World Libraries

The Pioneers: Wilhelm and Gerhard Munthe [i]

Abstract: Wilhelm and Gerhard Munthe, father and son, both academic Librarians and leaders of the foremost university library in Norway, are considered pioneers in international librarianship. Of Norwegian descent, both Wilhelm and Gerhard held the position of director of Universitetsbiblioteket i Oslo in 1992 and 1970, respectively. Wilhelm is remembered for his published work, American Librarianship from a European Angle, an analyses of the library profession and his contributions as an expert in library construction. Gerhard, a leader in Nordic and European librarianship, represented Norway in a number of international library ventures. Both father and son are to be remembered for their significant achievements in international librarianship and contributions to the profession.

Gerhard Wilhelm
Wilhelm Munthe

In anticipation of IFLA 2005 in Oslo, two Norwegian pioneers in international librarianship are here remembered: Wilhelm Munthe (1883-1965) and Gerhard Munthe (1919-1997), father and son, both academic librarians and leaders of the foremost university library (in much of Wilhelm Munthe's time, the only university library) in Norway, Universitetsbiblioteket i Oslo, the Oslo University Library.

This father and son were scions of one of the foremost families in Scandinavia, descended from a 17th-century Danish bishop of a Norwegian diocese (Bergen) and related through the complex network of three small countries, to many of the cultural icons of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, including Ludvig Holberg, Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg. [ii]

In keeping with the traditions of a proud clan, names proliferate and repeat themselves throughout the family tree of the Munthes. Wilhelm Munthe was christened Abraham Wilhelm Støren after his maternal grandfather. Gerhard also included Wilhelm among his Christian names, but he was named after his godfather and great uncle, Gerhard Peter Frantz Wilhelm Munthe, an artist famous for his Norse-inspired illustrations. [iii] With family ties like these, it is not surprising that both father and son were active in cultural circles outside of their profession, Wilhelm in languages, Gerhard in history. Each published extensively in his academic specialty throughout his life. Wilhelm Munthe's linguistic erudition is reflected in a citation explaining the origin and meaning of the Canadian Library Association's journal Feliciter reproduced on the journal's website. [iv] It was also the occasion of some of his earliest documented involvement in international librarianship, as chair of the "Comité norvégien de Christiania," the Norwegian Committee of Christiania (as Oslo was then called), a collaboration group formed in 1922 for development of the Norwegian collection of the Bibliothèque Nordique of the Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève, in Paris. This collection still exists as a significant research collection of Fenno-Scandinavian works in original languages and French translation on topics related to Scandinavia and Finland, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. In 1995, on the occasion of its centennial, the Bibliothèque Nordique was accorded the status of pôle associé with the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. [v]

But it was in academic librarianship that father and son made their mark, and as directors of the same institution, during their day the largest library in Norway and the de facto national library, as well as the nation's leading academic library. Wilhelm Munthe became overbibliotekar, head librarian, at Oslo University Library in 1922, having passed up through the ranks from a library assistant, at a time when Norway had no formal library education. Until after World War II, the library of the University of Oslo (founded in 1811) was the only research library in the country. After over 50 years of increasingly cramped quarters in the original university building on Oslo's main street, Karl Johans gate, [vi] the library moved to its own monumental quarters in 1913, [vii] only to find itself rapidly running out of space less than thirty years later. That, however, was to be the opportunity for Wilhelm Munthe to make some lasting international connections that were reflected in the contributions to a Festschrift for his 50th birthday in 1933 and in the invitation from the United States for which he is chiefly remembere today.

The increasing dearth of space in the 1913 university library building in Oslo necessitated an application to the Norwegian Storting, or Parliament, for funds for expansion of its facilities, awarded in the spring of 1930. Munthe and the building's original architect, Holger Sinding-Larsen, together drew up plans for the construction, based on the latest ideas from the United States, on a premise borrowed from A. D. F. Hamlin, an American professor of architectural history, that "as a whole, the libraries of the United States, large and small, exhibit... American architecture almost at its most advanced." [viii] Munthe felt that a real understanding of how plans work in practice can only be seen through personal examination, and accordingly, with support from the Storting, Munthe and Sinding-Larsen made a study trip to the United States in the fall of 1930, hosted by William Warner Bishop, director of the library at the University of Michigan. Together, under Bishop's guidance, they visited some 35 of the largest and most famous research libraries, including the most prominent academic or public libraries, or examined construction plans on site for new or remodeled libraries, throughout the Midwest and the Northeast. Munthe's report is meticulous and detailed, illustrated with photographs, plans and sketches, making it clear that the 1930s were still the era of closed stacks among research libraries, public and academic alike. In so doing, he reveals an intimate knowledge of all the different aspects of managing and planning a large research library, from location to architectural style, stacks, carrels, reading, circulation, and catalog rooms and offices, and technical considerations, such as heating, cooling, flooring, elevators and the like. Munthe concluded that the most valuable benefit of a study trip of this kind was that the traveler was forced to reevaluate everything that had been inherited and accepted in the way things were done, in the face of new ideas, methods, problems, perspectives and ideals, for, in his words, "America, after all, is not a country; it is an ambience." [ix]

