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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Austrian Manuscript Library Tour, Part 5: Austrian National Library

 "repeated personal contacts and patient negotiating" (Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB)

Not the space where the manuscripts are housed! The main hall (Prunksaal) at
the Austrian National Library (Oesterreichische Nationalbibliothek) in Vienna.

Eugene Power with Father Oliver.
In 1967, the outlook was somewhat bleak for the Monastic Manuscript Microfilming Project (later the Hill Museum & Manuscript Library or "HMML")--launched at Kremsmuenster Abbey in April 1965.  After barely more than two years, Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, and his two cameramen had traversed the Austrian countryside photographing medieval manuscripts at over 20 monasteries and abbeys. Tremendous gains had been registered in the work at large libraries like Klosterneuburg and Melk. Now, however, forces of opposition were gathering to slow their work.

From the outset, the microfilming project had been opposed by the director of the Bavarian State Library, Gustav Hoffmann, and he had an influential voice. Now, with about a year-and-a-half's work left in the monastic and religious communities, new work in Austria lay in sight, but out of reach. After a temporary setback at the University of Graz, Father Oliver lamented in a letter to his library director about access to state libraries in Austria:

"But more important, they [i.e. University of Graz staff] contacted all the other state libraries for their opinion (Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, Linz, Salzburg, Innsbruck and Klagenfurt), as they will all probably want to pursue the same policy, the usual chain reaction. Dr. [Josef] Stummvoll, director of the Nationalbibliothek, is violently opposed to the idea. He is, unfortunately, also chairman of the Austrian Library Advisory Committee for the Department of Education. And thereby hangs the tale." (Letter to Julian Plante. May 21, 1967, from Stift Rein)

The Austrian National Library (Vienna)

Without access to the state-run libraries at the universities in the major Austrian cities, the Monastic Manuscript Microfilm Project might be finished early. Indeed, the team had already filmed over 7500 manuscripts in Austria, and had agreements for photographing a couple thousand more. Yet some of the largest collections could remain off-limits, and thus the preservation work would be incomplete. The opposition from Dr. Stummvoll seemed quite unrelenting, although Father Oliver saw a ray of hope for a change of leadership at the Library. So he did not give up!  A few months later he reported a new contact at the Nationalbibliothek:

"The director of the Handschriftensammlung [manuscripts collection] in the Nationalbibliothek, Dr. Franz Unterkircher, visited us recently.  He was tremendously impressed with our moveable laboratory, the precision of operation, and above all the quality of our finished product.  Originally he was not favorably disposed to joining our project." (Letter to Julian Plante. October 9, 1967, from the Schottenstift)
This was, of course, not an agreement, only an interest, which Father Oliver and his colleague Eugene Power from University Microfilms (UMI) continued to cultivate over the next year or so.

The Austrian National Library (Vienna)

Father Oliver returned to Vienna later in 1967 to work at the Mechitarist Congregation (nearly 1200 manuscripts) and at the Dominican Cloister (nearly 250 manuscripts). He finished the year high in the Austrian Alps, at Admont Abbey. From there he reports:
"We have now photographed 10,250 codices [since the beginning of the project in 1965], in spite of a lot of nasty camera trouble during the past six weeks, and still not in the clear. Next month we expect to learn definitely whether the Austrian state libraries can be included in our project. We are coming to the end of the monastic libraries in Austria, only four more to go, including perhaps the largest and most valuable one, namely, St. Paul in Carinthia." (Letter to Julian Plante. February 5, 1968)

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In one of Julian Plante's letters to Father Oliver, he refers to being slightly confused while searching for the entrance on the Josefsplatz to the manuscript department at the Austrian National Library. In some ways, I can echo those sentiments. During my own visit in December 2013, I got a little confused, even though I had come by the library two days earlier (on the only sunny day of my entire trip to Austria) to locate just where the entrance was. I was in Austria for 8 days to participate in a Round Table discussion on digital humanities held in Krems und Stein, and my extra time went into visiting HMML's partners in and near Vienna. The Austrian National Library was my last stop on this particular library "tour."

I was scheduled for lunch with the retiring director of the manuscripts department, Dr. Ernst Gamillscheg, and a meeting at 2:00 pm with Dr. Andreas Fingernagel and his associate, Mag. Formann. Dr. Gamillscheg has been our contact at the library for at least the past decade. I was rushing from a delightful morning tour of the Schottenkloster with Maximilian Alexander Trofaier, and arrived right around noon at the manuscripts department.  The first thing I noticed that the stairwell did not lead to an obvious reception area. The reading room is now in the Augustinersaal, which is to be found through a separate door. The manuscripts department is in a plain, white stairwell, with only the occasional sign next to the door for identification

Prof. Ernst Gamillscheg with the latest issue of Codices Manuscripti & Impressi.
After some ringing and knocking at the door, Dr. Gamillscheg appeared in the stairwell and swept me away to a very charming lunch back at (you guessed it) the cafe in the Schottenkloster! Our visit was primarily social, and not so much official.

After lunch I met with Dr. Fingernagel and Frau Mag. Formann in the offices of the manuscript department.  We had a much more business-oriented discussion about our procedures, hopes for future cooperation and how our library can serve them and scholars better. The films produced by HMML are still used there and much appreciated. Unlike at the other libraries on my tour, I was not able to see the films themselves, which are kept in a different part of the library--remember that the reading room (the Augustinersaal) is not in the same stairwell with the offices, where we were meeting.

