Project launch at Leipzig University Library: The language of microbes
Leipzig’s University Library (UB) has launched a new research project on the subject of “harnessing microbes to explore books’ biographies”, which is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF). The collaborative project analyses microorganisms in late medieval manuscripts from the holdings of the UB. It is questioning the widespread assumption that microbes are primarily harmful and something to be eliminated. Instead, it sees microbes as an opportunity to gain new insights into the ‘biographies’ of individual books.
Besides the UB in Leipzig, the initiative involves further sub-projects at the TU Braunschweig’s Institute of Philosophy and the Leibniz Institute DSMZ-German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures in Braunschweig.
The collaborative, cross-institutional project will conduct microbiological analyses of late medieval tomes (1250–1500 CE), with an interdisciplinary evaluation involving philosophy, microbiology and cultural studies. The latter is the task of the researchers in Leipzig with their sub-project, which is headed by UB Director Professor Ulrich Johannes Schneider.
Our traditional understanding of books as cultural assets is based on their non-living components, which is why libraries are defined as assemblages of inanimate objects. The joint research project between the UB Leipzig, the TU Braunschweig and the Leibniz Institute DSMZ questions the widespread assumption in conservation practice that microbes are harmful to artefacts and therefore a factor to be eliminated. Instead, the project considers the hypothesis that microbes – which are always present – should be regarded as integral parts of these cultural assets in their own right. Professor Schneider, who is in charge of the project in Leipzig, explains: “It is our assumption that the common orders of knowledge for ‘books’ and ‘libraries’ require an additional, material, component.”
Library holdings are still perceived as a contrast to so-called “living collections”, and the project is turning precisely this notion on its head – to begin with, by comparing the UB Leipzig’s manuscript collections with the microbe bank of the Leibniz Institute DSMZ. The results will be combined with historical studies of the manuscripts used, offering a means of examining the relationship between the book as an artefact and the content it conveys. The approach is both experimental and innovative. It will provide the basis for further research which may even justify a reassessment of book-related aspects of late medieval history.
Professor Ulrich Johannes Schneider
Director of the UB Leipzig
Phone: +49 341 97-30501
UB Leipzig Public Relations Officer
Phone: +49 341 97-30565