Collapse of the Cologne Archives

The world was stunned this week by news of the collapse of the building which housed the historical archives of the German city of Cologne.  An article in Haaretz quotes an official who called the archives “one of the most important in Europe [and a] loss of an immensely valuable and irreplaceable cultural asset.”  You can read a detailed account in the online English language version of Der Spiegel.

Cologne, founded in 38 AD along the Rhine River, was once Germany’s largest city.  The archives building was consequently huge, housing many thousands of items (some hundreds of years old), including historical manuscripts, photographs, architectural plans and drawings, as well as the personal papers of prominent Germans such as the country’s first post-war chancellor, Konrad Adenhauer.  So extensive was the collection that the building was estimated to have included more than 18 kilometers of shelving. 

As to the collapse itself, the facility was not particularly old, having been completed in 1971; some speculate that the construction of a nearby subway may have undermined the building.  At least part of the records were recorded on microfilm (and the information they contained will thus be preserved), but many were not and will undoubtedly be lost.

The tragedy reminded me of the irreplaceable resources we have in our own Greensboro Public Library, as well as the Greensboro Historical Museum Archives (ably managed by archivist Stephen Catlett), and how important it is to make efforts to preserve and protect the valuable records of our past. 

The Greensboro Public Library in fact has underway a number of projects intended to facilitate preservation of and better access to historical records.  These include efforts to digitize newspaper articles relating to the 1960 sit-ins and 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings; and, a few years ago, we undertook a digitization project of manuscript materials associated with the life of famous Greensboro writer O. Henry

Ms. Helen Snow, our North Carolina Librarian, has just started a project to collect histories from our community’s churches; and she has also recently been engaged in replacing much of our microfilm of old Greensboro newspapers.  In the past, she has worked with UNCG on the Greensboro Voices project to preserve the oral history of the Civil Rights Movement in the Greensboro area.            

Much like the Cologne Archives, the Greensboro Historical Museum Archives houses the personal papers of the men and women of Greensboro’s past, photographica, rare books, maps, and lots more.  Finding aids for many of the Archives’ manuscript collections are now available online; in addition, the Archives’ webpage also includes information on preserving your own valuable family papers, photographs, and so on.

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