Open letter to Michael Müller, Major of Berlin

A scandal in cultural and education politics - The useless and senseless dismantling of the Central and Regional Library Berlin must be prevented! Please sign the Online-Petition before the 13th of June: “The Central and Regional Library Berlin (ZLB) is the largest public library in Germany,” is unequivocally written on the ZLB website. What’s more: “The ZLB is Berlin’s most popular cultural and educational institution.” This magnificent library is at risk. According to the wishes of managing director Volker Heller and the board of the ZLB, its diverse holdings are slated to be dismantled. Furthermore, the process that led to this decision has not been open to public debate or scrutiny: The majority of books in most subject areas, which will now be designated “bulk business,” may no longer be selected by the ZLB itself. Instead it is required to accept the selection of external service providers, primarily that of the ekz-bibliotheksservice GmbH from Reutlingen. This decision will radically alter the profile of the ZLB: The offerings at the ekz are limited. They consist of a unified standard selection that is required to fit all public libraries in Germany, from the smallest village library to the larger libraries in big cities. In Berlin, practically everything the ekz offers is now available in the approximately 80 local libraries and 12 main libraries. The ZLB, with its more extensive function, has previously supplemented this offer by providing more and more specific media. These standardized media packages will mean that the selection of books will be greatly reduced in many subject areas, for instance in politics, history, and the social sciences. The breadth and variety of language courses in German and many other languages, ‘foreign language literature,’ and specialist literature for further education (especially medical occupations and pedagogy) will be noticeably cut. At the same time, the existing purchasing budget is supposed to be spent according to purely market-based criteria: according to acquisition models based on operating figures, in which the individual subject areas will be forced into mutual competition. These cuts in intellectual diversity, cloaked in the mantle of rationalization, are a waste of public funds–funds that are actually meant to maintain the qualitatively higher level of this unique educational and cultural institution. The scope of the publishing and book trade in Berlin will also be permanently affected if orders in the millions are monopolized by a centralized purchasing system. The financial effects will also take their toll on the city. (1) A further attack on a particularly public institution? The American Memorial Library (AGB) was founded according to the public library model in the USA. In this tradition, the ZLB, a union of the AGB and the Berlin City Library (Berliner Stadtbibliothek) , is to this day a general library system serving the wide breadth of society. It is a rare combination of the academic and the popular, the ordinary and the particular–a unique combination here in Germany. With its 3.5 million units, of which 2.5 million are books from the last 100 years, it is among the most popular lending libraries in Germany. It is in no way comparable to the central local libraries in Hamburg and Bremen, which Volker Heller has proposed as models. These maintain a very limited stock of books, exclusively made up of literature from the last 10 years. Both libraries are so-called consumer libraries, with only 100,000 volumes; each year they discard as many books as they take in. There is no archival process. Is this what we want the ZLB to look like in the future? Only the special collections and some specialized areas are meant to be protected. This, however, will mean destroying exactly that specific diversity of this unique general library in favor of a separation between high culture and mass culture. One thing is clear: the restructuring of the ZLB will destroy its particularly public quality–egalitarian, easily accessible, diverse. The new concept reduces the wide variety of ZLB users to a declared “bulk business,” for whom an assortment of bestsellers and current (primarily German-language) literature is deemed to be completely sufficient. To do this at a time when Berlin is developing more and more into an international metropolis is short sighted and counterproductive. (2) Completely without cause? The open question that remains is: why is all this happening? Looking from the political sides of things, no budget cuts are slated for the ZLB. The balance sheet was in fact positive at the end of 2014. Presumably the restructuring is meant to free up librarians’ working hours for important future tasks such as dealing with digital media. But there are no concrete plans for such things, and alternatives have never been seriously considered. Furthermore, it is highly questionable whether turning subject librarians into technical information service providers is an appropriate concept for a modern library. And yet, at a hearing in the Berlin City Parliament in March 2015, the state secretary of culture, Tim Renner, attempted to discredit critics of the restructuring as holding onto the past, claiming that they are driven by the “raw fear of digitalization.” We, the digitally literate, ask: What should the ZLB of the future actually look like? It is obvious that the current plans are meant to push an already well-functioning library into “high performance service” at the cost of the substance of its holdings. (3) Our demands We are cultural producers, writers, students, filmmakers, retirees, curators, academics, parents, artists, neighbors, publicists, book dealers, theater professionals, intellectuals, book worms, we are the users of the ZLB and we are worried about a dramatic drop in the quality of a Berlin institution that for us represents a unique resource and working base. We call on the governing mayor and cultural senator of Berlin, Michael Müller, to assure that the all plans for the library be made public, immediately and without obfuscation. Following initial protests, there currently seems to be an attempt to make some cosmetic changes to the concrete numbers, without this making any change in the basic concept: to level the holdings of the ZLB. Both the staff at the ZLB as well as the Berlin public must be informed and included in any future decisions. The most popular cultural institution in Berlin must not be dismantled behind closed doors! As users of the ZLB and cultural producers in Berlin we demand an end to this senseless and aimless, ahistorical, undemocratic, and narrow-minded ‘restructuring.’ It would mean downgrading one of the most important educational and cultural institutions in Germany, turning it into an ineffectual outpost for bestsellers. Planning with the future in mind looks quite different!