Drawing: Man in the reading room of the Vienna City Library

My world from the past … and from the future


When I was young, there was no internet yet. At least not in my world. I´m not a grandfather telling his children about the good old days. However, I'm old enough that I still handed in my first papers at university in a handwritten way. And as a first-year student, I still learned how to search for books in a library in drawer boxes filled with thousands of little cards.

How was it back then?

When I remember that time in the mid-1990s, I don't do so out of nostalgia. It's just that everything has happened pretty fast since then, and sometimes the question spontaneously arises how simple everyday things worked before we had the internet and mobile phones. As a young student, I used to visit the Vienna City Library. How did I figure out when it was open? To be honest I don't remember. I know I was there flipping through a large-format atlas on the history of the Danube regulation, but no idea how I found out about the opening hours.

I remember one thing: I used to write down opening hours in my notebook or calendar so that I would have them ready for the next time. I also remember that I always had a pen and paper with me. And a book, my faithful friend and companion in my first academic years, which I could hold onto, hide behind and stick my nose into whenever I wanted. Back then, I sometimes felt like an outsider on the underground with my book, but nowadays I know that I am definitely not alone in my need of having something to look into during the ride.

Ink blots, computer games

What did I write with back then? I send a search request to my memory and it provides me with a silver fountain pen, quite heavy in the hand, in a wine-red leather case. And it spits out even more: My first fountain pen in primary school and how proud I was of it, and the ink eraser with two caps, a red one for the eraser and a blue one for overwriting. The ink blots on my little hands, my pencil case. My first love letter. The afternoons in the after-school care centre. The soccer training. The sandwiches I had in the breaks. Knight Rider. My first calculator. My first, own computer game that was a present from the Easter Bunny – not a small device with two buttons that I would have been really happy about, not a hinged one with two displays I would have been overjoyed about. No – a really big thing with two green levers that my siblings envied me for, with a screen with turtles running through a maze, and it even played music!

Sign on the door

Without instructing my memory with the task of a new search, it informs me that the Vienna City Library was called the Vienna City and State Library when I first visited it.

However, I have to reconstruct the rest about the opening hours: I probably went at a time of the day when I could assume that it was open, on a weekday morning for example. At the City Hall, I likely asked the information desk how best to get to the City and State Library and followed the signs through the extensive building. The City Hall was already very large at that time. Like today, it had two widely separated wings, many different courtyards and a bewildering number of stairs, lifts, doors and corridors for an inexperienced newcomer like me. Finally, I stood in front of the entrance to the City and State Library reading the opening hours from the sign on the door. Then it was the fountain pen´s and notebook´s turn to save this information for future visits. Voilà.

New sensory organ

That reminds me: I could have called the Vienna City Library, there would have been a telephone, but that would have made me very uncomfortable at the time. And opening hours were not as important to me back then as they are today, I had much more time on hand. One more thing: I look up opening hours so often nowadays because they are so readily available on the smartphone. It already feels strange to drive a route that I have driven hundreds of times by car without GPS. The smartphone is already firmly a part of me, like a new sensory organ.

Today I go in and out of the Vienna City Library around the clock. Before work, I dive into the manuscripts of Johann Nestroy or Franz Schubert on my smartphone. Over dinner, I listen to the anarchist Viennese rocker Stefan Weber talk about his life. In the afternoon, I follow the route of the tram on a baroque city map, and before bed, I watch exhibition tours, discussions or book presentations.

Chipped grandchildren

I'm already looking forward to the incredulous faces of my potential grandchildren when I tell them that in my childhood there was only black-and-white television and in my youth there were no internet and mobile phones. And to the rattling in their brains as they try to imagine something so unimaginable. I, on the other hand, could not imagine in the past what is now everyday life and can hardly imagine today what direction the journey will take while I am still alive.

I will give it a try – when I'm very old, the Vienna City Library will still be on the first floor of the City Hall, I'm pretty sure, and the opening hours won't be much different. But maybe by then I'll already be wandering around in a library archive that doesn't even exist yet with virtual reality glasses and motion sensors on my body. Or I already have implants that allow me to fly through virtual worlds. Unfortunately, I will probably not live to see a computer translate my thoughts into text and moving, three-dimensional images. I'm not so sure about my grandchildren, though.

What is certain, however, is that we will continue to think, feel, dream and remember. That we will meet and will keep our traces. In whatever form or medium.

Interesting links about the story

  • Drawing: Sandra Biskup
  • Text: Simon Kovacic
  • Translation: Doris Nicht