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„A Window to the World – Libraries as Depository of History and Cultural Market Place“

Remarks by Consul General Walter Stechel at the International Day in the context of the Opening of the new building for the Kowentarios city library in Kozani.

Remarks by Consul General Walter Stechel at the International Day in the context of the Opening of the new building for the Kowentarios city library in Kozani, © www.kozlib.gr

09.10.2018 - Rede

Remarks by Consul General Walter Stechel at the International Day in the context of the Opening of the new building for the Kowentarios city library in Kozani.

Kalisperasas, kyrie demarche, kyries kai kyrii,
Good afternoon ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for the kind invitation to address you today, at this opening of the library of Kozani. Since first reading about the amazing holdings of this library, since first seeing pictures of the very impressive building, I was looking forward to coming to Kozani and experiencing the library.

I feel a bit humbled by the task of speaking to you on libraries. I am neither a librarian nor an archivist. I am a diplomat but also a lover of books and a user of libraries. Let me therefore share with you some thoughts from this perspective.

In the title of my speech I am talking of a depository of memories and a cultural market place. Let me elaborate.

Lord Samuel is quoted as saying: “A library is thought in cold storage.” You can look at this quotation from two perspectives. One is the physical conservation of our knowledge. Just as we preserve food in a freezer, we protect knowledge in libraries and archives. We assure the right temperature for books, manuscripts and documents. We restore them, deacidify them and restrict access to the most valuable of them. Only because of this care can we look at all those wonderful manuscripts that take us back in time hundreds of years.

Throughout history efforts were made to compile and protect knowledge in libraries. The most famous example is certainly the library of Alexandria. But it is also the most infamous example. Its destruction during the Roman conquest of the city basically deleted the accumulated knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean. Destruction of libraries and archives has been a recurring desaster in history. In 1204 the Imperial library of Constantinoples was destroyed in the course of the 4th crusade. Fifty years later, on February 13, 1258, the Mongols entered Baghdad and destroyed the House of Wisdom.It is said that the books from Baghdad’s libraries were thrown into the Tigris River in such quantities that the river ran black with the ink from the books. During the First World War, on August 25, 1914, the famous library of the University of Leuwen, Belgium, was destroyed by German troops, with its about 300,000 books, about 1000 incunabula  and a huge collection of manuscripts. It is important to note that this breach of a cultural taboo contributed to international agreements on the protection of cultural heritage in conflict.

We are constantly busy to protect and restore what remains. During the German occupation of Greece, German soldiers not only killed innocent civilians, they also destroyed and burned houses, churches and - books. These books did not include spectacular manuscripts or valuable first editions. With their handwritten notes on the life and history of a village, they were, however, part of the memory of a community. The German government therefore readily agreed to finance out of the German-Greek Future fund the restauration of the remaining, damaged books of the church library of Lechovo, a Martyr village located between Amindeo and Kastoria. I could very well imagine that the library of Kozani could lead in documenting and help in preserving the book holdings that are kept in the villages and churches of Western Macedonia. The results of such a project could be presented in an exhibition that would yield, I am convinced, interesting and important results. The German government would be open to cooperating in such a project just as we funded the restauration of the Lechovo books.

The importance of the books of Lechovo for the local community already took me from the physical dimension of libraries as “thought in cold storage” to their social dimension. Memory and the passing on of knowledge may be the decisive characteristic of civilization, maybe even the equivalent of civilization. In initial stages of civilization, oral transmission of knowledge may have been appropriate and sufficient – songs and recitals transmitted myths and created identity, parents educated their children in technical and social skills. There were, however, limits to individual memories that script helped us to overcome. The compilation of written knowledge in libraries relieved us of the reliance on unreliable individual memories – no doubt creating new physical threats to the stored knowledge. But committing memories and thoughts to the cold storage of archives and libraries also relieves us of the necessity of constantly memorizing and thus reliving our past. The past is there, it is accessible, but it is not constantly haunting us. Destroying libraries or archives is therefore so much worse because it destroys the part of our memory that we committed to a depository. It may be lost forever – and with it part of our personal and social identity. Destroying the memory and cultural fabric of societies has actually been a conscious aspect of wars and conquest throughout history. This is, again, why we felt so much obliged to restore the books of Lechovo. These books are part of the memories of the people of Lechovo and their community. They committed their memories to notes and marginals in church books, hoping to pass them on to future generations in this way. By preserving what was left we tried to help in transmitting at least part of these memories.

Committing memory to script and script to library is not a one-way street. This brings me to the second part of my thoughts. What use has an archive, what use has a library if we do not use it, if we do not defreeze and consume the cold-stored thoughts? There are, however, two kinds of consumers. One kind is the member of the community that has put its memories into cold storage for safekeeping and future consumption. The second type of consumer are we, all the users of a library. We not only retrieve the memories of our community but the knowledge of the world. The library therefore becomes to its users a window to the world and a cultural market place. The citizens of Kozani can access knowledge on different places, distant times and foreign people. Without this access we would lack understanding and empathy for our fellow human beings elsewhere. Without remembering the past with the aid of libraries and archives we would be condemned to relive it, as George Santayana famously put it. Without knowledge of our common European past and heritage we will not be able to create the narrative that will help us shape our common European future.  The new library here in Kozani is indeed an ideal location for any effort to create a European identity. It offers a wonderful venue for bringing together readers and intellectuals from different countries to discuss and understand the history and cultural heritage of Northern Greece and the Balkans and their relevance for Europe’s identity. I would be happy to explore with you possibilities of supporting and funding such projects.

Expanding on the traditional task of any library, the new library of Kozani could, no should!, also make available to the citizens and readers of the region books from and on the nations of Europe. Together with the Goethe Institute in Thessaloniki I would like to enter into a dialogue with the library on a core set of books and media that will help in understanding Germany, its history and culture, but also the history of German Greek relations. My reference to the books of Lechovo shows the wounds and scars that we have to understand and deal with.

Let me close with a few personal words. Throughout my life I have loved books and I definitely continue to love them. They opened the world to me and helped me to understand it. I therefore feel very passionately about the need for libraries. Or, to quote my sister, who said as a child: “If I knew that there was a library in heaven, I would immediately die.” Since we have no confirmation that there is indeed a library up there, let’s use the libraries on earth!

I therefore wish the library of Kozani the best of luck and success in its important mission – and certainly the passionate support and funding that are necessary for fulfilling its tasks as cold storage for thought and cultural market place. I can only assure you that I will be open to your ideas and suggestions on how I can help you in making the library of Kozani a cultural center that radiates into the immediate and wider region.

Thank you very much!
Evcharisto para poli! 

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