Microbes as probes of the book biography: Studies of late mediaeval codices held at Leipzig University Library as cultural objects

Subproject B (LIBER), part of the collaborative research project “Contamination and Legibility of the World: Articulating Microbes in Collections”

Contamination and Legibility of the World: Articulating Microbes in Collections (MIKROBIB)

The MIKROBIB project is working on a re-evaluation of microorganisms. The German Collection of Microorganisms and Cell Cultures (DSMZ) and samples from Leipzig University Library’s collection of medieval manuscripts are taken as examples and provide material objects of investigation. While it has become clear that microbes are ubiquitous, extremely diverse and even useful as well as in fact indisposable for mankind, they still face strong ressentiments as they are seen as generally noxious and material desctructive and thus to be eliminated wherever possible.
Naturally, microbes have lived and live on cultural objects. Are they thus to be counted as part of the objects – could they even be important information carriers regarding the history of the objects, and would they therefore even to be protected and preserved? Our project aims to face this question and its consequences for collections of dead and of living “objects” by a cooperation joining the Department of Philosophy at the Technical University of Braunschweig, Leipzig University and DSMZ.

Subproject A
The contaminated ‘World as Book’. On knowledge orders and modes of reference concerning dead and living collections. The example of library and microbial resource center (ORDO)

Subproject B
Microbes as probes of the book biography: Studies of late medieval codices held at Leipzig University Library as cultural objects (LIBER)

Subproject C
The Book's Microbiome. Archaeo-microbial analyses (BIOM)

Subproject B LIBER

In libraries, microbes are still mostly being equated with mould fungus which decomposes the books and thus consequently has to be disposed. The LIBER project, sited at the center of competence in manuscript studies (manuscript centres) at LUL, wants to rethink microbes and their inavoidable omnipresence in relation to their habitats in libraries and inside books. Following the idea of the “material turn”, the codex is seen as a complex unity closely joining the contents in script and image with its materiality, the latter also forming a carrier of (non-textual) information. This offers the possibility to view the book in its physical appearance and within the frame of its physical environment. The project’s two foci on medieval collective manuscripts combine a perspective concentrating on the history of the collection with a perspective on the contexts of production, creation and ownership as well as of the storage of the objects through the ages. In collaboration with subproject C, the project tries to fathom inhowfar the occurance of microorganisms could be seen as “sensors” that help to shed light on the object biographies of the chosen volumes.

Some historical details regarding parts of the medieval manuscript collections kept at LUL have already been investigated (Overview), but the present project aims at delving deeper into the circumstances where and how manuscripts were and are kept. We hope to find out on the spatial and climatic circumstances that the microbe bearing book objects were subject to and which  influenced the living conditions of the microorganisms. On the level of the single objects, the investigations target at a reconstruction of the history of their creation and ownership. Furhermore, it follows up the “life” of the books from the materials used to produce them, and this also includes the history of the different “ingrediences” in need. This starts from the writing material material of parchment and paper – which furthermore own a biography of their production –, wood and leather for the bindings, ink, colour pigments and bookbinder’s glue, and leads all the way to the shelf-mark labels and procedures of conservation. These features are also regarded from a microorganism’s perspective in terms of edibility or noxiousness of its environment. Due to their importance for the history of the objects, traces of usage contaminating the objects are likewise part of the investigation, i.e. both textual additions and soiling by readers and librarians.
With the other subprojects, LIBER shares a comparing perspective regarding systematics of collections and of knowledge between dead and living collections, as well as reciprocal supplement of information on historical processes in terms of the manuscripts as microbial habitats and medial objects and part of collections. Negotiating between contamination and “legibility of the world”, our overall aim is to articulate the microbes in our collections.

In spring 2021, team LIBER will curate an exhibition at Bibliotheca Albertina on “The contaminated book” in cooperation with MIKROBIB’s project partners.