A City of Li­braries

With count­less books and manuscripts col­lected over cen­turies, Vienna has a lot to of­fer book­worms

METROPOLE - Vienna in English - - CONTENTS - By Clau­dia Pac­cosi

Vienna has amassed a vast amount of books, manuscripts and let­ters over the cen­turies, all avail­able for a nom­i­nal fee to any­one look­ing.

There can be magic in a li­brary: il­lu­mi­nated by the suf­fused glow of shaded lamps, en­tire walls of in­fi­nite shelves full of books clear up to the fres­coed ceil­ing , pan­eled bal­conies joined to­gether by spi­ral stairs that might lead you to a col­lec­tion of tiny po­etry vol­umes dec­o­rated with golden let­ters. Vienna is a booklover’s par­adise, where you read through the novel­las of Arthur Schnit­zler or hold an 18th cen­tury man­u­script in your own hands. Per­haps you want to un­der­stand the lay­out of Vienna’s streets be­fore the Ring was built or find a graded reader to prac­tice your Ital­ian. All this is pos­si­ble, and not only for Ger­man speak­ers. For the archives, you’ll have to wear white gloves and prove some schol­arly cre­den­tials, but Vienna of­fers an enor­mous her­itage of books pre­served in mag­nif­i­cent his­toric build­ings – all for the ask­ing, all for a nom­i­nal fee.


The Öster­re­ichis­che Na­tional bib­lio­thek (Aus­trian Na­tional Li­brary), once the court li­brary of the Hab­s­burgs with vol­umes col­lected from across the Em­pire, is one of the most im­por­tant col­lec­tions in the world. The vast mod­ern sec­tions are lo­cated in the Hof­burg at Helden­platz and en­tered from the Burggarten. The col­lec­tion in­cludes more than 712,000 pub­li­ca­tions in English (some 284,000 books and 36,000 news­pa­pers and mag­a­zines) and other for­eign lan­guages, avail­able for a mem­ber­ship of just €30 a year.

“Through a mas­sive work of dig­i­tal­iza­tion of its archives, the Aus­trian Na­tional Li­brary is the trail­blazer of mod­ern­iza­tion in the field,” says Di­rec­tor Gen­eral Jo­hanna Rachinger, cit­ing more than 350 English-lan­guage data­bases, 500 English-lan­guage jour­nals and the ANNO (Aus­trian News­pa­pers On­line). Mem­bers can also use the Au­gustiner read­ing room to con­sult ma­te­rial from be­fore 1850 and en­joy the at­mos­phere: in the same build­ing as the Prunk­saal (the Grand Read­ing Room, to­day largely serv­ing as a mu­seum), green ta­ble lamps beckon un­der or­na­men­tal ceil­ing paint­ings com­mis­sioned by Em­press Maria Teresa and com­pleted in 1773. The Wien­bib­lio­thek im Rathaus is also quite ex­cep­tional, much smaller, and far

“I have al­ways imag­ined that Par­adise will be a kind of li­brary” Jorge Luis Borges, Ar­gen­tinian writer

more spe­cial­ized. To get there, you pass un­der neo-gothic arches and walk over tiled floors, through court­yards which trans­port you to Ox­ford – or even Hog­warts. But this is a place for real devo­tees: “We col­lect ev­ery­thing about Vienna, in­clud­ing Metropole,” says di­rec­tor Sylvia Mattl-wurm, “and we are a sci­en­tific [i.e. schol­arly, ed.] re­search li­brary.” Sit­ting at one of their mod­ern desks with the high steeples of the Vo­tivkirche vis­i­ble through the win­dow, you can or­der books and manuscripts on­line and af­ter a short wait, con­sult hand­writ­ten scores by Jo­hann Strauss or old let­ters from Ste­fan Zweig and Sig­mund Freud, sift through old lit­er­ary es­tates and view con­cert posters of Falco from the 1980s. Be­cause of re­cent schol­arly in­ter­est in Vienna from the U.S. and U.K, the li­brary keeps ma­te­rial in English and in other for­eign lan­guages, in­clud­ing numer­ous travel guides for new­com­ers who need some­where to start. There are also plenty of English-lan­guage mag­a­zines, avail­able next to a line of small draw­ers that still con­tain the in­dex cards pre­vi­ously used to or­ga­nize the col­lec­tion.


The Vienna City Li­brary’s main branch is lo­cated above the U6 sta­tion Burggasse Stadthalle, and is an oa­sis of cul­ture and learn­ing. But not only: it’s also a meet­ing place for peo­ple com­ing from all over the world and from ev­ery so­cio-eco­nomic sit­u­a­tion. It’s a place to learn Ger­man dur­ing or­ga­nized con­ver­sa­tion classes, or stay con­nected with your roots through books in for­eign lan­guages and read­ings with vis­it­ing and emi­gré writ­ers. I met the Di­rec­tor Chris­tian Jahl af­ter climb­ing the broad stair­case up to the en­trance (Don’t worry! There are also el­e­va­tors and es­ca­la­tors). In­stead of the ele­gant and ex­clu­sive of­fice I ex­pected, he guided me through the two bright and ex­pan­sive floors filled with books and me­dia, clearly pas­sion­ate about the col­lec­tions and proud of the role the li­brary plays in the city’s cul­tural life. The Büchereien Wien (Vienna Pub­lic Li­braries) has 40 branches spread all around the city, in­clud­ing the Chil­dren’s Li­brary of World Lan­guages which boasts chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture from more than 40 coun­tries. In­deed, many of the pa­trons of Büchereien Wien are young, with the 52% of the vis­i­tors aged be­tween 11 and 30. The main branch has the largest se­lec­tion, which in­cludes books, CDS, mag­a­zines, news­pa­pers and DVDS in many lan­guages. Un­like other col­lec­tions in the city, which fo­cus on aca­demic re­search, the Büchereien Wien is open for every­one, and more than 1,000 refugees reg­is­tered as users in 2016 alone. It seeks to stay up to date with con­tem­po­rary me­dia, with 35,000 ob­jects added ev­ery year and many older items weeded out. All in all, the cat­a­logue is com­pletely re­newed ev­ery 12 years. The of­fer­ings are enor­mous even on­line: linked to the li­brary’s wifi, Aus­tria Kiosk and Press Dis­play of­fer Aus­trian pub­li­ca­tions and more than 3,000 in­ter­na­tional pa­pers. The only prob­lem is de­cid­ing where to be­gin.

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