A world in books

22 Apr 2022

April 23 is World Book Day, when we celebrate a medium that has lost none of its popularity. Whether digital or print, it does not matter. In the academic sphere, however, things are different.

On Sant Jordi’s Day, April 23, Catalans celebrate their patron saint. Sant Jordi is the Catalan name for Saint George, dragon slayer and spiritual protector of the Iberians in their expulsion of the Moors from the peninsula. Although originally loaded with violent associations – Catalans also refer to Sant Jordi as “Matamoros,” or “Moor Killer” – the feast today is celebrated with symbols of love and learning. Books ’n Roses, you could say, as flowers and literature are the gifts of choice in Catalonia on this day. Reason enough for the United Nations in 1995 to proclaim April 23 as World Book Day. Especially as it is also the date on which William Shakespeare and Miguel de Cervantes are supposed to have died. Numerous initiatives worldwide have been launched since 1995 to inspire young people to read, promote books, and highlight the border-crossing, mediating, perhaps even reconciling power of literature. In times of daily reports of unfathomable atrocities almost on our doorstep, for many people the book is a way of switching off, of preserving their mental health, of diving into different worlds and re-emerging refreshed and energized.

A world in a book: This incunabulum is the second German printed edition of the "Geographia" by the Greek scholar Claudius Ptolemy. Published in 1486 - it is a synthesis of the geographical knowledge of antiquity produced around 150 AD and a detailed description of the world known at that time.

© LMU/Mayla Joy Wind

Print and e-book – both are books

This is reflected in the stability of the market. In respect of the publication format, e-books are catching up. But the print sector remains strong. Christine Haug, professor at LMU and spokesperson of the Center for Book Studies, which was founded in 2018, does not even see the need for this separation in the first place. “Both are books,” she says. “Both are also studied in the classroom and are objects of research.” The obituaries of the printed work, which people began penning in the 1990s, have proven largely premature. “Both forms have their advantages in different reading situations.” Some people prefer the tactile experience of the physical book and its lack of reliance on batteries, while others might value the e-book for its ability to adjust the size of the letters to compensate for declining eyesight.

According to, the number of print publications has fallen only slightly in favor of digital products. And the book trade, says Haug, has managed in most cases to respond with appropriate dynamism and adjust their offerings to match new realities. In many small book stores, for example, there are terminals where customers can receive advice and then pay for and download the e-version of a book. “This is not what cut-throat competition looks like,” says the bibliographer.

Trend toward electronic publishing

Things look differently in the context of academic publication and reception practices. “We’re experiencing an unparalleled cultural change,” says Dr. Sven Kuttner, head of the Special Collections department and deputy director of the University Library at LMU. “When I entered the librarian profession in the last millennium, the printed book was the undisputed king of media – sometimes still sorted in card catalogues according to the Prussian Instructions. Today, there are already subjects that only publish electronically.” Particularly in the natural and life sciences, and in human medicine above all, digital publication has become the gold standard. “In the case of the coronavirus pandemic and the rapid succession of new scientific results, print publication does not even make any sense. The speed of digital media is simply unbeatable there,” states Kuttner. But he has also noticed a clear trend in the direction of digital publishing in the humanities. “I think it’s partly a generational thing,” he observes.

Coronavirus as catalyst

According to Kuttner, the pandemic gave digitalization a huge boost, functioning as a sort of catalyst. “The libraries were closed, lectures and seminars were taking place online – there was often no alternative to digital sources. And accesses of electronic media comfortably exceeded those of print publications.”

Sven Kuttner is certain that the printed book will not disappear anytime in the foreseeable future, “but precisely for younger scientists, publication and reception will take electronic forms in the future.” The university library started preparing for this sector at a very early stage, with the first e-books entering its catalogues way back in 2004. “We were one of the first university libraries in Continental Europe to build up stock in this area.”

“I always wanted to do something involving books”

Research results are published in books or journals, which are made available in the university library in electronic or print format. At the Center for Book Studies at LMU, the book itself is an object of research – and not just scientifically, but also in relation to publishing practice. For Maria Schwurack, who is in the sixth semester of a book studies degree, it is this practical component that makes the course the right choice for her: “I always wanted to do something involving books. This course seemed like a good opportunity to get to know various professions in the industry and learn new things about the book as a medium.” As such, she finds the seminars given by external experts from the publishing sector very interesting.

“We benefit from Munich being a media hub, because this gives us the best opportunities for establishing links with publishers,” says Christine Haug. Like Maria, around 80 percent of the 300 students in book studies courses at LMU want to work in publishing after their studies and to get a foot in the door of the industry by virtue of student jobs and internships. Some 60 speakers from the sector give regular lectures and seminars, affording insights into publishing practice.

Dr. Sven Kuttner in front of the treasures in the basement of the University Library.

© LMU/Mayla Joy Wind

Digital humanities and book studies

However, the primary focus of the Center for Book Studies, which combines expertise from book and publishing research, business studies, and legal studies with an eye to publishing practice, is on scientific research and projects that deal with the history of the book, including from a social science perspective. For example, the history of the German dime novel in the period from 1905 to 2020 is a major new project currently being undertaken by a team of researchers led by Christine Haug. Digital humanities have a starring role in this enterprise, as this kind of pulp fiction “can only be processed by digital methods on account of the sheer volume,” says the professor. It is not only a matter of digitalizing the texts, but also studying metadata such as ductus, semantics, and syntax, which can be analyzed using algorithms and, for example, can be classified according to socio-historical context. “Thanks to digitalization, we can address whole new topics that previously could not be readily tackled,” says Christine Haug.

Books as part of our identity

Books and other publication formats are the means of choice in the university cosmos for setting out scientific findings and above all introducing them to other academics and interested parties outside of universities. They record research results and are themselves an object of research. But they also stand for heritage and tradition and the venerable identity of a university with a history that stretches back half a millennium. Precious books, mainly from the early years of LMU, are stored in air-conditioned and specially fire-protected rooms in the basement of the university library. Sven Kuttner is responsible for looking after them. Around half a million old printed works from the period between 1501 and 1900 are kept there, some 3,500 incunabula, or cradle books, from the period before December 1500, and roughly the same number of manuscripts from the various eras of the Hohe Schule and subsequent LMU. Although the “competition” from the state library might seem more colorful and to have greater presence, experts know about the books and other printed matter that are kept in the university library and which are a stone in the intellectual foundation of the library, so to speak. And some of which come from days long before the eyes of Miguel de Cervantes or William Shakespeare first opened on the world.

What are you looking for?