Wilhelm Munthe's knowledge and personality clearly made an impression during this and a second trip to the new world. Not only did several prominent U. S. librarians, including the University of Michigan's William Warner Bishop, the University of Chicago's J.C.M. Hanson and the Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam, contribute to the 1933 Festschrift for Munthe's 50th birthday, but three years later came the call from the Carnegie Corporation "to make an unhurried visit to the United States and Canada at my earliest convenience, as a basis for preparing a report on present American library policies and practices." [x] This third trip by Munthe lasted from September through November 1936 and covered 36 US states and 4 Canadian provinces, and resulted in a slim book, American Librarianship from a European Angle, that has been recognized as "eines der besten Analysen über den Beruf und seine Wirkung zu dieser Zeit" (one of the best analyses of the profession and its impact until now[the year 2000]). [xi] A remarkable feature of its publication is the description of Munthe in the Introduction by F. P. Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corporation and author of the original letter of invitation:

For the hundreds of us in this country who are fortunate enough to know the author, it is not only figuratively, but literally, true that his book speaks for itself. As I read, I can see in my mind's eye the author's powerful frame and vigorous gesture, and in my mind's ear I can hear his resonant voice. [xii]

It is interesting to note, indeed, that Wilhelm Munthe is remembered as much for his personal qualities as his professional competence during the exercise of his office as president of IFLA from 1947-1951:

... his personal qualities of goodness and simplicity, his helpfulness and convincing humanity were at that time even more greatly appreciated than his professional competence. Such a representative and ambassador of goodwill who could not be overlooked (also because of his tallness) had certainly found his rightful place at this time of difficult new beginnings. [xiii]

Wilhelm Munthe's diplomacy and personal influence during these grim postwar years may be traced in his efforts to reinstate German membership in IFLA after the war. [xiv] Josef Mayerhöfer noted in 1996 that it was Munthe's personal influence that enabled the president of the Austrian Library Association to take part in the first IFLA conference after the war in Oslo in 1947, when no German delegates had been invited. [xv]

Gerhard Munthe
Gerhard Munthe

Gerhard Franz Wilhelm Munthe (his parents had dropped his artistic great uncle's Peter), Wilhelm's son, is remembered in particular as a leader in Nordic and European librarianship. [xvi] Like his father, Gerhard followed the traditional apprentice mode of library education, learning on the job as an assistant at his father's library from the age of 22. And Gerhard, too, rose through the ranks to become overbibliotekar in 1970 of the same university library in Oslo that his father had led, but his journey there was more circuitous: on the way he participated, directly or indirectly, in the naissance of three other university libraries: Bergen, as a librarian at the library of Bergen Museum from 1947, the core of the university library from 1948; then Trondheim, as library director of the Royal Norwegian Sciences Society from 1964, where he supervised a merger with the Norwegian College of Teachers (Norges Lærerhøgskole) and the development from there toward a university library which only became a reality after Munthe moved back to Oslo; and Tromsø, the world's northernmost university, where Gerhard Munthe was a central member of the planning committee from 1970-71. Munthe's subsequent tenure as overbibliotekar at Oslo University Library was short-lived, as he moved just five years later to the position that was to be the platform for his national and international activities for the remainder of his professional career.

Riksbibliotektjenesten, the Norwegian National Office for Research Documentation, Academic and Special Libraries, was created in 1969 as the result of extensive planning work, led by Munthe. The director of this government office had the title of Riksbibliotekar, often misleadingly translated as National Librarian, for example by Esko Häkli in his obituary of Gerhard Munthe. [xvii] Because it was a national office, it allowed Munthe the opportunity to represent Norway in a number of international library fora. Among the earliest of these was the planning of IFLA 1979 in Oslo. Another was in the development and leadership of NORDINFO, the Nordic Council for Scientific Information, a significant collaborative endeavor among the Nordic countries, the success of which led to an invitation to make a presentation to a Canadian Association of Research Libraries conference in Calgary in 1978. [xviii] Yet a third international contribution came with the Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche (LIBER), the League of European Research Libraries, founded in 1971 under the auspices of the Council of Europe as the principal association of the major research libraries of Europe, both inside and outside of the European Union. Munthe was president of LIBER for several years.

