The Power of Books

Today I read a story that made me stop and think about the power of a book. Not their potential to garner a love for reading, or give companionship to the lonely (I’m not denying these either), though. It made me think about how a book can spark a conversation, about a number of things besides the context, and bring groups of people together in strange ways.

The article, Mission impossible: German libraries try to return Nazi-looted books (by Polina Garaev, 1/8/2015), talks about German libraries that are exploring the sketchy past of books once ‘donated’, or otherwise, during that notorious era of Adolf Hitler. It describes donations made by the Gestapo, where books (and other items) were forcibly removed from the Jewish people of Germany.

Funding to find the original owners of these books, through surviving ledgers and handwritten notes within the texts themselves, is minimal. Garaev quotes librarian Sebastian Finsterwalder who laments that of the people working on the project “99% of them are volunteers, temp workers, or library workers doing this part time, and that affects the work they can do”.

It is a powerful thought, though. A group of people coming together, out of a sense of social responsibility I suppose.* It is acknowledged in the article that most of the books aren’t worth anything in isolation, but it’s what they represent to the person or relatives from whom the book, belongings, and lives were taken, that is tremendously important. It’s a way of not forgetting the past, not letting the bitter memories and the guilt fade, a way of showing survivors that what happened is recognised.

These unassuming books have had the power of bringing people back to their pasts, of connecting people with the truth about their families, have enabled these conversations to occur, where otherwise they may never have surfaced.

It also demonstrates an interesting intersection between three professions that, in New Zealand at least, currently fall under the ‘Information Studies’ umbrella: the librarian, the archivist, and the records manager. When working in one of these positions it is easy to believe that they exist apart, but this demonstrates the connections that exist. The libraries in Germany housed these books for many years, before exploring and recognising what they were, undertaking this monumental project. They could not have discovered so much without those who created meticulous records of the events, and the people who have archived similar information since, often linking books with people now living overseas.

Much like you can’t fully experience happiness without sadness, you can’t understand the world you live in without having memory and understanding of the past. Whatever conflicting information ideologies exist between the librarian, the archivist, and the records manager, they all work together and need each other. And hopefully value their unique connections.

*Reading this story made me think of a book I recently read, Stasiland: stories from behind the Berlin Wall, by Anna Funder, that covers similar subject matter in relation to volunteers trying to piece together the past (literally). I’ll say no more, other than to encourage everyone to check it out.

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