A New Era for the Libraries

8 August 2023

Retiring University Library Director Veit Probst on digitisation and recipes for infrastructural successes

Digitisation pervades all areas of our life. In the interview, Dr Veit Probst sheds light on the drastic changes it brings for academic libraries. In its revolutionary character the director of the University Library, retiring at the end of the summer semester, sees a parallel to the invention of printing. For that reason, Veit Probst embraced the digital world from the start in Heidelberg. Reforming library infrastructure paved the way to success in this field.

Dr Veit Probst

Recently the Codex Manesse was admitted to UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme. A nice farewell present for you!

Probst: That’s very true. There’s no doubt that the Codex Manesse, with its extraordinary universal value, is the most important piece in our historical collection. The recognition as world documentary heritage was preceded by a laborious procedure lasting several years. It is all the more satisfying to now reap the reward.


The formal preconditions that had to be met included digitisation. For you that was certainly the smallest obstacle.

Probst: True, the Codex Manesse was among the first medieval manuscripts that we digitised and made available online. When I became director of the University Library in 2002 it soon became clear to me that a new age was dawning for libraries. Since then, it has been my ambition to tackle digitisation as a rewarding challenge and to contribute actively to this process, not only here in Heidelberg but also, for example, in the governing bodies of academic organisations.


How did it start at the University Library?

Probst: We started with a small digitisation workshop and took the first steps towards digitising the stocks. Between 2006 and 2009 we realised our first major project of digitising the manuscripts of the Bibliotheca Palatina held in the Heidelberg University Library. Manfred Lautenschläger gave that project a crucial boost with his financial support. Via the intermediate step of processing the Lorsch Monastic Library we finally succeeded – after long-drawn-out and highly complicated negotiations – in going to the Vatican and digitising the remaining Palatina manuscripts, which have been there since the 17th century. That made it possible to virtually reunite the book collection of the Palatine Electors, which is one of the most famous historical libraries in the world. In so doing, we simultaneously developed the digitisation workshop into a big digitisation centre with, currently, ten high-tech scanners.

The downloads are in the realm of the two-digit millions every year.

Dr Veit Probst

But you didn’t stop just at digitisation...

Probst: The next important step was to produce comprehensive online editions – our catalogue line heiEDITIONS, which is constantly being expanded and contains an infrastructure for digital editions. Here we cooperate with researchers worldwide including from the universities of Cambridge, Santiago de Compostela or Bern, to name but a few. Our special expertise in the field of software solutions is put to good use here. The online Dürer portal, a digital directory of works by this great artist, can be mentioned in this connection as well, along with our catalogues in the context of the Specialised Information Services supported by the German Research Foundation for the disciplines of art history, studies of the ancient world and south Asian studies. Most of the digital edition projects were made possible by acquiring third-party funding. In the last twenty years we have managed to raise over 35 million euro in subsidies.


The highpoint of this development so far has surely been the founding in 2015 of the publishing house Heidelberg University Publishing heiUP, which makes available the latest original scientific publications.

Probst: This step illustrates the incredible challenge to specific skills that has been, and still is, linked with the path into the digital world. Here specialists from the areas of IT and publishing collaborate closely with colleagues from classical librarianship. Academic publications are tending more and more to go online, linking classical presentation and analysis with the underlying research data – film and photo data, survey statistics from the social sciences, or extensive natural science measurements. We play a pioneering role in producing such publications and do not just supply our university. We are an internationally known service provider that makes far more than its historical treasures available online. The downloads are in the realm of the two-digit millions every year.

What is important here besides Open Access?

Probst: Open Access takes first place as we understand the potential of digital publishing to be an assignment to make research results visible and accessible to everyone. Besides the use and further development of innovative publishing forms, we guarantee the quality of heiUP publications through a peer-review procedure. The university publishing house brings out mainly monographs, collections and text books. By the way, we also produce printed editions to supplement the digital formats.

Farewell ceremony Dr Veit Probst

Digitisation has certainly been a leitmotif of your time in office. What other issues have been significant for the University Library in the last twenty years?

Probst: This transformation process from a book-oriented library, like the one I took over, to a digital high-performance centre, was considerably advanced by the decision taken at the start of my tenure to unite the then over 100 decentralised institute libraries under the roof of the University Library. In the course of a concentration process we were able to whittle this number down to 37. One of the highpoints here was creating the CATS library – the library of the Centre for Asian and Transcultural Studies. The result of merging six former institute libraries, it is today the second biggest Asia library in the whole of Germany. In this way we were able to increase working efficiency and the reassigning of positions created new capacities, not least to the benefit of the digitisation field. This reform of organisational structure, substantially supported by the two rectorates under Prof. Dr Peter Hommelhoff and Prof. Dr Bernhard Eitel, was key to all further developments. Ultimately, as the director of the University Library, I could act like an entrepreneur and not like the director of a public authority.


The main building of the University Library in the heart of Heidelberg’s Old City, in which this interview is taking place, has been draped in scaffolding for quite some time. A lot has been built inside, too, in the last few years.

Probst: The building activities likewise represent a significant factor in infrastructural renewal. Here in the old building, construction has been going on in successive stages for a long time now. At the moment we are renovating the facade, and new offices are planned for the former loft on the sixth floor. When I took over the library there were too few reading and work places for the users. After major renovation phases, mainly during the take-over of the neighbouring Triplex building, we now have attractive reading areas with over 1,100 places. Another 500 places are emerging in audiMAX, a new lecture hall and learning centre currently being built on the Im Neuenheimer Feld campus. A further milestone in terms of construction was, besides the above-mentioned CATS library, the Bergheim campus library of the Faculty of Economics and Social Sciences, opened in 2009.


Finally, a look to the future: what will the library of the future be like?

Probst: The libraries that accept the challenges of digital transformation will be successful in future, too. Even if classical lending activity continues to decline, libraries will remain attractive as places for work and study, as long as they use this potential, for example through appropriate construction projects. Finally, another important topic, which plays a central role in the current Excellence Strategy call, is managing research data. For us as a library, this is primarily about questions ranging from the availability of research data to long-term digital archiving. Consequently, we have massively stepped up our cooperation with the University Computing Centre and recently presented a joint strategy for Heidelberg University.

Personal background

Veit Probst studied at the universities of Heidelberg and Mannheim, and also as a scholarship-holder at the Germany Historical Institute in Rome. In 1989, he earned his doctorate at the University of Mannheim with a historical thesis on Petrus Antonius de Clapis, an Italian humanist. After completing a library internship, he joined the staff of the Heidelberg University Library and was first responsible for the academic processing of the Palatina manuscripts. After several other positions of responsibility, he became director of the University Library in 2002. His 21 years in office end on 30 September. After that, he will devote himself to a book project on the life and work of Jan Gruter (1560-1627) – the first history professor at Heidelberg University and the last librarian of the Bibliotheca Palatina before, in 1622, it ended up in the Vatican Library as booty during the Thirty Years’ War.

Portrait: Dr Veit Probst