The devil is in the detail: retrospective conversion of Insel-Bücherei

Luther Im Kreise der Seinen

Luther Im Kreise der Seinen. Leipzig, Insel-Verlag, 1917. 9100.d.9311.

The history of the Library’s original special collection of illustrated Insel-Bücherei, presented by Hans Schmoller, is described on the German language web pages. The range of publications devoted to the Insel-Bücherei over the past 25 years – a journal Insel-Bücherei : Mitteilungen für Freunde, several volumes of bibliography, and a range of articles in journals of library history in both German and English, testify to the ever increasing interest in these examples of quality German book design and printing.

Hans Schmoller’s collection is one small part of the Library’s Insel-Bücherei holdings. When the Library first began to acquire these titles in the early decades of the 20th century, detailed bibliographical data was difficult to come by, so many of the entries in the Library’s Guardbook catalogue were fairly rudimentary, lacking an accurate date of printing and pagination details. This lack of precision meant that accurate retrospective conversion of these records for Cambridge’s online catalogue, which was not done with book in hand, was sometimes  impossible. We are quite regularly offered donations of Insel-Bücherei, and find we cannot rely on the catalogue entries to establish whether a title is an exact duplicate or not. Direct physical comparison, and subsequent detailed recataloguing, is often required.

Several different reasons make the Insel-Bücherei so difficult to manage. After 1945 many East and West German editions were given the same title and number in the series, but were published in Leipzig and Frankfurt respectively, with different design and sometimes varying content.


Chinesische Meisternovellen. Lepizig, Insel Verlag, 1935.  9840.d.76.

Earlier titles in the sequence were often reprinted several times, but what at first glance appear to be straightforward reprints often turn out to be something more complex. Sometimes text is identical but cover designs are strikingly different. Sometimes the “reprints” have varying pagination and content. Insel-Bücherei no. 50, Gedichte of Friedrich Hölderlin, first appeared in 1913 in a selection by Wilhelm von Scholz. New printings in 1916, 1931, 1935 and 1937 each saw substantial changes to the poems included in the anthology, before the publication of a completely new selection by Stephan Hermlin in 1985.


Donor Book Plate

In recataloguing these volumes, we nowadays always attempt to give provenance information where we have it. The majority of our Insel-Bücherei holdings were acquired as donations rather than through purchase, very often as part of larger and more general donations of German material. Most donors did not systematically collect Insel-Bücherei volumes in the manner of Hans Schmoller, but many had small collections on their shelves. Our association copies read like a roll-call of users who have worked extensively with and helped develop our German collections – Leonard Forster, Freddie and Elisabeth Stopp, Trevor Jones, Dennis Green, Roger Paulin, Donald Prater, Trude Good, David Hall, Ernest and Alice Maring, David Baron. We recognise their generosity with warmth and gratitude.

– David Lowe

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