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Frank Augstein/AP
The scene of a collapsed archive building in downtown Cologne.

What Does the Cologne Building Collapse Mean for the Future of Archive Preservation?

March 05, 2009 02:30 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
With a massive Cologne archives building in ruins, the world turns its attention to digital preservation projects and innovative library restoration efforts.

Cologne Starts From Scratch

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In Cologne, Germany, a six-story building that housed a significant portion of cultural archives collapsed yesterday within three minutes. Among the documents were drafts and papers of Nobel prize-winning writer Heinrich Böll, and Karl Marx’s 19th century manuscripts, according to The Times of London. Police searched for survivors with dogs while engineers tried to figure out why the building collapsed. Preliminary reports blame nearby subway construction as the cause of the building’s collapse.

According to Deutsche Welle, the building was the “largest municipal archives north of the Alps,” and was stocked with “65,000 original documents dating from the year 922.” But there is hope for restoration: There are already about 20 archivists at work on the site, and thousands of “microfilm duplications of the material archived in Cologne” had previously been transferred to a second location in the Black Forest.
The catastrophe will undoubtedly challenge German archivists and librarians, but could also reveal new methods of restoration. UNESCO lists audio and visual archives that were lost or destroyed in the 20th century, dating back to 1904 when a fire destroyed Italy’s National Library at the University of Torino. Past archive losses could provide insight for Germany, and university libraries could come to Cologne’s aid, as they have in Bosnia and Iraq.

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Related Topic: Libraries destroyed in wartime

After war destroyed a university library in Sarajevo, the University of Michigan organized a revival project led by a “working group on southeast European studies.” The group gathered nearly 3,000 works on Bosnia and Herzegovina from the University of Michigan libraries and presented the items to university officials in Sarajevo. Dr. Robert Donia, a University of Michigan historian who studied in the Sarajevo library as a graduate student in the 1970s, told Times Higher Education that the building “will never be the same. But the collection itself can substantially be reconstituted with the aid of Bosnia's friends around the world.”

A similar situation occurred in Iraq, when Harvard University spearheaded efforts to restore Iraqi libraries, which have been severely neglected and damaged by years of war. Harvard’s initiative involved training librarians in modern collection preservation and cataloguing methods, helping them to augment and develop their holdings, and teaching them about “online information systems.”

Reference: Digital preservation

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