Peter Schirmbacher at the IBI

By Michael Seadle

I met Peter in New Delhi in 2004 at the first International Conference on Digital Libraries []. We were both invited speakers, who were lodging at the Habitat World guest house, which had a pleasant top floor bar that was vaguely reminiscent of colonial India. We were both drinking beer and both reading detective novels in German. Soon we started talking with each other and discovered many links. My grandfather lived in West Berlin at the time when Peter was growing up in the East. His son stayed with a family in Lansing, Michigan, not far from where I lived. We were both computing people, both interested in libraries, and quickly became friends. Later he visited my wife and me in Michigan, and we visited Peter and Maria when we were in Berlin.

When the University set up a Findungskommission to decide whether to keep the Institut für Bibliotheks- und Informationswissenschaft (IBI), I saw Peter again. After the commission recommended keeping the IBI, there was talk of a professorship and a number of people encouraged me to apply. Peter also had an offer of a professorship elsewhere as well as in Berlin. I agreed to apply for the Berlin professorship for Digital Libraries if he stayed.

Friendship was not the only reason why I would not have applied if Peter had left. There was no way that an outsider could rebuild the school alone. As the director of the Computer and Media Service (CMS), he had the political connections within the University to open doors and he could introduce me to the University’s culture as only someone could who had truly grown up within the institution. In terms of policies and interests, we shared a common vision that put far more weight on the digital future. We also shared an interest in the culture of electronic publishing and we shared an interest in long term digital archiving. To put it plainly: The IBI today would be unthinkable without Peter. I could bring outside connections and initiatives, but they were effective only because Peter and I had a strong and reliable partnership that could shape our role in the University and in Germany as well as in the wider world.

I remember well when I came for my Berufungsverhandlung sitting in Via Nova eating lasagna and drinking beer and getting advice from Peter and others (I will be discreet and not name them here) about what I should ask for and what the IBI badly needed. That meeting laid the foundations for the financial and social resources necessary to effect the transformation. Peter talked, I listened. I learned a great deal from him, not merely then, but over the subsequent years.

The world in which Peter grew up, the German Democratic Republic, vanished when the wall came down. He used the opportunity of the reunification to transform our intellectual corner of German society in significant ways, one of which was his leadership role in DINI, the Deutsche Initiative für Netzwerkinformation, which has set a wide range of digital standards, including the certification of open access repositories, that remains an international model, He also created the edoc-Server and built it into one of the leading open access repositories in the country through a partnership with the University Library. This kind of partnership was and remains rare. Peter had the vision to understand that computer centers and libraries must share the information resources of universities in the digital age, and that they must work together to build both physical and intellectual infrastructure.

Peter’s legacy to the IBI reflects his interests in both electronic publishing and research data. The course on electronic publishing was unique in Germany when it began, and remains highly popular among students, in part because of Peter’s excellent teaching skills. Research data played a role in many of Peter’s grant projects, and he has built a strong group with ongoing interests in how we make research data available to scholars over time. This is probably one of the most important initiatives for the information science world. More and more funding agencies, including DFG, require projects to save their research data and to make them public, and Peter’s research and teaching have established a foundation for this.

Peter’s work with CMS is not the focus of this celebration, but some part of his philosophy there has played a role for the IBI. He always believed in building tools rather than outsourcing. He believed in open access rather than commercial restrictions on scholarly work. He did not merely espouse these principles, but lived them through his leadership at CMS. Building is harder than outsourcing, and selling open access is not easy in a world comfortable with existing commercial solutions. Peter has never lost sight of his goals. Those who can build are ultimately stronger. Those who make content freely available ultimately serve the future of science. These are commitments and ideas that our students should never forget.

Peter’s retirement is one more step in the generational change that is going on at the IBI. It is right and proper that a young new generation take over the leadership and have the freedom to reshape the school. Much will change and parts of his (and my) legacy will become the stuff of history. I am sure, however, that historians of the IBI will look back in 20 or 30 years and say: Peter Schirmbacher – he was a great man.