500 gigabytes of history and culture – resources of Elbląg Digital Library as a part of Polish, German and overall European cultural heritage

1. Historical outline

The beginnings of Elbląg Library date back to the year 1601, in which the library of Elbląg Academic Gymnasium (the first school of its kind in Royal Prussia) was founded. The first purchase of the library was a book collection of the deceased Gymnasium rector Thomas Rotus bought due to the funds offered by the City Council. Later on the library stock was expanded by books purchased or bequeathed by former school professors, mayors, priests and other patricians. Historical book plates (a. o. family-crest-book-plate of Andreas Mohrenberg painted in a 16th -century bible called Bible Regia or Bible Plamtiniana. At the beginning of 18th century the book collection got enriched a. o. with works of Martin Kromer and valuable manuscripts and incunabula inherited from the former Elbląg Dominican monastery as well as De revolutionibus of Nicolaus Copernicus and De humani corporis fabrica – a richly illustrated book on human anatomy written by Andreas Vessalius. At that time, Elbląg was a Polish city, being since 1466 a part of so called Royal Prussia – a province arisen from possessions of the Teutonic Order that got under Polish rule on the basis of the second peace of Thorn. Nevertheless, German-speakers dominated among inhabitants (this applied specifically to the highest social class of the city, in other words to the patricians) and relations to German culture were very strong, also due to the fact that Elbląg was a member of Hanseatic League. All of this determined  in an obvious way the character of library stocks.
In September 1772 as a consequence of the first partition of Poland Prussia annexed Elbląg. Hard times for the library came with the Napoleonic era – 1807 Frenchmen occupied Elbląg, transformed library rooms into a field hospital and took a few collection pieces (not only books as the library was also a kind of a museum) away to Paris, from where they were returned 1816.
1846 the library separated from Gymnasium and became a municipal institution. Among library assets from this time is in the first place a collection of Ferdinand Neumann – a pharmacist by background and a passionate historian worth mentioning. The most valuable piece of his collection was the so called Codex Neumannianus, including the oldest code of polish law (unfortunately the manuscript perished during World War II).
In February 1945 the Red Army reached Elbląg. This was a disaster for the whole city, including its library. The rapid offensive of the Soviets prevented the Germans from taking away the book collection, however in the havoc and lawlessness of that times many valuable pieces disappeared or became looted.
After the war the book collection from Elblag library was parted and deposited in a few institutions. The main part of it landed in a University Library of Toruń, however during the dispatching process new losses came about – 18 (!) trunks with the most valuable manuscripts and incunabula disappeared in unclear circumstances.
After the second world war the city authorities made a few tries at reclaiming of the books that ended up partially successfully. Full reclaiming wasn’t possible until 2002 as Elbląg library had already had a renovated seat with appropriately equipped stock rooms. Our library also has a restoration laboratory, thus renovating books instead of only stocking them.

2. Overview of the historical book collection of Elbląg Library with special regard to the oldest, rarest and most interesting collection items

The historical book collection of Elbląg library contains 69 volumes of incunabula incorporating 87 single prints, the oldest of which are three prints from 1473. The largest part of our incunabula collection make up the prints from printeries of Nuremberg, Leipzig and Cologne, there are also several incunabula printed in Venice. The incunabula collection comprises of prints, whose subject matter is religion, among them are three Bibles, including the oldest one printed 1476-1478 by Johann Senseschidt from Nuremberg. Fourteen incunabula of our collection are the only copies in Poland.
Among other old prints is Narratio Prima written by Georg Joachim Rheticus worth mentioning – the first account of Nicolaus Copernicus’ heliocentric theory (the book was lent to be presented on a Berlin exhibition Next door neighbours. Poland-Germany – 1000 years of history in art as well the so called Queen Marys’ Bible that belonged to the wife of Wilhelm the III. Of England. Both of these valuable pieces have been digitized and are available to the commonalty of readers in Elblag Digital Library. The largest group of our old-prints-collection are German-language prints, among prints from 15th and 16th century are Latin prints most numerous though.
Due to their uniqueness manuscripts have e special meaning for every library that can pride itself on having a historical collection. Most of our manuscripts are connected with Elbląg Academic Gymnasium and almost all of them have been already digitized.

