Grey Room

The West Berlin Staatsbibliothek and the Sound Politics of Libraries

Hannah Wiemer

Potsdamer Straße, West Berlin, 1966. Next to the site of the Staatsbibliothek (the triangular plot in the image’s upper left) are the Philharmonie (lower left) and the Matthäus-Kirche (upper right). Photograph by Rolf Koehler. © bpk/Rolf Koehler.


In 1893, the German architectural manual Handbuch der Architektur recommended that library reading rooms be located as far away as possible from street noise—not only to ensure a quiet atmosphere but also to protect the library and its holdings from fire. However, this tradition of creating “islands of silence”—a term central to Dutch historian Karin Bijsterveld’s study of noise and noise abatement—was subjected to transformations in the twentieth century. Bijsterveld observes that the “spatial solution” of zoning was a noise abatement strategy employed in several historical periods to create quiet zones for institutions such as churches, hospitals, schools, and twentieth-century libraries. But even when libraries have attempted to insulate and distance themselves from urban noise and to create their own acoustic sphere, their sound has proven to be deeply connected to that of other places. Cultural, political, and technological transformations in the second half of the twentieth century began to resonate within libraries in ways that have shaped how they sound today.