This blog post was written by Alex Hewitt and Celia Stevenson, graduate trainees at the Warburg Institute for History Day 2019. The theme is taken from the Being Human Festival 2019.

When we think of discoveries and secrets in libraries, there are a whole host of pop culture references that spring to mind. Our culture is full of libraries which hide, conceal, or otherwise restrict access to their impenetrable collections: the University’s Archives in Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle have been partially and haphazardly reorganised so many times by so many different people, each using their own classification system, that finding a particular volume has become an impossible task; Buffy the Vampire Slayer and her friends spend hours researching in Sunnydale High Library in order to arm themselves against whatever supernatural villain has arisen from the Hellmouth that week; Aang must barter with the knowledge spirit, Wan Shi Tong, in order to gain access to their hidden library in Avatar: The Last Airbender; and Harry Potter frequently has to sneak into his library’s Restricted Section under his invisibility cloak in order to attain some vital information.

The trope is so ubiquitous it comes up outside of fantasy novels, film, and television shows. Two of the most famous literary examples are Jorges Luis Borges’s Library of Babel and the abbey library from Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose. Borges’s short story describes ‘the universe (which others call the Library)’ where every possible ordering of the 25 basic characters (22 letters, the comma, the period, and space) is recorded within an infinite number of books, arranged at random within an infinite expanse of adjacent hexagonal rooms. Eco was clearly inspired by Borges’ nightmarish library; in The Name of the Rose he created another labyrinth of hexagonal rooms, this time clustered towers at the four cardinal points of the aedificium’s third floor. It is out of bounds to all but the suspicious librarian, the only one who knows the key to navigating its maze. Eco even tipped his hat to Borges, naming his villainous librarian Jorge of Burgos.

Borges’ Library of Babel

It seems that in the collective imagination the library is simultaneously an invitation and prohibition to discovery. What we frequently encounter in film and literature is the trope of The Great Big Library of Everything – a tantalizing and interminable labyrinth of books that holds one vital secret, often guarded by a hostile librarian. Our experience of the Warburg library could not be more different. Unlike those closed and impenetrable fictional libraries, the Warburg’s secrets lie open for all to discover. Hopefully by comparing a few elements of the fictional trope with the Warburg library, we can plead the case of the library as secret keeper and redress the balance a little.

One element of the trope we took issue with is that the libraries only ever contain one book that is useful to a reader. In both the Library of Babel and Eco’s library, almost all of the huge number of books are useless to their readers; in fact most of the books in the Library of Babel’s ‘indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries’ are simply gibberish, with the narrator’s father informing his son that he once came across a book that contained nothing but the letters ‘MCV, perversely repeated from the first line to the last’. Yet, within this chaos, there is one invaluable book that the library classification system either deliberately obscures or simply smothers through its randomness. In Borges’s story, the narrator wastes years in pursuit of the ‘book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest’ of the Library. Similarly, Eco’s library contains every known book in the medieval period housed in a structure far larger than any actual monastic library. The library holds a clue to solve a series of murders at the abbey. The murder weapon (spoilers!) turns out to be a poisoned copy of the lost second tract of Aristotle’s Poetics, on comedy.

In contrast, the Warburg operates on a different philosophy; this being that the book you need might not necessarily be the one you were looking for. It might, in fact, be the one next to it. The books are shelved around the law of the good neighbour, meaning that the library’s collection is organised thematically instead of by author, title, or publication date. Gertrud Bing, an architect of the classification system and director of the Institute when it moved to London, said that ‘the manner of shelving the books is meant to impact certain suggestions to the reader who, looking on the shelves for one book, is attracted by the kindred ones next to it, glances at the sections above and below, and finds himself involved in a new trend of thought which may lend additional interest to the one he was pursuing’. Although the Warburg’s serendipitous system may initially seem unconventional and somewhat esoteric, the structuring of the library’s collection around the law of the good neighbour means that it is much easier for readers to discover and find texts they didn’t even know they needed within the interconnected, interdisciplinary classmarks. For Warburg, every book was useful in the context of the whole collection. 

The original card catalogue at the Warburg

The Warburg’s photographic collection is organised around similar principles. Rather than grouping images by artist, location or period, Warburg organised his image library iconographically, meaning that he grouped them by subject matter. Instead of drawers full of images of frescoes from Pompeii, or prints by Raphael, the drawers are organised by the actual content of the images. This allows art historians to trace the way icons and motifs change or stay the same across time and space.

Another aspect of the trope of the library that holds a secret is the organisation of the books always makes serendipitous discoveries harder. Or worse, sometimes they aren’t organised at all. In Borges’ story the system is entirely random. The books can be organised in any one of 10^10^1,834,102 possible ways, the largest number ever used in a work of fiction. In Eco’s it is a devilishly complicated code, devised and passed down by a succession of librarians. The key to navigating the labyrinth’s 56 hexagonal rooms is hidden in a series of quotations from the Book of Revelations.

Eco’s plan of the library

Unlike these hostile fictional libraries, the arrangement of the books at the Kulturwissenschaftliche Bibliothek Warburg, the first Warburg library in Hamburg, was intended to encourage rather than obstruct discoveries. Whenever Warburg, an avid book collector, took receipt of one of his many deliveries of new acquisitions, he would rearrange the shelves to accommodate each new book into the collection. In this way, his theories on the interrelation of various images, literary motifs and disciplines found physical form in the arrangement of the books on the shelves. Bing remarked that ‘Warburg had chosen and arranged the books like stones from a mosaic of which he had the pattern in his mind’. They were collected for research into specific areas, under a general theme of the afterlife of antiquity. Warburg’s system was streamlined and formalised by Gertrud Bing and Fritz Saxl, Warburg’s assistant and the first director of the institute, when the library moved to London. Now we find individual three letter classmarks on a whole host of subjects, from FDB 37 for vampires, to EKP 145 for Virgil’s Aeneid, to FMH 4350 for cartomancy and tarot cards. These classmarks sit alongside other seemingly disparate ones, enabling readers to find multiple texts, perhaps even texts that they weren’t aware existed, to aid their research.

The original colour coding for the classification system

A final recurring feature of the literary trope of the Great Big Library of Everything is that only a librarian can navigate the library. In Borges’ tale, helpless readers run in packs through the library, searching in vain and without any method. Until they find the book they believe will explain the library, they are unable to use the collections. Similarly, in The Name of the Rose, only the librarian has access to the library. He fetches books for the monks in the scriptorium below, often denying them access to the books they seek. Indeed, Eco cited his frustration at the bureaucracy of Italian closed shelves libraries as an inspiration for the library in The Name of the Rose. He was also dismayed by the idea that librarians rather than readers would decide how the books were classified. 

The Warburg library, however, has open stacks and allows its readers to peruse the books themselves. Although the stacks were originally closed to readers and books were fetched on request, soon after the library moved to London an open shelves policy was adopted. This was practically unheard of in European libraries of the time. The Warburg continues its open stacks policy today, placing 16th century editions alongside recent publications, all in the hope that readers will make discoveries they might never have made were the older, more valuable texts sequestered in closed, special collections.

Classmark FCB 800: Labyrinths and Mazes

Over the past century, Warburg and many subsequent custodians have arranged and rearranged the library to best reveal the secrets of its unique collection and aid its users in the pursuit of their own intellectual discoveries. Today, by using the Warburg’s growing open access digital library, readers need not even have a library card to access the collections. The secrets of the library lie open to all, waiting to be discovered.