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Austrian Volunteers Keep National Heritage Alive

VIENNA (dpa) – A host of volunteers is currently delving through dusty files at the huge Austrian National Library to shed new light on the country’s history and culture.

They range from a retired doctor indexing written tributes to past kings and emperors to a former diplomat filing tapes of the voices of long-deceased opera stars.

Some of the volunteers are tackling the Herculean task of conserving two million photos in the picture archives by repacking them into acid-free envelopes. A woman student of classical philology spends most of her days in the papyrus collection, indexing Greek and Coptic writings.

They and dozens of others have become the backbone of the National Library, dubbed “the angels of the house” by General Director Hans Marte. Retired company managers, ambassadors, medical heads of hospital departments and bankers are all doing their share to bring forth a unique wealth of information from decades of obscurity.

In the current “U.N. Year of the Volunteer 2001”, many of them were recruited by the organization Friends of the National Library, whose president Gerhard Puschmann is setting a good example. Before retiring as head of a major insurance company, he already raised funds for the library to acquire a collection of historical posters.

Now, as a volunteer, he has set to indexing and filing propaganda and picture postcards from the First World War, untouched since 1923, and making them available on the Internet.

There are equally enthusiastic helpers in the library’s music department. Retired diplomat Heinrich Winter is sifting through tapes of the voice archives of one of Vienna’s big theaters, the Theater an der Wien.

There he has already found and indexed tapes of such past opera stars as Ljuba Welitsch and Pavel Ludikar.

Another ex-diplomat, Ambassador Hedwig Wolfram, describes herself as a lifelong “notorious bookworm”, After retiring, she learned bookbinding and joined the book restoration section of the National Library as a volunteer.

Among the volunteers are also retired staff of the library itself.

Professor Otto Mazal, up to 1992 director of the Calligraphy section, only found time after his retirement to start an index of the National Library’s 8,000 printed items some of which date back 500 years ago.

Although the library has the world’s biggest collection of 15th Century printings, there had previously never been a full index or description of the works.

At the nearby portraits collection is Helga Wejwar, who after retiring as a secretary in the Federal Office of Monuments sought a full-time occupation “so my mind wouldn’t get into a rut”.

“There’s simply too much to do here. I can see that the people are already overburdened with everyday work, and there’s no capacity to go over the collections,” she said. “It’s a disgrace how the National Library is treated. It’s a part of Austria which they’re letting run to seed. One has to help as much as one can.”

At present she is commuting once weekly from her home 30 kilometres away, but plans to double her time on her current project of digitally indexing the historical picture archives of the VOEST steel company.

Working in the portraits section is former medical head of a hospital department, Dr. F.C. Mueller, who began art history studies after his retirement and is doing pioneering work in classifying written records of past homages and gifts to royalty.

Bettina Leiminger, a student of classical philology and ancient history, found her place in the library’s papyrus section which is chronically short of paid staff.

There she conducts guided tours, informs researchers, corrects publications, and compiles indexes of Greek and Coptic writings.

Section chief of the papyrus collection Prof. Hermann Harrauer praises her commitment, and also that of another volunteer, retired banker Othmar Bachmayer.

Without his work, the World Congress of Papyrologists taking place in Vienna this year could never have been organized. “Without the volunteers I’d have to close the museum,” says Harrauer.

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