One of the most extraordinary collections of books

Library in the Ice

Germany’s southernmost library can be found at 70°40´S, 08°16´W and has endured in one of our planet’s most inhospitable regions for ten years now. In the 2004/2005 summer in the southern hemisphere, the Cologne-based artist Lutz Fritsch erected the “Library in the Ice” on the Antarctic Ekström Ice Shelf – to create a space for interaction between science and culture in the far reaches of the “white continent”. Ever since, the library container and its collection of books have been fixtures at the Neumayer Station.

The cherry-wood bookshelves inside the green, insulated cargo container currently hold roughly 700 books. Every year, they are joined by new novels, non-fiction works, coffee-table books and biographies – each of which was donated by an established or up-and-coming German artist, author, musician or scientist. In personal dedications written in each book, they explain what moved them to share the specific book with those who have to brave the winter at the Antarctic research station.

When it comes to which books fill the shelves, and who donated them, only the scientists and technicians at the station, and of course Lutz Fritsch, know. The artist and initiator of the “Library in the Ice” personally writes to every sponsor, asking them to donate a book. “Every book is a very personal gift to those staying at the research station through the winter. That’s also why part of the idea behind the ‘Library in the Ice’ is to keep both the identities of the gift-giver and the books they select a secret. As a result, for those of us on the outside, the library remains something fictional, but for the scientists at the station it is very real, and home to a very special collection of books specifically chosen for the unique place they live and work,” explains Lutz Fritsch.

From concept to reality

The idea of creating a “Library in the Ice” came to Lutz Fritsch during his first expedition to the Antarctic in the summer season 1994/1995. He was the first German artist to travel to the Alfred Wegener Institute’s previous Neumayer Station on board the research icebreaker Polarstern. The laboratories and living quarters of the old station – the second Neumayer Station – were completely covered by ice. “That’s why I wanted to create a sheltered space on the surface of the ice, where the residents of the research station could look out on the expanse of the Ice Shelf. I wanted to give them a chance to find calm and inspiration, to contemplate nature, civilisation, science and culture,” relates the artist.

Ten years later the time had come: In early 2005 Lutz Fritsch embarked on his second trek to the Antarctic, this time to launch his art project “Library in the Ice”. The Alfred Wegener Institute supplied the insulated cargo container that would house the library and transported it to the Antarctic.

Thanks to the financial support of private sponsors, the artist had already furnished the container with bookshelves, lighting, a table and leather sofa in Cologne, and painted the outer walls in spring green, emerald green, yellow-green and leaf green, the roof and floor in red. “It took me a long time to decide on the right colour for the library, until I realised that it could only be green. You simply can’t find green anywhere in the Antarctic: The ice is normally white, sometimes grey and sometimes blue; the polar researchers’ snowsuits are red. So green seemed to be the colour that those staying for the winter would most long to see,” explains Lutz Fritsch.

Since its arrival, the green container has become a fixed element of the research station. A case in point: The Station Director of every overwintering team automatically also becomes the new librarian. And when the Neumayer III Station was opened in 2009, the “Library in the Ice” was moved to the station’s new location. Though the current station is no longer located under the ice, there is still a 100-metre path between it and the library. “The overwintering researchers should make a conscious choice to journey from science to culture,” says Lutz Fritsch.

Interview: Former station resident Holger Schmithüsen on the “Library in the Ice”

Holger Schmithüsen was the meteorologist of the 30th overwintering team. Living and researching in the Antarctic for 14 months - he's telling us how he used the "Library in the Ice" during his overwintering time.

The Library in the Ice is a short distance away from the Neumayer III Station. Can you describe for us what it’s like walking from the station to the library?

Holger Schmithüsen: Well, there are two different scenarios: with a snowstorm and without. If the weather is nice, you can walk straight to the library container – it’s about 100 metres as the crow flies. But if there’s a snowstorm, you need to slowly make your way by clinging to a cable handrail supported by aluminium poles. First you head south, in the direction of the trace minerals observatory, before turning off for the library.

Once you’ve made your way there, what do you do with all of the gear you’re wearing?

Holger Schmithüsen: The container is basically split in two, so that you first come into an entry area with a changing room. There you can take off all your polar gear – the overalls and boots – and can put on the slippers provided. Then a second door takes you to the actual library.

If we were sitting at a desk in the library, what could we see out the window?

Holger Schmithüsen: You’re facing north and can see the west side of the station, where the entrance is. So you can also see the snowmelt, which provides fresh water for the station.

Is going to the library container fairly routine, or more of an exception to the rule?

Holger Schmithüsen: That depends on what you want to use it for. There are some people at the station who almost never visit the library, while others go there all the time. For me the library was like a small outpost, a quiet zone, so to speak. Of course you also have enough peace and quiet at the station in winter, but the library is a unique place, separate from the daily grind.

Give us an impression of the book collection. What books could we find there?

Holger Schmithüsen: Lutz Fritsch didn’t put any limitations on what kinds of books could be donated, so the selection is extremely diverse. There are coffee-table books, novels and works of non-fiction. For instance, there’s also a box of alphabet noodles with the handwritten title “The Collected Works of Goethe”!

What makes the Library in the Ice different from your average library in Germany?

Holger Schmithüsen: The flair is a lot like a mini-library, but the major difference is that the books aren’t sorted in any way. So the collection invites browsing.

How many books did you read during your overwintering time?

Holger Schmithüsen: I didn’t read any books from cover to cover, but I definitely took about 20 off the shelf, thumbed through them and read the signatures. Supposedly, one of the books was donated by a relative of mine who Lutz Fritsch knows, but I never found it.


Interview conducted by: Kristina Bär, Dept. of Communications and Media Relations