Gerhard Munthe's many Nordic and European connections are demonstrated in the same way as his father's US associations were, in a Festschrift published in his honor by Riksbibliotektjenesten in 1989. [xix] Contributors include two of the heads of the national libraries or their equivalent in the Nordic countries: Finnbogi Guðmundsson, Iceland's landsbókavörður, or National Librarian, Esko Häkli, director of Helsinki University Library, which is also Finland's National Library, and Morton Laursen Vig, then rigsbibliotekar in Copenhagen. Another contributor is Franz Kroller, Gerhard Munthe's successor as president of LIBER.

The 1989 Festschrift to Gerhard Munthe includes tributes to both men that sum up their achievements. In an article about Norwegian contributions to Nordisk tidskrift för bok- och biblioteksväsen during the years 1914-1950, Gert Hornwall sums up Wilhelm Munthe in these words: "As far as library construction was concerned, Munthe was one of the world's foremost experts." [xx] Kroller begins his essay with the following tribute to Wilhelm's son: "Gerhard Munthe hat im Bereich des norwegischen, skandinavischen und internationalen Bibliothekswesen Großes geleistet." (Gerhard Munthe accomplished great things in the area of Norwegian, Scandinavian and international librarianship.) [xxi]

End Notes

[i] The author wishes to thank Anne Cathrine and Jon Munthe, the children of Gerhard and grandchildren of Wilhelm Munthe, for providing the photographs and much of the information on which this article is based. Anna Cathrine has continued the traditions of her father and grandfather, as hovedbibliotekar, head librarian, of Norges veterinærhøgskole, the Norwegian School of Veterinary Science ( and an active member of the European Association for Health Information and Libraries and its subgroup, the European Veterinary Libraries Group.

[ii] Genealogy website at that reveals a connection to the Koren family.

[iii] See

[iv] See

[v] Rangdi Unn Hovden, Fransk-nordisk samarbeid 100 år av bibliotekar Rangdi Unn Hovden, Universitetsbiblioteket i Oslo, delegert bibliotekar ved Bibliotheque Nordique i Paris 1993-1995 [French-Nordic collaboration 100 years old by librarian Rangdi Unn Hovden, the Library of the University of Oslo, seconded to the Bibliotheque Nordique in Paris 1993-1995]. Online at

[vi] A description of this phase of the library at the University of Oslo can be found in Norwegian in Th. Tellefsen, "Fra det gamle bibliotek." [Of the old library] in Overbibliotekar Wilhelm Munthe på femtiårsdagen 20. oktober 1933 fra fagfeller og venner [Festschrift for Head Librarian Wilhelm Munthe on the occasion of his fiftieth birthday, October 20th 1933, from friends and colleagues] (Oslo: Grøndahl, 1933): 422-448.

[vii] Photograph of Oslo University's library building, now the headquarters of the Norwegian National Library, at the time of its opening in 1913 can be found at

[viii] Translated from Munthe's Norwegian translation of the original, taken from Library Planning, Equipment and Shelving, Jersey City: Snead, 1917, cited in Wilhelm Munthe, Amerikanske biblioteker: inntrykk fra en studiereise høsten 1930 [American libraries: Impressions from study trip, autumn 1930] (Reprint from Nordisk tidskrift för bok- och biblioteksväsen 18 (1931). Uppsala: Almqvist & Wiksell, 1931), 1. The same report was published in German in Zentralblatt für Bibliothekswesen 48 (1931): 447-478 (based on a lecture at the Deutschen Bibliothekartag in Erlangen [the German Librarians' Day in Erlangen, Germany] May 28th 1931) and in English in Library Association Record Ser. 3 vol. 2 (1932): 238-244, 283-290, 341-346, 371-379.

[ix] Amerikanske biblioteker, 35.

[x] Wilhelm Munthe, Preface, American Librarianship from a European Angle: An Attempt at an Evaluation of Policies and Activities (Chicago: American Library Association, 1939): v.

