One of famous Mulackstraße “Destillen” (cheap bars with basic food offer) on the corner of Ruckerstraße in Berlin’s old and no-longer existing Jewish district known as Scheunenviertel (Barn District), inhabited mostly by East-European Jews. The dairy of H. Ewald could be found at Ruckerstraße 3.
(Photo by Berlin’s most famous cartoonist & photographer as well as social critic, Heinrich Zille). Image in public domain.

“At 11.00 at night Mulackstraße looks like a quarter of an excavated city. On the corner Schönhauser Straße a single streetlight squints at it sheepishly from across the road. A girl patrols the street, incessantly and at a steady pace like a pendulum, as if set in motion by an invisible clockwork.”

from Joseph roth “Neue Berliner Zeitung – 12-uhr-Blatt” (from a series of texts about berlin’s dives published between 23rd and 28th of ferbuary 1921)

Building in Neue Schönhauser Straße 13 around 1892 (from “Blätter für Architektur und Kunstwerk”, December 1892; image via Zentrale Landesbibliothek Berlin).

On January 1st, 1895 in the house No. 13 in Neue Schönhauser Straße in Berlin-Mitte a group of invited guests and accidental passers-by celebrated the opening of the first public reading rooms in Berlin. The city had several public libraries, the first four of which opened in 1850, but these were largely located in high school buildings and rarely used by the working-class people.

T’was but a tiny venue – two rooms leased inside the Volks-Kaffee und Speise-Halle (People’s Coffee-house and Canteen) offered only eighty 80 seats but considering that Berlin had never offered such services before (at least not to the general public), eighty were plenty, indeed. The remaining rooms were places were the poor were offered food and non-alcoholic beverages at reasonably low prices.

The library in Neue Schönhauser Straße was a brain-child of two devoted readers and librarians: of Ernst Jeep, a man of many books working at the Royal Library, and Bona Peiser, the first professional female librarian in Germany. After spending several years in Great Britain, in Manchester, Peiser not only learnt from the best how properly organised reading rooms should operate but she also developed a deep wish to establish one in her home-town of Berlin.

And she went about it with both heart and skills. So much so, in fact, that she soon began to educate a new generation of female Prussian librarians and continued to do so for the rest of her life.

And, if the new municipal Lesehalle was anything to go by, they would be badly needed. Within just the first year of its opening the reading rooms attracted as many as 50,000 visitors. With the opening hours of 6PM – 10PM Monday to Friday (from 1897 on additional three hours were added between noon and 3PM) and 9.30AM – 1PM plus 5PM – 10PM on Sundays, it meant that 122 readers entered the rooms each week-day. On Sundays that number went up by over one hundred.

Ladies reading room at the Volks-Lesehalle in Neue Schönhauser Straße with (most probably) Bona Peiser – as the lay wearing specs – among the guests. Image via Ireck Lidzbarski at Flickr).

By the end of 1895 the place offered access to 3,500 books as well as 53 magazines and 43 newspapers. An incredible improvement, especially for those who due to their precarious economic position would have been prevented from reading literature and/or following the news. Something that in developed countries today sounds quite unimaginable (think of all those hashtags, memes and headlines we drown in these days) but which is bitter reality for those countries which had less luck. And something that Bona Peiser considered to be a serious problem: a social rise could not occur unless proper education were offered. With reading being its indispensable part.

Such was public interest in reading, in fact, that soon afterwards the reading rooms had to move: first to Alte Jakobstraße in Kreuzbeg and then to Köpenicker Straße 79 in Mitte (the building is still standing) and, eventually, to Rungestraße – where you will find a memorial plaque for Bona Peiser. At the same time, by 1900 four new municipal reading rooms opened in Berlin. Fourteen years later, when the First World War broke out, there were 13 of them altogether.

Bona Peiser, who in 1895 also became the head of the VWB library (VWB stood for Verband für Weibliche Angestellte or the Female Salaried-Employee Society) continued her work running public libraries and educating new librarians for the rest of her life. True to herself and the nature of her profession, she never sought limelight or attention. On the contrary, only one photo of Peiser is believed to exist. When she died in March 1929 few people were aware of the loss and with time her name came to fade away even more.

Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.
Most probably the only existing image of Bona Peiser: the lady standing inside the reading room.

That’s why naming a small public library in Oranienstraße 72 was a very positive gesture. The library was not far from Brandenburgstraße 11 (now Lobeckstraße), the place where she lived for 54 years until her death (Peiser was born in Ausgustraße 73 on the edge of Berlin’s old Jewish district, Scheunenviertel).

So was the naming of a small street off Köpenicker Straße close to Schillingbrücke after Berlin’s benefactress. Still, her grave at the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee (the largest Jewish cemetery in Europe) is long overgrown with ivy and almost impossible to find. Unless you, like yours truly, are lucky and find it per chance while exploring this incredible, historic burial site (the cemetery management will also provide you with the “exact position” of the grave but do bring an extra hour or two for even with a map, the Jewish Cemetery in Weißensee remains a riddle).

Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstrasse 11 (today Lobeckstrasse). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small "Siedlung" (group of smallish blocks of flats).
Bona Peiser´s house in Brandenburgstraße 11 (today Lobeckstraße). The house was damaged during the last war and its remains removed to make space for a small Siedlung (group of smallish blocks of flats).

Die öffentliche Bibliothek muss jederzeit für jedermann unentgeltlich offenstehen (“Public libraries must be always free and open to everyone”), said Bona Peiser. Unfortunately – and somewhat ironically – the public library named in her honour had to close down. As a saving measure for the city of Berlin. As a small comfort, its follower – a public charity organisation with focus on neighbourhood projects in Kreuzberg – retained the name of Bona Peiser on their sign.

Bona Peiser was born on this day, April 26, in 1864. Exactly 155 years ago today.