© BSB/H.-R. Schulz

A visit to the book. Discovering the secrets of the stacks

If you are curious where books are actually kept at the Stabi, you have an opportunity to pay them a visit several times a year.

Books by the kilometre

Most of the books of the Stabi simply cannot be gotten hold of directly – particularly when they are old, rare or valuable. The reason is that – in contrast to many other libraries – the Staatsbibliothek is a closed-access library. This is hardly surprising, for if all users were wandering about the storage rooms, the so-called stacks, in search of one in over 10 million books, this would result in a right muddle soon. If you are interested in a first-hand experience of the atmosphere of kilometres of bookshelves, you can come visit our stacks several times a year, on Friday afternoons, guided by our expert staff. Our specialists will then take interested visitors on a tour of the realm of the books.

The start of the visit is not very spectacular: While we meet the tour participants at the bottom of the grand staircase, the tour will actually start at a nondescript back entrance. But then, the magic words “Open Sesame!” will open this door to the great world of books. The dimensions of the Stabi stacks are impressive. A bit of a distance needs to be covered on foot on this tour. The main stacks alone extend over the entire east side of the Stabi building, over seven floors. Sprint world champion Usain Bolt could easily use the 150 m long floors for his training.

Taking a look around, visitors will see a historical book trolley. This "Snow White's coffin" accommodates a number of old, tattered and scorched books. We explain why: In the Second World War, bombing raids set fire to the Stabi. Along with the building, a quarter of the book holdings were reduced to ashes, almost 500,000 books. A photo documentation on the wall also shows this impressively.

But what about the beautiful old books you have come to see? You will catch sight of them when we take you to the folio stacks. There they are, the really fantastic, old treasures – volumes as thick as a span, bound in pigskin, with and without clasps. Here, you will also learn why we still use the term "aufschlagen" – to knock open – in German for opening a book. This is what we are going to demonstrate live: The book clasps used to be under tension, and you had to whack them with your fist to open them.

Recycling in Renaissance

We use a different book to show that the idea of reusability was topical already several centuries ago: The book is wrapped in a parchment manuscript. Having the appearance of a modern cover design, the remains of another book were simply re-used expediently. Paper and parchment were too expensive at the time to simply be thrown away.

Walking along the folio shelves, many book lovers even feel shivers running down their spines: For example, there are the complete, original works of the famous physician Paracelsus! A quick glance to the left lets you discover the only remaining specimen of a Luther edition worldwide, a few metres further there is a breviary of the 17th century. It becomes clear here why the Stabi is world-famous for its old stock.

In the next room, there are rows of cardboard boxes marked with blue and red dots that contain books. These boxes accommodate books that suffer from acid deterioration and are waiting for deacidification treatment or have already undergone treatment. The library has an extra department taking care of damaged books, the Institute of Conservation. The only kind of bookworms welcome at the Stabi is the users looking for reading matter!

A cosmos of books

The tour shows that the library's collections are multifarious and manifold: There is not only material for millions of hours of reading. There are also books of all sizes. The smallest ones are about as high as a thumb, the largest one, a book about medical anatomy, is higher and wider than an employee, who presents it. With respect to content, Amazon & Co. are no match for the Stabi at all. There is simply everything: The Staatsbibliothek does not only collect famous first editions from five centuries in accordance with its academic mandate. A tour of the stacks also reveals the colourful paperback covers of cook books, travel guides and comic books: At the same time, the Stabi is the archive for everything published in Bavaria and has to preserve these works for posterity as well.

Time seems to stand still in the stacks with the centuries-old collections and the stories surrounding them. And yet, the tour of the stacks is already almost over – passing much too quickly for most of the participants. Along the way, they have learnt many a thing worth knowing from their guides: Why books used to be stacked in barrels in former times. What a book cradle is good for. Why octavo and quarto are important terms not only for musicians. – Are you curious for the answers? Then join one of our tours "Behind the scenes of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek". We will provide you with the answers. And tell you much more. – By the way: There is no need to book your visit to the book – the guided tours on Friday afternoons are free of charge. The current dates can be found on our website.

... And in case you do not wish to wait that long: Here are some of the visual highlights of the tour of the stacks.

Further information:
Dates for touristic guided tours

Picture credits header image:
Touristic guided tours | © BSB/H.-R. Schulz