The Genealogy of a Collection: Working with Manuscript Library Catalogues

From Firenze University Press Journal: Cromohs

University of Florence
3 min readJun 23, 2021

Joëlle Weis, Herzog August Library Wolfenbüttel

In 1773 Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, at that time librarian of the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, criticised his predecessors of only being interested in the history of the library’s augmentation, of the library’s „genealogy“. According to the famous writer, former librarians were so fixated on the catalogues that they forgot the real purpose of telling a collection’s history: showing how it contributed to scholarship. Of course, Lessing has a point, the history of a collection and its holding institution should not be told simply by enumerating objects, but he might have underestimated the potential of catalogues and book lists as sources for the history of scholarship, indeed the history of knowledge.

Library catalogues should not only be seen as valuable sources for the reconstruction of an as-is state of the library at a specific moment of the collection’s life but that a much broader perspective can be taken. Using the example of the Wolfenbüttel manuscript catalogues dating from the mid-17th to the 18th century, the catalogues can be read as behavioural guidelines, as an instrument for representation, as a witness for scholarly practices or as legal papers. Just as for literary documents, they invite to read between the lines, to analyse their specific style as well as to discover the different communicative strategies and hidden messages. Using Lessing’s image, the catalogues help with the composition of an enhanced genealogy, positioning every item into a network of objects, texts, practices, and ideas.

Already in the early days of his service as librarian of the ducal library in Wolfenbüttel, Gotthold Ephraim Lessing developed a plan for a publication containing the ‘treasures’ of the library’s collection. In the introduction to the first issue, he explained his intentions to document the great merits of the library, whose books had served scholars for generations. Lessing criticised his predecessors for being interested only in the history of the library’s augmentation, or of the library’s ‘genealogy,’ as he put it. According to the famous writer, the prior librarians had been so focused on the catalogues that they ignored the real purpose of telling the collection’s history: to show how it had contributed to scholarship. Much like some critics today, Lessing found genealogical research too unimaginative.Indeed, using book lists as sources to write an institution’s history or a scholarly biography was not a new approach in the eighteenth century. The contents of private libraries were considered valuable evidence of the interests of their owners and were hence widely used by authors of historia literaria. Such approaches are still widespread, and, mainly owing to digital methods, library reconstructions have experienced a real boom in recent years.5These days, historians and literary scholars are more interested than ever in book ownership as they try to discover the focal points of collections and deduce the scholarly or intellectual ambitions of private libraries.


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