3. Digitizing and publishing

2008 Elbląg Library initiated an activity aiming at digitizing and presenting of the historical book collection. A digitizing workshop was founded as well as two electronic catalogues of history and culture of our city – Elbląg Digital Library that provides access to the digitized content of the institutions collection and Elbląg Historical Vortal, a new exposure of which has been recently presented. Elbląg Digital Library works within dLibra system which is the first polish digital library framework and the most popular software of its kind in Poland, used by the majority of public as well as university libraries aspiring to present their stock on the Internet. The software of our Digital Library is installed on three servers, thus optimalizing its efficiency. Almost all of the publications are available as djvu files, other formats like PDF or text file make up less than 1% of the whole digital content. There are 1.700.000 files altogether on our website. Digital objects created as a result of digitizing of an analogue item are provided with descriptive as well as structural and administrative metadata. Since 2013 every publication in Elbląg Digital Library is recognized using OCR (optical character recognition) using ABBYY FineReader 9.0 and digitlab-operating system, still these tools are fallible while dealing with prints older than originating from 19th century.
Our library is equipped with three high-tech scanners, including two flatbed scanners and a half-automatic scanner with a V-shaped cradle that enables scanning materials with an opening angle less than 180º. Besides we have a device ensuring secure data storage (since 2008 the whole digital content is stored as TIFF-files, which is a captive format with a minimum resolution of 400 dpi. Since 2014 the files are archived in a tape library, which is a solution recommended for digital libraries. The majority of hardware at our disposal has been bought thus the funds of Ministry of Culture and National Heritage designated for specific digitizing projects. Currently there are nine staff members employed in Elbląg Digital Library. Three of them are concerned with scanning, the others with linguistic and thematic adaptation of historical materials and edition of digital stocks as well as IT issues.
Our digitization activity has started by scanning of historical stocks belonging to the cultural heritage of the city and the region. Due to the history of Elbląg this collection is a part of a German cultural heritage as well. The collection includes Elbląg periodicals appearing 1790-1941, address books 1820-1933 (incomplete), tourist guides through the city and its surroundings published by the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. Important to mention is also a remarkable collection of prints and manuscripts connected with an Elbląg Gymnasium, including more than ten pupil exercise-books from 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. A separated collection comprises placards and program leaflets of Elbląg Municipal Theatre of 1820-1939. Worth mentioning are also 19th century documents of social life being a reflection of economical, political and cultural situation in the city in this period of time 16-18th century occasional prints honoring e. g. weddings, funerals or becoming a member of the City Council of Elbląg elite representatives. As due to Elbląg Digital Library the access to these materials is now much easier than ever, the circle of their recipients has significantly extended – from historians and book scientists to “common” readers interested in the past of their hometown. An interesting action of translating digitized local from our collection from German into Polish is currently carried on by one of the web portals. As to the nationality of the users of Elbląg Digital Library we keep statistics indicating that the Germans being 20% of our visitors are – after the Poles – the second largest group of the recipients of our digital stocks.
The choice of the materials that are to be scanned and digitized as first has been motivated not only by the local patriotism but also by the fact that they’re printed on acidic paper which is weak, flimsy, yellowing and crumbly. In this regard digitization can be seen as a way of passive protection of historical book collections as creating of an digital copy of an object protects its content from perishing. It’s also important to add that digitization activity is carried on in a close cooperation with our restoration lab-team, who help to select books which are to be scanned and digitized, taking into account their state of preservation.
Currently within its ordinary activity Elbląg Digital Library conducts digitization a. o. German periodicals from 18th, 19th and the first half 20th century as well as German calendars and almanacs from this time period. Many of them have not been made available by any other European digital library so far, although the uniqueness is not the main factor to influence the selection as it is important to bear in mind that in the case of historical book collection we come across some historical ownership signs, handwritten notes or book bindings that make every copy single and unique. These additional elements are often more valuable than a book itself or at least more interesting for some groups of scientists.
Our ordinary digitization activity is accompanied by the projects donated by the Ministry of Cultural and National Heritage as well as the National Audiovisual Institute.
Within these projects we have digitized a. o. 16-17th century Polonica. These prints are a part of Polish as well as German cultural heritage – Polish due to their subject matter and German because of the language, the author or the publishing place.
These projects allow us to raise money for a special equipment which is a very expensive one and for temporary engaging of professionals like Latin specialists.
This year we are involved in a project co-financed by National Audiovisual Institute which aim is to digitize thirty-three volumes of incunabula and eighty-seven volumes of historical cartographic objects as well as 7 old prints from the collection of Elbląg Museum of Archeology and History that are going to complete the “Gymnasium”-collection of our digital library.
Elbląg Digital Library is currently the biggest institution of its kind in the region regarding the quantity of publications and occupies the 11th place among Polish digital libraries. Currently over 45.000 items are available on our website. The overwhelming majority of them are works that have entered public domain, alternatively they are contemporary works not covered by copy-right like short press releases or official documents and therefore unlimited on-line access to them is ensured to all users. About 80% of publications in Elbląg Digital Library are periodicals, almost 100% of which make up German journals from 18th till 20th century. Noteworthy are besides German sheets music, mainly from 19th century and student disputations usually referring to theology or history presented on German universities within the 16th, 17th and 18th century. One of the most valuable Germanica presented in Elbląg Digital Library is though a herbarium, printed out 1485 by Passau Printer Johannes Petri, which is the only copy from this year in Polish libraries.
Metadata of Elbląg Digital Library are available through the Europeana. We also cooperate with Petrucci Music Library, which is a community-built library of public domain sheet music.
Elbląg Digital Library strives for advertising of its content which is not an easy task considering that the largest part of its collection is in German. Our main advertising tool is the website Elbląg Historical Vortal which is somewhat an addition to the website of Elbląg Digital Library offering short studies on collection items as well as popular scientific articles on history and culture of the region written mainly on the basis of historical book collection of Elbląg Library. An advertising tool is also our Facebook account on which we regularly share some interesting facts from our digitalized stocks.
Taking into consideration that the historical book collection numbers 57.300 volumes what makes however much more single prints as they are often combined to so called bookbinding blocks, we can anticipate there are many years of work ahead of us. Although digitization and sharing our historical stocks which are a part of both Polish and German cultural heritage is a main goal of Elbląg Digital Library, we intend o. a. to digitize some postwar local newspapers as well as documents of social life. The biggest challenge in that case is often resolving of issues connected with copy right as identifying the owner of exploitation right is a difficult task. A challenge, although a very interesting one, is also the elaborating of documents of social life as they are very inhomogeneous in terms of their genre and content. These materials, especially Elbląg press of the time of Polish People’s Republic are an interesting source also in the context of Polish-German relationships in that period of time – relationships that were never simple but additionally poisoned by fresh reminiscences of the just ended war as well as ubiquitous propaganda and stoked by suspicion and fear. These stocks together with our historical collection bear witness of difficult past of our city and the region and complicated German-Polish relationships over the ages.

Cite this blog post
Joanna Szkolnicka (2015, October 23). 500 gigabytes of history and culture – resources of Elbląg Digital Library as a part of Polish, German and overall European cultural heritage. Minorities Records. Retrieved June 16, 2024, from https://minorecs.hypotheses.org/285

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