able to explore the east side of Berlin and to walk freely back and forth across the Spree River, which I did multiple times.

I made arrangements to have a tour of the main university library, the Jakob und Wilhelm Grimm Zentrum (Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm Center). I was very fortunate to have a great tour guide, Matthias Harbeck, who is the subject librarian for Ethnology, Folklore Studies, and Social Anthropology. Although I speak some German, I chickened out and chose English when Matthias asked if I would prefer the tour in German or English.

The award-winning Grimm Center, which was completed in 2009, was designed by Swiss architect Max Dudler. Much of the private library of Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm is housed in the Center’s Special Collections. I had learned that the Grimm Center was modeled after American university library service models and found many similarities between the Center and the University of Alaska Anchorage/Alaska Pacific University Consortium Library, where I work.

The Grimm Center is open to the general public—any German resident over 16 can register for a library card and borrow materials. As you enter the library, the two-story foyer is lined with stand-up OPAC stations and there is also an information/circulation desk. All materials are RFID-tagged and the library uses self-checkout stations, an automated book return system, and an electronic kiosk for secure self-serve holds pickup. There is a separate support desk for computer and media questions. No bags or backpacks are allowed into the main part of the library and lockers are available to store personal items. Cubbies are also available for students to store library materials if they are not done using them. The central reading room, which is actually spread over multi-level tiers and is architecturally stunning, is only available to university students and not to the general public. There is also a separate reading room for parents with small children, complete with a ball pit!

The Grimm Center contains about two million print volumes and is dedicated to expanding its electronic holdings. The Center also has a mandate to retro-convert catalog data from its older collections and to digitize selected materials, including unique materials from the former German Democratic Republic (GDR). The book stacks are arranged symmetrically around a central building axis and each floor is divided into sections. In addition to its call number, an item will have a location code, such as 3.0G, which means it will be located on the 3rd floor in section G.

The Grimm Center has been very popular, seeing around 5000 visitors per day. Such popularity also brings challenges. Although there are over 1200 study spaces, students often have a hard time finding a place to work. There are often not enough lockers to accommodate student needs. Group study rooms are also in high demand. Library staff also face challenges in balancing the provision of resources to university students and to the general public, including an increasing homeless population using the library.

As is the case with many architectural designs, aesthetics and practical functionality don’t always coincide. Matthias explained many of the challenges of the design of the new building. There are two information desks situated symmetrically on each floor, but in reality only one of the desks is staffed and some floors are not staffed at all. There was also no signage in the building, and although Matthias noted that “no one reads signs,” they needed to do something to help with wayfinding. The traditional reference desk on the first floor is tucked back behind some pillars, and I didn’t even know it was there until Matthias pointed it out. A very nice outdoor events/reception patio was built on the top floor, but you need to go through the secure Special Collections area to get to the restrooms.

In addition to the tour of the Grimm Center, I also arranged a meeting with the director of the library school at Humboldt University, Dr. Michael Seadle. (Thank you to WESS member, Gordon Anderson, for the suggestion.) The Institut für Bibliotheks- und Informationswissenschaft (Berlin School of Library and Information Science) or the IBI, for short, is a member of the international iSchool caucus, a collective of 25 information schools from around the world. Dr. Seadle is currently the chair of the iCaucus and is also a WESS member. We had a great conversation about LIS education in the U.S. and Germany.

I thoroughly enjoyed my visit to Humboldt University and am looking forward to learning more about the libraries and the library profession in Germany.

Humboldt University Library
ArchDaily Article with Additional Photos
Berlin School of Library and Information Science

Christie Ericson
Electronic Resources Librarian
Library Liaison to the Department of Languages
UAA/APU Consortium Library
University of Alaska Anchorage