The Coordination Office for the Preservation of Written Cultural Heritage (KEK) coordinates and optimises the preservation of original written materials and thus makes a significant contribution towards safeguarding our cultural memory. Nearly all historical documents – such as books, certificates and records – are made of paper. And that paper is severely threatened: over time, it becomes brittle, deteriorates and, in the worst case, becomes irrecoverable.
Funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media and the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States, we pursue one central objective: to permanently preserve the cultural heritage stored across Germany as written legacies from the past. To that end, we were established in August 2011 within the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and have been based ever since at the State Library of Berlin.
Written documents are threatened as a function of their materiality as well as due to external factors. Water, dirt, mould, and pests, but also chemical degradation processes, consume their physical substance. This is compounded by the threat of unforeseen disasters such as the fire at Weimar's Duchess Anna Amalia Library in 2004, the collapse of the Historical Archives of the City of Cologne in 2009, and the fires at the National Museum of Brazil in Rio de Janeiro in 2018 and at the Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris in 2019, which vividly demonstrated the vulnerability of cultural heritage.
The duty of permanently protecting written cultural heritage from these dangers and preserving it for the long term lies with archives, libraries, museums and their affiliated institutions. Yet, all too often, the expertise or the financial resources required to store and safeguard written materials in the best manner possible is not in place. Compounding the challenge, historical holdings in Germany are dispersed across all the states and divided amongst various institutions. The quantity of threatened material is immense. In light of this dispersion and the magnitude of the endeavour, successful preservation can only be achieved on a collective basis that transcends both Land and disciplinary boundaries. And this is where we enter the picture.
What we do
Since 2011, we have been the centralised contact point for coordinating preservation efforts throughout Germany. This encompasses a broad spectrum of duties:
- We serve as consultants mediating between the specialists and the political sphere.
- Through our funding programmes, we invest in projects that will safeguard written documents for the long term.
- We keep political bodies and commissions appraised of current measures and innovations.
- We cooperate across Land borders and disciplines, creating a unique expert network.
- We raise awareness of the originals and communicate their importance for our past and future.
Since 2015, the theoretical and strategic foundation of our work has been the National Recommendations for Action, an initial comprehensive report on the state of written cultural heritage in Germany that systematically assessed institutions' significant needs in this area. With our network-building initiatives, we have considerably bolstered cooperation and expertise in recent years. We receive ongoing specialist support for our funding projects and strategic planning efforts from an expert advisory council composed of specialists from the archive and library sector.
The KEK was established at the initiative of the former cultural commissioner Bernd Neumann, and is funded by the Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media (BKM) and the Cultural Foundation of the German Federal States (KSL).
The advisory council supports the gradual implementation of the National Recommendations for Action and makes recommendations on project funding. The board members are appointed by the BKM in consultation with the KSL and serve a three-year term.
The current members of the expert advisory council:
- Jakob Frohmann, director of the Preservation Division at the University Library Johann Christian Senckenberg of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main and member of the Commission on Preservation in Section 4 of the German Library Association
- Dr. Johannes Kistenich-Zerfaß, Unit Director of the Hessian Land Archives – Hessian State Archives of Darmstadt, Chair of the Conference of Directors of Federal and Land Archival Administrations and Chair of the expert advisory council
- Maria Elisabeth Müller, Director of the State and University Library Bremen and Deputy Chair of the Regional Library Working Group in Section 4 of the German Library Association
- Stephanie Preuss, Director of the Preservation Division, Department of Use and Preservation at the German National Library, member of the Commission on Preservation in Section 4 of the German Library Association and Deputy Chair of the expert advisory council
- Dr. Laura Scherr, Director of Section 3 (construction, preservation, publications, public relations) of the Bavarian State Archives and member of the Commission on Preservation of the Conference of Directors of Federal and Land Archival Administrations
- Dr. Alessandra Sorbello Staub, Director of the Library of the Fulda Episcopal Seminary, spokesperson of the Historic Holdings Commission of the Association of Theological Libraries and member of the Commission on Preservation in Section 4 of the German Library Association
- Dr. Marcus Stumpf, Director of the LWL Archive Office for Westfalen in Münster and Chair of the Federal Conference of Municipal Archives at the Association of German Cities
Representatives of the BKM, the Standing Conference of the Ministers of Education and Cultural Affairs of the Länder, the KSL, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and the State Library of Berlin can attend meetings of the expert advisory board as guests.
