Special Collections in the Bergen Public Library

By Steen, Siren | Fontes Artis Musicae, July-September 2010 | Go to article overview

Special Collections in the Bergen Public Library


Steen, Siren, Fontes Artis Musicae


When a school class visits the Bergen Public Library with an agenda to hear about an archive, not all the students are very interested! As a start I often show them the manuscript to our national anthem "Ja vi elsker". I love to watch their faces when they realize what they are seeing. "Is this for real"? Have I hooked some presumably uninterested pupils onto the wonderful world of the library this way?

All public libraries have some kind of special collections--usually this is locally-produced material within all types of media: printed, drawn, sound recordings, ephemera, and the most common: photographic collections. Collecting and curating collections like this is a natural part of the public library's tasks. These collections can also be an important source for future historians and archivists to find the first traces of a person or an event that has come to be of broad interest.

Fewer public libraries have special collections of national importance; such collections are normally placed in national institutions. Why do some artists, scientists, or companies want the local public library to take hand of their spiritual or historical heritage? The answer is as diverse as the various collections itself, it is even not always the persons connection to the place that is the decisive factor, although this is the most common reason. Many people have given their artistic heritage to a public library because they feel that the national institutions or the capital of their home country have never recognised them.

In this article I will focus on some aspects a public library faces when they are in charge of valuable national collections, using my own library as an example.

The Grieg Archives

In 1906, 10 months before his death, the Norwegian composer Edvard Grieg added a codicil to his will. He wanted to give his music manuscripts, articles and letters, printed music, books, and other material to Bergen Public Library on condition that it would be preserved and easily accessible to the public in the future.

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Edvard Grieg, at this time, held a unique position in Scandinavian culture: he was a beloved composer, he played and conducted his music all over Europe and he was a giant in Scandinavia's cultural life. Why would he let a public library have ownership of his cultural heritage? The answer in this case: he was a great democrat. He believed in the equality that a public library offered. He had a strong wish to educate his fellow citizens musically, and he wanted to expose them to the best of music. Thus his vast collection of printed music were bound and put on the shelves for people to lend, it did not matter that the scores had friendly dedications and musical greetings from for instance Tchaikovsky. Grieg also created a fund that enabled the local symphony orchestra and the theatre orchestra to employ additional musicians.

Over the years the library has worked extensively with this huge collection. In 1988-89 a proposal was made for a pilot project for the digitization of the material in the Grieg Archives. The Library initiated the considerable undertaking of transferring the archive to digital forms, thereby preserving the original documents while at the same time contributing to greater accessibility. The documents of the Archives are now available online, very much in the spirit of Edvard Grieg's own wish of public 'accessibility'. See the website at http://www.edvardgrieg.no.

Has the fact that my library holds this fabulous collection made it a better library? Yes and no. Of course a public library will be measured by other criteria then their connection to a national hero.

My public library is situated in the second largest city in Norway; it is de facto the second largest public library in the country. In the city we have a large university, and several other colleges with large libraries as well as a county-library which initiates projects connected to education, cooperation between libraries and projects of all kinds. …

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