Organizing Knowledge for a Modern Church: The Functional Order of Catholic Libraries in Wilhelmine Germany

In the early years of the twentieth century, Catholic libraries in Germany adopted modernized methods of organization to simplify their use: the arrangement of books by subject, alpha-numeric classifying systems, and card catalogs. The adoption may not seem like much, but in the structure and practice of Catholic knowledge the change was fundamental. How did this revolution come about and what did it betoken?

The story begins with the Association of Saint Charles Borromeo or Borromäusverein, which came together in 1845 under the leadership of bourgeois Catholic loyalists and their allies in the Rhenish clergy. Dedicated to the erection and supply of home and parish libraries, its intention was to seal the hermeneutical space of Catholic Germany by suffusing the laity with pious texts to be read under the direction of parish priests. In and through the consumption of such texts—catechisms, edifying storybooks, Psalters, Marian devotionals, anti-Protestant tracts, conservative cultural commentary, and so on—it hoped that an increasingly literate laity might remain loyal to the church as their primary source of meaning. By national unification in 1871, it counted some 55,000 members and operated over a thousand parish libraries from one end of Germany to the other. On the basis of this apparent success, historians routinely mention the Borromäusverein in their analysis of clerical cultural control in the “Catholic confessional milieu.”1

I say “apparent” success, because inexorable forces were in play that doomed the organization as it was originally conceived. First of all, the lower-class laity, the primary target of the Borromäusverein’s efforts, welcomed religious texts, to be sure, but also every other species of print, and with the selfsame hunger. They read everything they could get their hands on: popular novellas, fantasies, militaristic stories, “family” periodicals like Die Gartenlaube (The Garden Arbor) with serialized short stories, pamphlet literature on every conceivable topic, the lowbrow colportage of bandits, slaves, ghosts, hangings, and bordellos.2 They brought all of these publications and more, including forbidden secular newspapers, into their sitting rooms, bedrooms, and barns to the everlasting vexation of their bishops and priests, who were keen to hold them to an approved reading regime. This was not a population, which had long rebelled against their church’s reading rules, that would accept an ars legendi limited to pious texts.

Second, if the laity did not find in their church’s collections the books they wanted to read, they abandoned them for comparatively well-stocked secular alternatives, regardless of their priests’ admonitions against doing so. This was a fact recognized even by the Borromäusverein, which tracked popular book behavior closely in its increasingly frustrated endeavor to attract readers to its libraries.3

And third, the Kulturkampf of the 1870s, which had attempted to impose national unity on the basis of Protestant traditions alone, rattled Catholic sensitivities so completely that in its aftermath Catholics across the social spectrum took measures to demonstrate their embrace of Kultur as a means of assimilation. Because Kultur, or literary-philosophical sophistication, was inextricably bound up with perceptions of educational attainment, this effort meant addressing their alleged Bildungsdefizit (deficit in education). That Catholics suffered from such a shortcoming had been a prejudice leveled at them by Protestants at the apex of German power since the end of the eighteenth century.4 Catholics were “dumm,” Protestants maintained, because priests kept them that way as a method of popular compulsion via mind control. As members of a backward and intellectually incarcerating “Verdummungsanstalt” (stultifying institution), they could have no place in a rising Kulturnation that intended to command the burgeoning fields of scholarly and scientific knowledge (Wissenschaft).

Catholics understood the linkage between knowledge and national participation all too well, an understanding driven home by Kulturkampf animosities, which branded them as “kulturlos” (or cultureless) internal enemies incapable of reliable citizenship. And so, in the 1880s and into the Wilhelmine period of German history, Catholics more than ever embraced Wissenschaft and all that it entailed as an appeal to acceptance in professional, social, and cultural life. This embrace was comprehensive in the scope of its attraction, from bourgeois elites distancing themselves from the Index of Forbidden Books and other restrictions on intellectual engagement to shopkeepers and domestic servants attending parish-run lectures on scientific discoveries to peasants chasing shoddy teachers from village schools to priest-naturalists collecting beetles for their rectory display cases. “If one wants to judge the efforts of an age by what the high or the low fuss about,” observed a priest in the Diocese of Paderborn in 1895, “then the great effort of our time is directed toward education. Everyone clamors for education, as they do for daily bread.”5 This clamor drew readers beyond the limits of edifying religious texts and into the enticing domains of secular publishing in such areas as popular science readers, books on technological applications in the home, and occupational training manuals.

All three factors—omnivorous book appetites, the seduction of larger and more diversified secular collections, and educational reading to offset the laming charge of Bildungsdefizit—brought the Borromäusverein, which had not adjusted to alterations in popular interests, to the edge of ruin. Membership sank, chapters closed, local leaderships collapsed. Even clerical supporters fell off. “In the ’80s,” recalled Johannes Braun, a Saarland priest active in worker ministry, “the Association did nothing but vegetate. Books were partly publishers’ non-sellers; libraries became poor man’s libraries.”6 Leaders feared that if the organization did not increase its appeal by addressing itself to the modernized reading desires of its natural constituency, its libraries, already decaying, would become “poor devils” serving no one but the “children of workers and craftsmen,” providing nothing of value but a “tame book against the boredom of Sunday afternoons.”7

