Walter Benjamin’s collection of children’s books to be restored

Much-used and correspondingly worse for wear: Walter Benjamin’s collection of children’s books is to be saved for posterity. Funds for this are now available. (Photo: Uwe Dettmar)

Walter Benjamin’s collection of children’s books is to be saved for posterity. The national government, the Federal State of Hesse and the Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research have joined forces to finance the first restoration work on this valuable historical archive.

The collection previously owned by Walter Benjamin comprises just 204 books. Yet it is particularly valuable in several respects: For research, it delivers important insights into this great intellectual mind, who was a close friend of Theodor W. Adorno and belonged to the circle of the Frankfurt School. Some of the books stem from Benjamin’s own childhood, and in his writings and radio broadcasts he also dealt with children’s literature based on his collection. Moreover, the collection is composed entirely of beautiful and rare copies: Benjamin, who was born in Berlin, primarily built up his collection according to aesthetic criteria; he was especially interested in illustrated and artistically ornate children’s books.

Having been purchased from Benjamin’s heirs, the collection came to the Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research in the 1980s. It was the explicit wish of Stefan Benjamin, Walter Benjamin’s son, that the collection return to Germany. It was displayed at an exhibition at the University Library and an elaborate catalogue was produced (available for download from the department’s website).

Since then, the books have been kept in a steel cabinet in the department’s library. To be able to continue making them accessible for research, restoration work is urgently required: The books are used a great deal and partially damaged as a result, the ravages of time have done the rest. They will now first be “stabilised”. Part of the collection has already been sent to the Centre for Book Conservation in Leipzig, where first of all the paper will be deacidified, the cover and edges stabilised, and customised boxes with hinged lids made for each individual book.

“With modest means, Benjamin assembled the books from his own childhood into a collection,” explains Dr Felix Giesa, custodian at the Department for Children’s and Young Adult Literature Research. He primarily collected books according to aesthetic criteria, he adds, mostly illustrated works from the 19th century. Apart from various editions of Grimms’ Children’s and Household Tales, fairytales by Wilhelm Hauff and Charles Perrault are also part of the collection. In addition, what are known as transformation picture books, such as a rare book by Christian Gottfried Heinrich Geissler dated 1815, make up an important part of the valuable collection.

With funds from the government’s Coordination Office for the Preservation of Written Cultural Heritage, which will assume 50 percent of the costs, from the Federal State of Hesse, which will bear 40 percent via the Hessian Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and the Arts, and from the budget of Professor Ute Dettmar, the collection will first be stabilised and catalogued, after which an exhibition and a symposium are planned. A total of around € 30,000 is available for these measures. Later, the collection will also be digitised so that it is available for Benjamin research in Germany and abroad – without its use leaving further traces in the originals.

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