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von Markus Stumpf
am 28. May 2015

Contaminated books – symbols of the state and ownership marks in the books of the Library of the University of Vienna

Time and again students and users of the University Library point out that various books carry stamps containing a swastika. Markus Stumpf, head of the Contemporary History Library at the University of Vienna, provides us an insight into this complex topic.

Traces of the Nazi regime such as stamps in the books of the University Library (UB) 70 years after the end of the Second World War are a cause of unease for users. Each student cohort wonders what this is all about and why such direct symbols of the regime of injustice are still visible today. Lately, this issue was broached in social media. This is reason enough to look into this subject in which several levels and functions converge: administration – library studies – state symbols – usage – books as historical documents – research.

Fig. 1: National Socialist stamp of the Library of the University of Vienna
Fig. 1: National Socialist stamp of the Library of the University of Vienna

Readers usually do not really care about these contexts. They need contents/text/information on Kant, Goethe or on a research article, etc. The symbols for National Socialism in the form of stamps are often an unexpected source of irritation and thus, so to speak, contaminate the contents. Therefore again and again people demand that these “contaminations” are removed from the books.

However, they overlook that these books and their contents, their characteristics and their editing are historical documents. This may and should be evident in the respective book. When searching for and examining books from this period these historical stamps are important indications.

 Proof of ownership and pure necessity for libraries

First, stamping library items with the library stamp is, from the librarian’s perspective, just a step in media processing before library users can access newly acquired items (books, DVDs, maps, single sheets, supplements,…). Thus each item of a library gets a distinct proprietary notice by the institution in question.

Where the stamp is placed in the item is not only a matter of aesthetics but also of minimising the effort needed to attach it to the item. In addition, the stamp should be easily accessible to resolve uncertainties regarding property. Therefore the Library of the University of Vienna (UB Wien) had – similar to many other libraries – regulations for stamping its items for a long time:

  • the reverse side of the title page,
  • always a consistent page in the book and
  • a stamp at the bottom of the final text page.

Today, if possible, the first stamp should be placed at the bottom third of the main title page, however.

If this is already done during acquisition, cataloguing (descriptive cataloguing) or not before final processing, varies from sub-library to sub-library at the University Library. At the Main Library items are always stamped in the acquisition and cover units. In 2014 more than 20,000 volumes were stamped.

This means that the stamp serves primarily as a proprietary notice for libraries. It should also be mentioned that today electronic media/digital objects analogously receive a proprietary notice, e.g. by adding the proprietary and exploitation rights to the metadata. In addition, the proprietary notice in books that are removed from the library has to be invalidated. This can be done either by attaching an additional stamp or by deleting the notice and providing some authentication.

 Stamped symbols of the state and university seals

By simplifying and standardising clerical work since the 18th century, authorities introduced official stamps to authenticate documents. It was not until the 19th century that the round stamp was used. It was hard to forge and it was used in combination with the authority’s designation and a coat of arms or state symbol for everyday use. From the perspective of file studies, this is a valid, but rather simplified depiction and it is also reflected by the stamps of the University Library because the Library of the University of Vienna was directly under control of the state (and not of the University as one might expect) and the head of the Library was under the supervision of the Studien-Hofkommission (studies committee of the Empire) according to a provision dating back to 1775. Even after the foundation of the Ministry of Education in 1848 the University Library was under the responsibility of the Ministry. Therefore the Library of the University of Vienna was a “state library”. Subsequently its stamps always carried the state symbols (double-headed eagle, eagle).

Only after the implementation of the 1993 Universitäts-Organisationsgesetz (university organisation act) the Library of the University of Vienna was directly integrated into the University’s organisation. In the wake of the 2002 Universities Act and its implementation in 2004 – buzzword: university autonomy – the eagle as a symbol of the state was replaced by the seal of the University of Vienna in the rubber stamps of the Library of the University of Vienna.

Periodisation based on stamps of the Library of the University of Vienna

The stamps of the Library of the University of Vienna (today’s Main Library) do not only shed light on the Library’s history and its relationship to the state but also reflect Austria’s constitutional history: monarchy – German-Austria – Republic of Austria – annexation of Austria to the German Reich – Second Republic. Only for the period of Austrofascism and corporate state omitted in the list above there is no evidence for any changes of the stamps at the University Library.

All (selected) stamps depicted here are valid in so far as the Library of the University of Vienna claims ownership rights for all material that carries (historical) stamps.

Fig. 2-5: Monarchy – double-headed eagle with and without border

Fig. 6-8: German-Austria (1918-1919) – The double-headed eagle stamp was still used in the beginning, solely the “K. K.” part was removed and it was stamped in combination with a second round stamp containing the eagle symbol.

Fig. 9-12: Republic of Austria (1919-1938)

Fig. 13: Annexation of Austria to the German Reich (1938-1945)

Fig. 13: Annexation of Austria to the German Reich (1938-1945)

Fig. 14-15: Second Republic (from 1945)

Universitätssiegel (ab 2004)Fig. 16: University seal (from 2004)

Books as historical documents

We should also consider the use of the National Socialist swastika stamp in the light of the context mentioned above, albeit it has to be noted that there is no documentation that all libraries of the German Reich used the swastika stamp.