[xi] Elisabeth Simon and Gertrud Seydelmann, AUSTAUSCH - TEILHABE – ERFAHRUNG: über bibliothekarische Auslandsarbeit von 1963 bis 2000, Kapitel 2: Reiseberichte oder Strukturanalysen? Die vergleichende Bibliothekswissenschaft in Deutschland [Exchange-Partnership-Experience: Concerning International Library Work from 1963 to 2000. Chapter 2: Travelogues or Structural Analyses? Comparattive Librarianship in Germany] (Berlin: Das Ehemalige Deutsche Bibliotheksinstitut, 2001). Read online.

[xii] F.P. Keppel, Introduction, in American Librarianship from a European Angle, xiii.

[xiii] Joachim Wieder, "IFLA's First Fifty Years: a reprise: Extracts from ‘An Outline of IFLA's History,'" by Joachim Wieder, selected and edited by Harry Campbell IFLA Journal 28 (2002): 111, reprinted online at

[xiv] Klaus G. Saur, "Bibliothek und Verlage - eine Partnerschaft?" [Library and publishers – a partnership?] Paper presented at the opening session of World Library and Information Congress: 69th IFLA General Conference and Council, Berlin, Germany, August 1st - 9th 2003, online at

[xv] Josef Mayerhöfer, "Menschen mögen Meilensteine: Vorbericht 1996 zur Geschichte der Vereinigung Österreichischer Bibliothekarinnen und Bibliothekare im Rahmen der österreichischen Bibliotheksgeschichte." [People like milestones: A preliminary report from 1966 toward a history of the Austrian Librarians' Association in the framework of Austrian library history] Mitteilungen der Vereinigung Österreichischer Bibliothekarinnen & Bibliothekare 49, 2 (1996). Online at

[xvi] Thomas Tottie, "Gerhard Munthe—en förgrundsgestalt inom nordiskt biblioteksväsende" [Gerhard Munthe: A prominent figure in Nordic librarianship] Biblioteksbladet 10 (1997): 22.

[xvii] Esko Häkli, "Gerhard Munthe in Memoriam" LIBER Quarterly 8 (1998): 118-119. The title Riksbibliotekar (literally "kingdom librarian") is misleading, since the holder of that office did not have responsibility for any National Library, which did not come into existence until 1988, but only as coordinator for Riksbibliotektjenesten, which was a service for academic and research libraries until its merger with the equivalent office for public libraries, Statens bibliotektjeneste (literally the State Library Service) and the museums service, Norsk museumsutvikling ("Norwegian Museum Development") into Norsk ABM-Utvikling, the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority, on January 1st, 2003. see the agency's English language webpage at The first Norwegian Nasjonalbibliotekar or National Librarian, was Gerhard Munthe's own successor as Riksbibliotekar, Bendik Rugaas, who was appointed to the office in 1994, six years after the Norwegian government had vote to create the National Library as a separate institution from the University Library of Oslo. Both Wilhelm Munthe and his successors in the office of overbibliotekar at Oslo University Library had worked toward the creation of a separate institution responsible for a national bibliography and other national library functions, but it was Gerhard Munthe who was to be ultimately successful. See the only official English-language description of the Norwegian National Library at

[xviii] Gerhard Munthe, "Scandinavian librarianship: a study in cooperation," A contribution to the Calgary Conference of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, Calgary, Alberta, 14 June 1978, CARL publication; no. 1, [Ottawa]: Canadian Association of Research Libraries, 1978.

[xix] Kultur og natur: vandringer blant bøker og bokfolk. Festskrift til Gerhard Munthe, 28. April 1989 [Culture and Nature: excursions among books and booklovers: a Festschrift for Gerhard Munthe April 28, 1989] Oslo: Riksbibliotektjenesten, 1980.

[xx] Gert Hornwall, "Norge och Nordisk tidskrift för bok- och biblioteksväsen 1914-1950" [Norway and the periodical Nordisk tidskrift för bok- och biblioteksväsen 1914-1950] in Kultur og natur, 85.

[xxi] Franz Kroller, "Europäisches Bewußtsein in der Zusammenarbeit der großen wissenschaftlichen Biblioteheken" [European awareness in Collaboration Among Large Research Libraries] in Kinst og Natur, 108.

About the Author

Johan Koren is Assistant Professor, School Library Media, Department of Early Childhood and Elementary Education, College of Education, Murrary State University, Murray, KY, USA.
Email: johan [dot] koren [at] cce [dot] murraystate [dot] edu

© 2002 Johan Koren

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