At the end of our discussion, Frau Mag. Formann showed me the room where the manuscripts are to be stored. They had been removed temporarily while the space was improved for security and environmental controls.

Dr. Andreas Fingernagel and his colleague, Frau Mag. Ingeborg Formann.
I left the Austrian National Library feeling that HMML had found a great partner in 1968, when the agreement was signed.  There have been occasional rough spots along the road, but HMML and the OeNB are committed to maintaining their historic collaboration. This was the last of my library visits in December 2013. I had gone to six different libraries where HMML worked (as MMML) in the 1960's, each time finding curators committed to preserving and promoting their collections.

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Father Oliver was not finished pestering the Austrian National Library.  Indeed, again in March 1968 (only a month and a half after the previous letter), he contemplates the future of the microfilming project:

"On April 8 I will meet with Mr. Power in Vienna to contact the Nationalbibliothek for a possible final favorable deal. On this decision may depend the future of our project. Latest indirect report has it that the Nationalbibliothek is not favorably inclined, though last fall they had expressed some interest, after they heard from the various monasteries that we are doing such good work." (Letter to Julian Plante. March 26, 1968, from St. Peter's Archabbey, Salzburg)
He speculates that the concern is over the ownership of the images and the film negatives. As one would expect, the representatives of the Nationalbibliothek were concerned that the nation of Austria not lose control over its own patrimony.

Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, and his microfilming team at the Kodak offices
in Vienna, Austria (September 1971)
Finally, he reports a breakthrough in a letter to Father Colman Barry, OSB (April 26, 1968, from St. Peter's Archabbey, Salzburg):

"On April 8 [1968] I met Mr. Power in Vienna, and together we met with the authorities of the Nationalbibliothek and, to our pleasant surprise, obtained a favorable verdict to photograph their manuscripts, barring an unpleasant surprise verdict from the Ministry of Education, not likely, I think. This is the result of three years of negotiation on the part of Mr. Power and myself, working separately, he through the photographic department to the General Directory of the Library, myself through the Director of the Manuscript Division, as both had to give their okay. People in the States should come to understand that one just doesn't walk into libraries over here for anything, much less for photographing manuscripts. That can require repeated personal contacts and patient negotiating."
Main entrance on the Josefsplatz for the Prunksaal of the Austrian National Library.
By May 17, 1968, Father Oliver was able to inform  the director of MMML (later "HMML"), Dr. Julian Plante, that:

"The Austrian Ministry of Education has confirmed the deal with the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna, so this marks a real breakthrough into major state libraries, and gives us hope of gaining entrance to other major collections. Mr. Power says that the Nationale Bibliotheque in Paris and the Bodleian Library in Oxford are favorably inclined, but cannot give us working space. In the Nationalbibliothek in Vienna we can have working space in the huge Burg of Kaiser Franz Josef, but we have to pay for the transportation of the manuscripts, all within the same giant complex of buildings." (May 17, 1968, from St. Peter's Archabbey, Salzburg)

Front of the Neue Burg from the Heldenplatz--here is the entrance to the regular
reading room for the National Library. University students like to study here!

While the hopes for work in Paris and Oxford never found fulfillment, HMML did later film collections at the national libraries in Malta, Portugal and Sweden. Indeed, the agreement with the National Library soon bore fruit at other state libraries--When the director of the Studienbibliothek (now the University Library) at Klagenfurt learned of this agreement, he changed his opposition to the microfilming and followed suit (described in a letter to Father Colman Barry, OSB. July 12, 1968, from Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul im Lavanttal).

In the microfilming workspace at the Austrian National Library (October 1971):
Hans Mittmannsgruber, Father Oliver Kapsner, OSB, Julian Plante, and Paul Seger.
Work at the Austrian National Library finally started on December 7, 1968, and lasted until October 1971.  In that stretch of nearly three years, MMML (HMML) photographed over 14,000 manuscripts on microfilm, including several thousand individual images in color. A large number of these are available today through HMML's online image service, Vivarium (

Manuscript detail from the Austrian National Library (Codex Vindobonensis Palatinus) in Vivarium.

Father Oliver's love for Austria ran deep. The Cold War "raged" around the Alpine nation, and among the unnerving events of 1968 (the assassination of Robert Kennedy, violence at the Democratic convention in Chicago, etc.), he wrote in a letter to Father Colman Barry, OSB (August 27, 1968, from the Benedictine Abbey of St. Paul im Lavanttal) about the preparations for work at the Austrian National Library, but included his own concerns for the Austria's safety after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia:
"Poor, dear little Austria, wedged in as it is between three uncertain Communist countries, is all on edge these days because of the upheaval in its neighbor to the north, Czechoslovakia. Another country for which to pray--so much to pray for these days."
Indeed, it is hard for HMML to develop relationships with its partner libraries/communities without simultaneously feeling deep concern for the well-being of its friends across the globe.

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Learn more about the manuscript collections at the Austrian National Library at:

or follow the Austrian National Library on Facebook (in German):

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Peace to all.