Abdruck des Tanzenberg-Stempels
Fig. 17: Imprint of the Tanzenberg stamp

In the post-war period there was no comprehensive attempt made to “remove” this stamp. The Main Library of the Library of the University of Vienna alone “purchased” about 65,000 books in the period from 1938 to 1945. We have to keep in mind that the year of publication does not necessarily coincide with the date the Library receives the book. It is also not necessarily dependent on the date of inventory and of processing. So “contaminated” stocks found their way to the library shelves afterwards, such as the so-called “Tanzenberg collection” comprising more than 150,000 volumes that the Library of the University of Vienna had received from the Büchersortierungsstelle (book sorting unit) in 1951. The book sorting unit was housed in the Austrian National Library from 1949 to 1952 and was responsible for returning so-called “abandoned” looted books. Many of these books also carried National Socialist stamps, whereas only a small portion of these books was finally incorporated into the Library’s collection.

Fig. 18: Tanzenberg rubber stamp

A “decontamination” should be questioned from a content point of view too. Especially books in various special libraries – that were only gradually integrated into the Library of the University of Vienna from the 1975 university organisation act onwards (by then only the Main Library was referred to as the Library of the University of Vienna) – sometimes carry stamps that were covered by other stamps, cut out or crossed out, etc. Apart from conservation reasons (preservation) thus cannot be achieved any form of “reparation”. This would only lead to a second, so to say, overlying layer on top or the removal of the first layer. It would be a mere attempt to ignore the period of National Socialism.

Überstempelung (1942)
Fig. 19: Covered National Socialist stamp from 1942 (Jewish Studies Library)

The significance of these stamps for research has already been indicated in the periodisation section above. It is evident that they are not only relevant for library history, book research or provenance research but also for the dissemination of knowledge, i.e. the question of which knowledge was available to whom where and when. Book stocks are the result of a certain policy of purchase and withdrawal. Therefore subject indexing, library stamps, etc. reflect these interests and ideologies. Hence they also document past academic cultures that are mainly overcome and remind us of the special responsibility of libraries.

The characteristics of a copy show the provenance and history of a certain book in a library. They are the basis for provenance research that interprets, documents and harnesses these evidence in combination with other sources of information from archives, Internet blogs, etc.

Fig. 20: Comment on a National Socialist stamp in a German-English dictionary at the Art History Library (Note: The Library of the University of Vienna requests users to refrain from adding annotations, underlines, etc. in its books.)
Fig. 20: Comment on a National Socialist stamp in a German-English dictionary at the Art History Library (Note: The Library of the University of Vienna requests users to refrain from adding annotations, underlines, etc. in its books.)

Previous owners of historical book stocks may have left marks of any kind in their books: names, information on acquisition (entries about purchase, gifts, prices, etc.), place and date, bookplates, designations of titles and functions, mottoes, mnemonics, everyday notes, dedications, censorship notes, etc. Librarians have been attending to these signs of use for a long time through cataloguing of individual copies from the 15th to 19th centuries. A special and new form of marks are the signs of use and looting as well as signs of exploitation from the period of National Socialism and their subsequent interference.

National Socialist provenance research

The Library of the University of Vienna basically began its reflection on the “contaminated”, partially forcibly acquired books in 2004. It was the first university library in Austria that initiated a project on the systematic search and restitution of books that were looted during the Nazi era. In the following years members of the Main Library and of the more than 40 special libraries manually reviewed hundreds of thousands of books. They searched for indications as to former owners (such as entries, stamps or bookplates) and documented about 60,000 indications for further research. The National Socialist stamps in the books were crucial indications for determining the period of receipt, contrary to the Nazis’ initial intention.

The Library’s history is also reflected by various stamps and their imprints that distinguish the Library’s stock. These stamps are also visible sources that are used by provenance research to trace relocation of stocks and change of ownership through history.

National Socialism provenance research at the University Library is not confined to investigating cases (restitutions). So far, restitution decisions have been reached for 2,300 books, one legacy fragment and five plaster casts, whereas restitutions were made in 18 cases and in further 18 cases heirs are currently searched for. In addition the team is also responsible for the documentation of the results and is an active member in national and international research networks. The results are documented in the online catalogue, on the website, in publications and lectures.

The Library of the University of Vienna actively contributes to the remembrance of victims of National Socialism through its Nazi-era provenance research. With this extremely topical international issue it joins the diverse range of research and remembrance projects on the University of Vienna’s history in National Socialism.

Fig. 21-23: Collection of old stamps by the Library of the University of Vienna

Links to relevant sources/literature:

Markus Stumpf

Born in 1969, studied Ethnology and Mass Media and Communication Science at the University of Vienna (1999), course on library, information and documentation studies (BID) (2004), university continuing education and training programme on Library and Information Studies (MSc) at the University of Vienna (2010); Lateinamerika-Institut Wien (Latin America institute in Vienna) (1999-2000), since 2000 various functions at the Library of the University of Vienna and since 2005 head of the National Socialist provenance research at the Library of the University of Vienna and since 2006 head of the Contemporary History Library at the University of Vienna; member of the Austrian Society of Contemporary History, member of the board of the Vereinigung Österreichischer Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare (association of Austrian librarians, VÖB); co-founder of, and from 2009-2014, chair of the VÖB working group on National Socialism provenance research; various publications, e.g. on National Socialism provenance research and on the history of different libraries, lately on the Anthropos-Bibliothek von St. Gabriel bei Mödling und der Bibliothek des Instituts für (germanisch-deutsche) Volkskunde der Universität Wien in the festschrift on the 50th anniversary of the re-establishment of today's Department of European Ethnology at the University of Vienna

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