National library speaks volumes about Germany

Low-key opening for Frankfurt's book palace

It is Germany's answer to the Bibliotheque Nationale or the British Library. Yesterday the German Library - the equivalent of the grandest libraries in Britain and France - moved into its new home.

But there is a difference. While the building of new French and British national libraries has been surrounded with fanfare, the German equivalent was opened yesterday with scarcely a public murmur.

The heap of cubes henceforth to be known as the Deutsche Bibliothek is a fitting monument to timid national ambitions. Modern but less futuristic than its rival in Paris, and nowhere near as expensive as the behemoth on Euston Road, it nevertheless captures the national mood as well its more illustrious counterparts.

It cost less than the equivalent of pounds 100m, and you would have to travel hundreds of miles from the capital to browse through any of its 15 million volumes.

This mecca of German letters is in Frankfurt, capital of books and money and little else.

Berlin boasts an annexe, housing the music collection, and the east German city of Leipzig doubles up as the second German Library, with the same books as Frankfurt, plus a few specialised collections of its own.

This state of affairs would no doubt be regarded in Britain and France as a shambles, and the Leipzig site is certainly an accident of history.

The new building was conceived in 1981 and the architectural plans were approved in the fateful year of re-unification, nine years later.

Leipzig's dowry could not just be carted off to the West, and thus was born this typical German compromise.

The decision to keep the collections away from the centre of political power was deliberate.

"Our French friends have erected their national library in their capital, Paris, centralising all its tasks," said Chancellor Helmut Kohl at yesterday's opening ceremony.

"The new building of the German Library stands in Frankfurt, not in the federal capital. This spatial and organisational structure is a clear recognition of Germany's federal character - a special feature that will not be lost in a united Europe."

That was his cue to ramble on about Europe, about devolution, culture and subsidiarity. Never again did the word "nation" pass his lips. It is just as well, for that would have only provoked yawns in his audience. Klinsmann and Co apart, there is little enthusiasm in Germany for national institutions, most of which have been stripped of all their relevance.

Germans can be fiercely patriotic about their home village or town and they identify strongly with their home regions but above that the Bund - the federal state - is a concept almost as intangible as the European Union, and "nation" a word to be used only sparingly in polite company.

Most real power resides in the 16 Land capitals, each lavishing patronage on opera house, libraries and subsidised theatres. It is doubtful whether most readers in Hamburg or Berlin will ever experience the urge to travel to Frankfurt to look at a book. Fortunately, much of the library's vast database can be accessed on-line.

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