Beneath the cobblestones of the Stiler Hof, between the main entrance and the west wing of the Schloss, lie the University Library’s hidden treasures. The library’s underground stacks extend down seven stories. Some 60,000 books printed before 1850 are stored there in ideal, cool conditions. Many of them come from the estate of the French Jesuit priest François-Joseph Terrasse Desbillons. Desbillons came to the Palatinate in 1764 after the Jesuits were expelled from France. He was invited by Prince-Elector Charles Theodore, who resided in Mannheim. Desbillons was known to his contemporaries as a popular writer of fables, though he primarily thought of himself as an opponent of the Enlightenment. Alongside his impressive library, Desbillons left 150 handwritten documents. Taken as a whole, the Desbillons collection is undoubtedly the University Library’s largest and most important historical collection.
As part of a project funded by the Stiftung Kulturgut Baden-Württemberg (cultural heritage foundation), a team at the library indexed, reorganized, and digitized the collection. To celebrate the end of the project, the exhibition Desbillons’s Cosmos will open in the A3 Library in spring 2023. “We’re taking advantage of the colder time of year to safely display these centuries-old documents. The exhibition wouldn’t be possible in the summer due to the high levels of UV radiation,” explains Viktor Boecking from the University Library team. The exhibition will feature the University Library’s historical holdings as well as archival materials loaned from some of Mannheim’s cultural institutions.
Text: Jule Leger / October 2022