By the 1890s, the Association was in extremis. Leaders asked the laity to explain their want of interest in it. A basic complaint was that in the laity’s eyes Borromäus collections were disordered. This was a telling observation. It derived from the fact that collections tended simply to lump books together on unmarked shelves without any effort at taxonomic distribution beyond authors’ last names. It had always been thus in Catholic book culture.8 Historically, Catholic libraries organized books “intratextually,” that is, based on an organic understanding of all its books as forming “a single fabric composed of interlocking parts that [could] be retrieved and recombined variously as the occasion [demanded].” Each book in a collection was “part of the interpretive context within which every other [book was] read and understood.”9 Libraries organized in this way thus gave off the aura of wholeness characteristic of the unified theological knowledge they wanted to transmit to an integral community of believers. In the first instance, then, Catholic libraries were places of belonging, not places of learning. They were places of identity, not utility.

We get a clear sense of the profound intellectual changes that Catholics had undergone from readers who deserted religious libraries organized in this fashion. The Borromäusverein’s libraries were “disordered” because they did not appeal to the classifying expectations of the modern mind, which ever since the Enlightenment sought to manage complexity through the thematic abstractions of functional order. When it came to libraries, this meant diminishing disorientation by “demystifying” books under uncompromising structures of their topical sequestration and taxonomic rearrangement. Libraries organized in this way were not places of being; with their “search-and-find machinery” they were places of utile knowledge that satisfied not needs held in common but needs defined by the particular interests of their users.10

The leaders of the Borromäusverein got the message. They adopted British and American methods of book classification by subject and card catalog systems from firms in Protestant Leipzig. The change was epistemological as much as it was practical: It demonstrated popular acceptance of the prereflective cognitive category of the fragmentation of knowledge that undergirds scientific specialization. Librarianship under the new Borromäusverein may still have been couched in religious language, but its altered methods testified directly to Catholics’ embrace of secular intellectual culture and their intention to play by its rules. In 1910, a consolidated Borromäus library in the city of Trier organized by the new methods opened its doors for public tours. Visitors were invited to inspect “all of the equipment, the catalog, [and] the systematic organization of books, subscribers, and lending cards.” Everyone, including the bishop of Trier, praised “the so successful effect of the local library,” which soon provided a model for collections in Münster, Duisburg, and Speyer.11 From 1895, when a number of chapters began renovating their collections in light of lay demands, to 1914, membership in the Borromäusverein rose from 61,538 to 261,815, an increase of 425 percent.

Such was the end of intratextual book display in Catholic Germany, a feature of the church’s intellectual life since late antiquity, when the keepers of classical and Christian learning in the early monasteries laid the works of great authors sideways on cupboard shelves.12 Henceforth, books would be made to obey the rules of rational function. Scientia vincit omnia.

Jeffrey T. Zalar is Associate Professor of History and holds the Ruth J. and Robert A. Conway Endowed Chair in Catholic Studies at the University of Cincinnati. He is author of Reading and Rebellion in Catholic Germany, 1770–1914 (Cambridge University Press, 2019).


  1. See, for example, Olaf Blaschke, “Das 19. Jahrhundert: Ein zweites konfessionelles Zeitalter?,” Geschichte und Gesellschaft 26 (2000): 65. ↩︎
  2. Jeffrey T. Zalar, Reading and Rebellion in Catholic Germany, 1770–1914 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 113–36 and 156–80. ↩︎
  3. “Versammlung der Leiter der Borromäusvereine betreffend,” Kirchliches Amtsblatt der Diöcese Münster 44, no. 4 (1910): 27–28. ↩︎
  4. Martin Baumeister, Parität und katholische Inferiorität: Untersuchungen zur Stellung des Katholizisumus im Deutschen Kaiserreich (Paderborn: Ferdinand Schöningh, 1987). ↩︎
  5. Otten, “Schriftenkunde und Bildung: Analphabetenstatistik,” Der deutsche Seelsorger: Wissenschaftlich-praktische Monatsschrift für den Klerus Deutschlands 7 (1895): 510. ↩︎
  6. Quoted in 100 Jahre Borromäus-Vereins 1845–1945 (Kempen-Niederrhein: Thomasdruck, 1946), 14–15. ↩︎
  7. “Das geringe Interesse der besseren Stände für die Bibliotheken des Borromäusvereins. Wie soll man demselben abhelfen?” Borromäus-Blätter (freie Folge) 11 (July 1902): 280–81. ↩︎
  8. For this analysis, see Zalar, Reading and Rebellion, 278–79. ↩︎
  9. Paul J. Griffiths, Religious Reading: The Place of Reading in the Practice of Religion (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1999), 53. ↩︎
  10. Jeffrey Garrett, “Redefining Order in the German Library, 1775–1825,” Eighteenth-Century Studies 33, no. 1 (1999): 117. ↩︎
  11. P. Isenkrahe, “Ueber die Entwicklung einer auf katholischer Grundlage in Trier errichteten öffentlichen Bücherei,” Die Bücherwelt: Zeitschrift für Bibliotheks- und Bücherwesen 9, no. 9/10 (June/July 1912): 189. ↩︎
  12. Peter Brown, The Rise of Western Christendom: Triumph and Diversity, A.D. 200–1000, 2nd ed. (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2003), 197–98. ↩︎