Social Networking under the Habsburgs: Relational Chemistry & Scientific Networking in the Empire

A central part of the history of Austria’s Imperial Library has come into the spotlight for the very first time: The manuscripts of Court Librarian Peter Lambeck (1663–1680) are being analysed as part of a project financed by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF). Lambeck is considered one of the most significant, ambitious and best-connected players in Austrian library history. A passionate correspondent, he availed of his connections to Europe’s scientific network, the “Republic of Letters”. At the same time, he kept detailed records of daily life in the library and its laboratory, procedures behind the scenes and even conversations with the Emperor. The analysis of these writings has brought Vienna’s Hofbibliothek (Imperial Library) into the panorama of Europe’s “intellectual geography” for the first time.

Peter Lambeck – one of Austria's first social networkers © Wikipedia

Networking and prompt sharing of knowledge are aspects commonly associated with the development of the Internet. In fact, intense intellectual exchange and joint work on projects over large distances happened as early as Habsburg times. Clear evidence of this is provided by the manuscripts of Court Librarian Peter Lambeck, who was an expert in content management and social networking. The evaluation of his life and work now traces Austria’s role in the “Republic of Letters” – the combined expertise of Europe’s intellectual elite – as early as the 17th century, to impressive effect.

A Dazzling Landscape
The representation of Vienna’s role in the scientific discourse of 17th century Europe is accorded great importance in the context of an FWF-funded project. Dr. Vittoria Feola of the Department and Scientific Collection for the History of Medicine at the Medical University of Vienna is project leader. “Intellectual Geography as a new discipline is concerned with examining the intellectual exchange between Europe’s scholars and identifying the centres of knowledge”, she explains. “Until now, Vienna did not feature on this map of scholarly communication in the 17th century. Our analysis puts things straight and shows that Vienna’s Hofbibliothek was a hotspot of intellectual production under Peter Lambeck.”

Dr. Feola’s project shows that Lambeck’s manuscripts provide important clues to understanding how Peter Lambeck put the Imperial Library on the international map, by means of his excellent “content management skills”, for example: Since his visit to the Vatican Library, Lambeck knew that cataloguing was the key to success. It was no use possessing materials and works if they were not clearly arranged and available to scholars for consultation or loan, instead gathering dust on the shelves. The library was to be visible as a valuable resource and as a hub of scientific exchange. However, fresh library management ideas and state-of-the-art equipment for the library’s laboratory were not the only things the ambitious librarian brought back from his extensive travels throughout Europe. He also cultivated his good contacts with international medical scholars and librarians, such as the circles around Gabriel Naudé in Paris and Dr. Edward Browne, member of the Royal Society of London. His records of invitations and visits and his written correspondence form the basis of Dr. Feola’s research.

Lambeck’s Relational Chemistry
Using these writings, Feola has been able to show that Lambeck was very well connected not only internationally, but also locally, with forefathers of Vienna’s Faculty of Medicine such as Johann Zwelfer and Ferdinand Illmer. The documentation behind these connections now permits a closer look at the processes in the Hofbibliothek’s laboratory, as the Lise Meitner fellowship holder explains: “It throws new light on Lambeck’s precise role in the research and testing of medicinal compounds based on Greek writings which he translated for the Emperor.”

Now, in the digital age, a wide range of Internet services make social networks visible, yet a lack of evaluation leaves them to gather dust on the digital shelves. It is analysis that makes the “intellectual geography” of its time visible. Dr. Feola’s examination of Lambeck’s correspondence “tools” in the context of her FWF project shows that even the analysis of individual elements can lift Austria’s international standing as a place of research in the 17th century – for the 17th century. It is to be hoped that Austria’s current importance as a research partner will not have to wait four centuries to be recognised.

Scientific contact
Dr. Vittoria Feola
Department and Scientific Collection for the History of Medicine
Medical University of Vienna
Währingerstraße 25
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / (0)1 / 4277 63451

Austrian Science Fund (FWF)
Mag. Stefan Bernhardt
Haus der Forschung
Sensengasse 1
1090 Vienna, Austria
T +43 / 1 / 505 67 40 - 8111

Editorial & Broadcasting Office
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Vienna, 17th October, 2011