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Friends: The life of a cultural anthropologist, part 3

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Photo Courtesy of Veronica Ederer The library of the institute in Frankfurt along the river Rhine.

Copyright © 2021 Roswell Daily Record

More adventures of research and librarians

By Veronika Ederer

Special to the Daily Record

During one semester that was part of my studies in cultural anthropology in Munich, I worked exclusively in its library. Eight different departments of the institute had moved to the former building of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, which included political science, communication science, computer science, Japanese studies and cultural anthropology.

The library of every department was put in the former broadcasting studios, some on the first and some on the second floor. At the main entrance students could borrow books, bring them back, get their library cards or ask questions. One of my jobs in the library was to return all those borrowed books to the different studios. Every department had its special system of cataloging books, with colors, letters, abbreviations or numbers. My favorite work was sorting the books for Japanese studies. Their books were arranged in the traditional Japanese writing system – from the bottom to the top and from right to left – which really was a challenge.

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When the main librarian left for lunch, I sat at the desk at the entrance and watched that no student entered the library with a bag. The designer for the desk maybe thought librarians were extremely tall since he designed the wooden attachment at the front of the desk very high. Sitting at the desk, I could see only the heads of the visitors. One day a young woman entered the library and held a leather band over the attachment of my desk, asking me where to put it. Well, I thought a bag was hanging from that band and told her to put it in the lockers in front of the entrance. Her eyes went big, and, as I stood up, taking a look, I saw a friendly Golden Retriever sitting at her feet.

Another job was being the fix-it doctor for the different copy machines on the two floors. During my years at the university and library, I fixed all kinds of copy machines, plucked out shredded paper, saved melted copy film, repaired paper jams and changed color cartridges of many different makes and models. Sometimes students forgot their books, their money, keys or folders at the copy machine, which we kept at our desk for them to pick up.

One morning, somebody forgot something very weird. It was 9.05 a.m., the library just opened, and one of my first visitors was a teacher of political science. He vanished in the copy machine room and returned just a few seconds later. He stopped in front of my desk, telling me that his copy machine was jammed. I got up to help him, opened the copy machine, fixed the paper and closed the machine — it was already starting its job. When I wanted to leave, I saw a huge piece of bacon laying on the paper tray of the copy machine.

No joke — a 2-by-8-inch piece of bacon, with no paper, bread or anything else. If it would have been a sandwich — of course, it was not allowed to be eaten in the library — it would have been quite understandable. But who carries a piece of bacon like this around in a library? I decided that I did not want to know who did it, and I disposed of the bacon, which was obviously lying there since the previous evening.

After one semester, being exclusively in the library, I went back to the institute to help different teachers. One teacher was a specialist in scientific research, and I learned a lot from him. To prepare a class, he did not only produce a handset with special books and articles in the library, but he also wanted to have all the titles of the books and articles his students would need for their papers researched. He wrote one title, author and other information on a separate note and gave me the whole pile. I sat hours in front of the card catalog in the Bavarian State Library to find the articles, but it taught me how meticulously one can prepare for a class. At the end of his career, he expanded the research quite a bit because his last book covers more than 1,200 pages, with more than 800 pages containing the bibliography.

I finished my studies in Munich in 2000, and, having a master’s degree, it was no longer possible for me to work as a student helper. I decided to write my dissertation in Frankfurt along the river Main, and I left the institute in Munich with a laughing and a crying eye (a German expression when a person is at the same time sad and happy).

The only professor for Native American culture in Germany taught in Frankfurt, so it was a logical decision for me to go there. The supervisor of my master thesis in Munich was quite mad at me because I left, but it was obvious that he could not help me with my dissertation project. He was a specialist for Siberia, a nice and helpful man. After moving to Frankfurt, I visited the people of the institute and the library in Munich several times.

In Frankfurt, I started my dissertation by visiting the library. During those years, the Institute for Cultural Anthropology was located in a villa that was built in the Art Nouveau style, in the western part of the city. I felt like stepping back in time, starting in a small institute with only one seminar room and a library located in the cellar! Since the building used to be a residence, every tenant had an extra cellar room. It took me weeks to find my way in this labyrinth of chambers and back rooms full of bookshelves that were located next to ticking heating pipes.

I wrote my dissertation titled “Honor and Shame in Native American Culture.” During my studies in Munich, I was inspired by the teacher on legal anthropology who taught a class on the subject, and I presented a paper on Native American honor codes. It was a challenge to find sources for this subject because — as the supervisor for my dissertation in Frankfurt noticed — old sources do not give answers to new questions. There was no book on “Honor and Shame in Native American Culture,” but I knew certain keywords which were associated with the phrase “honor,” like war, prestige, wealth or status.

I lived in a student home 15 minutes away from the institute by bicycle. I attended two classes given by my dissertation supervisor, and I worked once a week for an entire day in a bookstore close to the main university complex in Frankfurt. The rest of the week I developed a daily routine: I got up, had breakfast, rode to the library, brought back the books from the day before and borrowed two or three new ones. I returned to my room, made some tea or coffee, and sat down at my desk to study the new books, cooked some dinner, and went to bed.

In the beginning, I asked for a library card. It was obvious to me that the lady had been a librarian for many years, seen many kinds of students, and she was kind of grumpy. But I decided to be nice to her, since I knew the job of a librarian quite well — and I might need her support. I greeted her in a friendly way every day, no matter how surly she looked. Around Christmas time I brought her some chocolate, and she was really touched. She became very friendly with me and, of course, she got to know my routine quickly. Every day, I went back to the bookshelf, took the next book in line, checked the index and decided if it would be useful or not. Since I continued at the same place where I stopped the day before, I asked the librarian one day if I could return my borrowed books myself. Knowing that I used to work in a library, she was OK with this. During this first semester in Frankfurt, I went through the entire North America collection of the library. At the end of the semester, I counted the final numbers of books on the different shelves and counted them just for fun: There were approximately 5,000 titles.

Veronika Ederer received her Ph.D. from the Johann Wolfgang Goethe University Frankfurt am Main, Germany, in cultural anthropology. Originally from Germany, she has worked for several years in Switzerland in museums such as the North American Native Museum in Zürich and with the gifted program “Universikum” in Zürich. She has visited New Mexico and Roswell for her research and is looking forward to returning as soon as the pandemic is over.

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