25 July 2021
The atmosphere at Herzog August Bibliothek on the morning of 22 April 2021 was rather unusual. Certain members of staff could be seen walking around the library holding tablets or smartphones in front of them and speaking loudly into them; others sat in their offices with colourful PowerPoint presentations on their screens. From time to time curious children’s voices could be heard asking questions: ‘Why did Herzog August store his books above the royal stable?’, ‘What happened to Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s wife and child?’, ‘Was the Leibniz biscuit named after Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz?’ – No question remained unanswered.
After the ‘Future Days’, as Germany’s nationwide open days for schools are called, were cancelled completely in 2020, they took place mainly in digital format in 2021. The HAB’s digital programme was just one of the 2,823 digital events offered to 89,454 schoolchildren from years five to ten all over Germany. Following a brief word of welcome to the twelve girls and nine boys by HAB director Professor Peter Burschel, Dr Volker Bauer gave an overview of the history of the library and its present role. The staff then answered general questions. After a short break, the children broke up into smaller groups. The girls were introduced to those areas of the HAB traditionally dominated by men, such as IS, the digital humanities and research. The boys got involved with the restoration workshop, the publications department and the press and public relations team.
The biggest challenge for the staff was to give the schoolchildren a lively insight into their professions and everyday working life at a research institution and library, all presented in a digital format. Creativity was the name of the game here and gave rise to many entertaining communication methods. ‘Generally, of course, it is always better to actually visit the restoration workshop to get a good impression of the materials used, such as leather, parchment, washi, etc. and to gain some hands-on experience helping out with small tasks – but I was pleasantly surprised that a virtual visit to the workshop can also work pretty well,’ said book restorer Marenlise Jonah Hölscher. During the Future Day she got the schoolchildren to fold an origami book with her, thus enabling them to perform a practical task even at a distance. The boys did a digital tour on the iPad to find out what it’s like to work in a restoration workshop.
Meanwhile, two buildings away, Charleen Zander from the manuscripts and special collections department used her smartphone to give three schoolchildren a tour of the library premises. Before that, the girls had participated in a kind of treasure hunt in which they were given quiz questions to solve. In the process they found out a lot about the world of medieval and early modern manuscripts and about how researchers and librarians work.
Another iPad tour took the young visitors to see the IS team, where they were given a virtual tour of the server room. The staff from the press and public relations team, the research department and the department of old prints and printed works presented their everyday work via PowerPoint presentations and a short problem-solving session.
In the area of digital humanities the girls and boys were introduced to the Wolfenbüttel Digital Library and to the manuscripts, prints and graphics collections. Using the Virtual Print Room, Marcus Baumgarten explained to them how to use search techniques and databases. The girls were allowed to try their hand at editorial work and were given the challenging task of deciphering the handwriting in the diary of Prince Christian II of Anhalt-Bernburg (1599–1656). The many names mentioned in this text offered an opportunity to try out another tool: the DLINA (Digital Literary Network Analysis) as a way of searching for protagonists in German-language dramas. The small group focused on the Harry Potter series and examined how the network of characters changed from one book to the next, enabling them to draw conclusions about the plot. To finish, the group created their own network.
Meanwhile, the two children visiting the publications department were quite up front about their motives. They had deliberately chosen this department because they enjoyed writing stories and were interested in becoming journalists. ‘The boys were most interested in the stages in the publication of a book and wanted to know how it reached shops. They were avidly taking notes, so we slowed down the pace a bit, so that they didn’t miss anything. Despite the inevitable technical distance of an on-line meeting, everyone had fun. So we didn’t really notice that we had only met on the screen,’ said Jürgen May and Bianca Verhoef, who led the small group. The schoolchildren concluded their visit by imagining a design for their own book. Maybe one of these books will find its way onto the shelves of the Herzog August Bibliothek in a few years’ time.