Past appointees to the expert commission have included:
- Dr. Ernst Otto Bräunche, Director of the City Archives of Karlsruhe
- Prof. Thomas Bürger, former Director General of the Saxon Land Library – State and University Library Dresden
- Prof. Mario Glauert, Director of the Brandenburg Central Land Archives
- Dr. Rolf Griebel, former Director General of the Bavarian State Library
- Dr. Michael Hollmann, President of the Federal Archives
- Prof. Robert Kretzschmar, former President of the Baden-Württemberg Land Archives
- Dr. Barbara Schneider-Kempf, holder of an honorary doctorate from NUACA, former Director General of the State Library of Berlin
- Dr. Michael Vogel, Land Commissioner for Preservation, Saxon Land Library – State and University Library Dresden
As the sole interdisciplinary and inter-Land body operating in the field of preservation, we serve numerous functions. Situated at the intersection between specialists, institutions and the political sphere, we are the central point of contact for the administrative duty of preservation on the national, Land and municipal levels. In accordance with the National Recommendations for Action, we systematically gather professional and strategic questions around preservation in archives and libraries and develop strategies for future cooperation. Our core responsibilities can be grouped into four areas.
Since our establishment, financially supporting projects for the preservation of written cultural heritage has played a central role in our work. We allocate our budget to two funding programmes:
- BKM Special Programme: This funding programme uses federal funds to support large-volume projects involving large-scale procedures such as deacidification, packaging and cleaning. By requiring 50 % co-financing, the funding programme incentivises German Länder to support institutions with additional Land-level funding and to expand or launch their own Land-level preservation programmes.
- KEK Pilot Project Funding: With this funding programme, we invest in particularly innovative approaches and best practices. Institutions can build exemplary experience, bolster their relevant skills in this area or carry out high-visibility projects.
We help to promulgate (specialist) information on preservation within professional circles, among policymakers and at institutions.
- KEK website: Visitors to our website can view detailed information on all projects supported since 2010 as well as visualise and statistically analyse this data.
- Reporting to political bodies: We apprise committees on the federal, Land and municipal levels as well as international organisations.
- Talks and workshops: We regularly give talks at important professional gatherings such as the German Archive Day and the German Library Congress. Through workshops, we inform institutions about the modalities for applying for grants from our funding programmes. In addition, our director, Ursula Hartwieg, regularly teaches as a guest lecturer, for example at HAWK University of Applied Sciences and Art in Hildesheim.
We raise strong awareness of preservation issues among professionals, politicians and the public:
- Publications and campaigns: Through compelling publications regarding funded projects and the progress with preserving written cultural heritage, we raise public awareness about original documents and books and convey their importance for our history and future. Our publications are available for free in our publications section.
- Collaborations and events: We cooperate with partners in the field of cultural heritage protection on targeted efforts to reach a broad audience. These include projects conducted jointly with the German National Committee for Monument Protection to mark the European Year of Cultural Heritage in 2018. We also collaborate with publicly funded institutions and discuss special projects and collections at events.
- Community management: We have a social media presence under the handle @originalerhalt (German for book/document preservation), where we post information about our projects and engage with the community. Our regular newsletter is another information channel.
We create spaces and forums for cooperation across German Länder, professional disciplines and funding bodies and also financially support data sharing in the realm of preservation.
- Events for interdisciplinary dialogue: We have initiated multiple forums that optimise and better synchronise cooperation around the preservation of original written materials. These include the Germany-Wide Expert Dialogue, the KEK Closed-Door Meeting and the Working Meeting of the Archive and Library Divisions of the Länder.
- Standardised data sharing: We have supported and instated pilot projects comprising detection systems that help institutions improve their coordination of collections that have undergone treatments and the measures that have been taken. This way, institutions can be even more strategic in their efforts to safeguard original written materials.
Preservation is a system-critical component of preserving heritage in archives, libraries and other institutions that archive and make available written information from the realms of culture and scholarship. The key elements of our strategic approach are formulated in the National Recommendations for Action (2015). In addition to taking stock of damage and threats, the paper lays out and defines a framework of responsibility for the library sector to coordinate reconcile multiple surviving copies of materials created since 1851. Complementary to this, a multi-stage model identifies key elements of a national regulation on the transmission of heritage. To coordinate efforts to protect written cultural heritage throughout Germany, we are working with partners to develop strategies and concepts, which currently centre on the following areas:
- Developing strategies for cooperative interdisciplinary protection of cultural heritage, for example with a pilot project on the newspaper segment
- Expanding information infrastructures to coordinate the protection of cultural heritage, for example by developing a standardised record of bulk deacidification in libraries
- Conducting a scholarly assessment of the BKM Special Programme to document process in regard to the 1 % reference value and to expand the database
- Conducting a scholarly assessment of the KEK Pilot Project Funding, for example with a focus on funded research projects
- Expanding and bolstering (inter)national visibility, coordination and cooperation in the realm of written cultural heritage, for example in regard to transnational emergency preparation
Initiatives in the Länder
Preservation programmes and initiatives exist on both the federal and Land levels. The existing measures, many of them short-term, are insufficient to permanently and effectively protect all the documents that are at risk of sustaining irreparable damage throughout Germany. In the long term, preservation can only be successful on the basis of a national strategy. The KEK is laying this foundation. As we do so, we are building upon an integrative approach in order to create synergies and synchronise the parallel activities taking place on the Land level. At the same time, we offer a platform for dialogue among initiators.