We occasionally get offered as donations collections of books which belonged to recently-deceased German and Austrian exiles who came to Britain in the 1930s. The families don’t want to keep them – often they don’t actually speak or read German – but feel that the books should be given a good home.
Although these collections are seldom outstanding in themselves, each represents a snapshot of the reading habits and intellectual world of a ‘common reader’ in the Germany of the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, from looking at lists or at the books themselves, I now have a fair idea of the kind of books that such readers collected, and can predict reasonably well the authors and genres that I will find among them; it would make an interesting little research project for anyone with the time and inclination. But, sadly, that doesn’t enable us to accept these collections any more than does the would-be donors’ powerful wish to see the books preserved in a major library, just as they were preserved by their original owner.
There are various reasons why we cannot offer a home to such collections. The first is simply that many of the books will be standard editions of German classics, duplicates of texts we already hold. German translations of other literatures are also common, but outside the scope of our collection policy. Of course there can also be material which does interest us, if the donor is willing to let us cherry-pick: examples of exile publishing sometimes turn up, as do works by, for and about the Jewish community in early twentieth-century Germany. Minor but interesting works on political, social and intellectual issues of the day, and novels by neglected authors can usefully fill gaps in our collections. The owner’s academic or professional interests may be reflected in important and useful works on specific topics.
Even ‘out-of-scope’ material such as children’s books or domestic manuals may now be of historical interest. Thus it is always worth investigating further, but this brings more problems. Although I always ask donors for a basic list of titles, they are not always able or willing to provide this. When they do, checking can take a long time, especially where valiant attempts have been made to transcribe fraktur type. If we do agree to take some books, more practical problems include the condition they are in (well-used in the past and sometimes more recently stored in an attic or garage) and the whole question of arranging delivery to the Library – to say nothing of the extra processing and cataloguing work involved when the books arrive.
It is also difficult to suggest other institutions which might be interested; academic and research collections will have the same issues of duplication and relevance as us, and few if any public libraries would want to accept such a large amount of foreign-language material. Often we have to recommend trying a second-hand dealer or a charity shop, which I always feel sounds rather dismissive, especially in the face of what is intended as a generous offer in memory of a loved relative. It’s a difficult business and needs a considerable degree of tact. But for all the personal and emotional importance of these collections to the original owners and their families, the sad fact remains that they are largely unwanted by the wider world.