University Library enters its fifth century
8 October 2021
“The Library’s normal situation has been one of constant change and development, although outsiders haven’t always been at all aware of this,” writes Lars Burman, Director of Uppsala University Library, which celebrates its quatercentenary this year. This column is based on his speech at the inauguration of the quatercentenary exhibition at Carolina Rediviva.
Twelve days ago, Uppsala University Library resumed its normal opening hours. Its main building, Carolina Rediviva (the Carolina Library), is open seven days a week and until 9 pm on weekdays. We never closed during the pandemic. There were students who needed a Wi-Fi connection, access to course literature and sessions in reading rooms that were relatively empty, but at least proved that other people existed. And there were scholars who tenaciously kept working on manuscripts and personal archives in our Rare books room.
As we also saw, the Library was well set up for researchers, teachers and students working from home. Use of our e-resources soared, and both helpdesk services and teaching became entirely digital. Existing infrastructure was used more than ever, and I can confirm that our investments in digital advances over the past few decades have now borne fruit. The wealth of digital options has, despite everything, been a solace in an Uppsala where human encounters are what give the city and our University, including the Library, their distinctive character.
In 1620 and again in 1621, Gustav II Adolf ordered the founding of a library at what was then Sweden’s only university. A few years later, the King’s huge “Gustavian Donation” paved the way for this struggling provincial university to develop into a celebrated European seat of learning. Professors were engaged and teaching improved. Later came a donation from Johan Skytte (the former royal tutor, and Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University from 1622), and the traditional exercitia (exercises) in the form of riding, fencing, dancing, music and modern languages. In due course, the student organisations known as ‘nations’ were made mandatory and the students’ role was thus recognised. Still, in a sense, this whole massive series of university reforms began with the founding of the Library that is now 400 years old. I imagine that Gustav II Adolf realised that without stable research infrastructure there would be no university.
At times, the Library has undergone crises worse than the COVID-19 pandemic. It was miraculously saved in the city fire of 1702, and evacuated in 1719 pending the Russian invaders’ ravages. For centuries, the premises were substandard or inadequate. During the Second World War, my predecessors were appalled by the fate of sister libraries on the Continent. I seem to remember that during the Second World War, the Library Director contributed from the library budget to the anti-aircraft guns that protected central Uppsala. In war and peace alike, there has always been the idea that libraries stand for sustainability – the sustainable, long-term dissemination of knowledge.
Throughout its history, the Library’s customary situation has always been one of change and development, although outsiders have not always had any such perception. After all, it is in the nature of library support to be simple, self-evident and thus as invisible as possible. There should be no need to ponder the workings of a timepiece when, hurrying to work, we glance at the time.
Uppsala University Library is now entering its fifth century. It will continue to develop in terms of teaching and research infrastructure, and to deliver University-wide and faculty-related services, but often in new areas and contexts. New chapters are being added to the story of our Library. At the same time, we are in charge of physical treasures and they, too, must be managed, developed and protected. The world will never be completely digital, and for the past five years US Navy officers have been learning astronomical navigation, using marine charts and sextants. You never know...
Today a scaled-down inauguration of our quatercentenary exhibition is held. Perhaps, in hindsight, we can perceive a hidden benefit from the pandemic preventing many previously planned physical events from taking place. Now, to a high degree our extensive 400th-anniversary celebrations are taking place virtually, online. But being able to gather with other people again is a joy. And watch this space: some of our in-person celebrations have been postponed to the new academic year.
Lars Burman, Uppsala University Library Director
This column is based on the speech held by Lars Burman at the inauguration of the quatercentenary exhibition at Carolina Rediviva.