“A Work of the Devil”?
Seventh story, finis Africae! Radiant light streaming from every direction. Bright bookshelves on every floor, open stacks, a setting that invites a person to stay and read a while.
James Stirling’s design for the new buildings of the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin für Sozialforschung (Berlin Social Science Research Center, WZB) placed the library in a tower. The famous British architect may well have been inspired by that fictitious, mysterious, fortress tower—“the greatest library in Christendom”—at the center of a remote medieval Apennine abbey in Umberto Eco’s novel The Name of the Rose. Under the control of the fanatical blind head librarian, Jorge, this “historical” library becomes the agent of rigid censorship. All texts that could detract in any way from the verbum Dei, the Word of God as promulgated by the Church Fathers, have been hidden away in the building’s secret passages and labyrinths. Among these volumes is Aristotle’s chief work, believed to have been lost. Its liberating ideas about the laughter sparked by the probing curiosity of humans must never become accessible, except at the price of death.
Nomen non est omen. The WZB library and its stacks are always open, even at night and on weekends—a “work of the devil,” as Jorge would say, but a dream for Umberto Eco, passionately steeped as he is in library research.
The tower is the WZB’s tallest building at the WZB, and its holdings are the tangible and architectural expression of the library as an independent element serving scholarship at the WZB. Its pivotal location, at the intersection of buildings B and D, which house the WZB’s major research units, facilitates access to the members of the library staff and the various services they provide.
The staff’s work is designed to allow for optimal flexibility. Oriented to the WZB’s research units, the structures of the library’s internal areas of responsibility emphasize personal accountability and independence. The processing of the media—whether books, journal articles, or electronic information—is not spread across several levels and or dissected into separate steps. The tasks are grouped by sector instead and attended to by one person in an integrative model of work organization, so input and output functions are not divorced.
To the members of the library staff, service also means going beyond their respective sectors of expertise to assist all users of the WZB library. This variety of roles enhances the contribution of all the WZB librarians and increases their inclination to innovate.
The high motivation and above-average commitment routinely apparent in the staff’s activities definitely have much to do with this environment. But they surely have to do with something else as well—humor. Finding the comical (and occasionally the ridiculous) dimension of daily life, cultivating the amusing side of things rather than overlooking it, accommodating the library’s public, and bringing a certain light touch to what are sometimes difficult and tense situations are all notable attributes of the WZB library’s day-to-day work. Aristotle’s work, which sees “the tendency to laughter as a force for good,” would reside here at the service level right alongside the encyclopedias, dictionaries, and other reference books.
(Library Director from 1984 to 2009)