THE NETHERLANDS: Four km of "hidden" dissertations

The library at Leiden University has many "hidden" treasures and among the pearls is the collection of an estimated 400,000 uncatalogued dissertations or theses dating from 1580 to 1990 that are kept in the library stacks. They occupy four kilometres of shelf space and include Albert Einstein's 1905 dissertation.

Obviously not all the dissertations are masterworks but in 2004, library staff found 15 gems among this mass including the dissertation of Marie Curie which, in the year of its publication, brought her the Nobel Prize.

It had been filed under S among the Paris dissertations of the year 1903. In the 100 years that had passed since then, nobody had taken the trouble of looking under Curie's maiden name of Skłodowska!

The belated discovery came about because library staff held a targeted search for around 100 named authors among the uncatalogued dissertations. This led to dozens of amazing finds and the first steps on the research path of eminent scientists and scholars.

They included Nobel laureates such as Henri Bergson, Niels Bohr, Émile Durkheim, Albert Einstein, Otto Hahn, Kurt Lewin, J Robert Oppenheimer, Max Planck, Helmuth Plessner, Luigi Pirandello, Gustav Stresemann, Otto Warburg, Max Weber and Alfred Wegener and even that of a controversial researcher such as Carl Gustav Jung.

There are more dissertations in the library and in total they number around 600,000 in three collections. The first 100,000 were "defended" in Dutch universities such as Leiden, Utrecht, and Amsterdam between 1575 and 2010. Most have been catalogued.

The second collection consists of another 100,000 or so from Germany, France, the United States and other countries. They have been catalogued and can be found among the books in the library.

The third collection comprises the 400,000 uncatalogued dissertations and these are stored in 700 bookcases equivalent to a four-kilometre row of books.

The dissertations are from some 170 cities and 20 are from outside Europe, including Algiers, Baltimore and Johannesburg. But most are from 70 German universities and 35 in France. Virtually absent are dissertations from Italy, Spain and England.

The oldest in the uncatalogued collection go back to the late 16th century and are from Basel, Strasbourg and Tübingen. Thousands of others date from the 17th and 18th centuries, from Duisburg, Erfurt, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Geneva, Göttingen, Heidelberg, Königsberg, Paris, Prague, Tübingen and various other cities.

How these dissertations found their way to Leiden is not a complete mystery. Several 19th century annual reports of the library refer to the acquisition of dissertations as part of an exchange with other universities in and outside the country.

In view of the numbers involved, the large majority acquired in the 19th and 20th centuries must have been obtained through exchanges with other universities.

I would not rule out that this is also the case for many of the dissertations from previous centuries. There may well have been such an exchange even under a librarian such as Fredericus Spanheim (1672-1701).

But some of the works may also have entered the library as part of a bequest or as a donation from professors, especially in the 17th and 18th centuries. The dissertations were probably not catalogued because at the time they were not considered to be of great importance.

Numbers vary enormously between universities: from around a dozen dissertations from Annaberg, Buenos Aires, Ingolstadt and St Petersburg to several dozens of bookcases full of them from Basel, Berlin, Duisburg, Greifswald, Heidelberg, Jena, Kiel, Marburg, Montpellier, Strasbourg, Tübingen and Würzburg.

The importance of the collection of international dissertations in Leiden cannot be overestimated. It could be used for various types of research. Per city, per region or per period a researcher can see how a specific field developed; how research in a certain specialty reached a deadlock or, conversely, made huge advances; what issues were considered of academic interest in a specific decade.

If a researcher wants to browse through German dissertations from between, say, 1930 and 1944, Leiden is the place to be. It is possible to research the development of medical science in France between 1900 and 1920. The thousands of dissertations from the 16th and 17th centuries in particular open up huge possibilities.

There is also a significance that goes beyond the Dutch national borders. Some collections from university cities no longer exist in their place of origin.

This may be simply because not all old dissertations were retained (the Leiden collection of dissertations defended in Leiden is also incomplete!), because the universities no longer exist, because the library in question was destroyed, as happened in some German cities in World War II, or because geographic changes that meant preserving the 'old' cultural legacy was not given priority, as happened in Breslau/Wrocław, Königsberg/Kaliningrad.

(Dutch university librarians decided at one of their joint meetings in 2004 to terminate the exchange of Dutch dissertations in book form. The automatic exchange with universities abroad had come to an end in 1990, although some universities still send each other lists of dissertations from which specific items can be ordered on an exchange.

A search for well-known authors in this collection frequently leads to the discovery of real gems. This happens on a weekly basis following requests from researchers in Leiden but discoveries also occur in other ways.

These are in fact new "acquisitions" for the Leiden library from an extant collection and every month important dissertations are discovered. Last December, the short dissertation edition of Albert Einstein's Zur deutschen Literatur fur Viola da Gamba (Diss.München, 1905) was found.

Who knows how many more important but "undiscovered" dissertations are still hidden in this collection?

* The website of Leiden University library has a list of the cities plus the periods covered of the uncatalogued dissertations that are available.

* Jos Damen works in the African Studies Centre at Leiden University.