About the Collection

University of Cincinnati German Dissertations, Programmschriften, and Pamphlets in Classics

Oldest German dissertation

The collection of some 18,000 German dissertations and school bulletins (featuring lectures given at graduation and holiday celebrations at German Gymnasia) in the John Miller Burnam Classics Library at the University of Cincinnati is unique among libraries in the United States, both for its size and for its long time span from the 17th to the early 20th century.  The collection is a cultural monument. 19th century humanistic scholarship is not only of vital importance for present day research in classics; it also represents an irreplaceable set of documents for western intellectual history.

The oldest dissertation in the collection dates to 1646

Text and photos by Rebecka Lindau.

The oldest dissertation in the collection is on the history of literature from Augustus to Trajan. The dissertation defense took place on February 28, 1646, at the University of Copenhagen. The opponent was Erasmus Envaldus Brochmand and the respondent Johannes Wandalinus.

The dissertations are fairly slim, covering some 20-70 pages. It was the normal length until well into the 20th century. It was seen as a final exam to demonstrate academic research and writing skills during an age of pioneering research, but without computers, databases and indexes, air travel, public access to manuscripts, few archaeological discoveries.

During the 17th to the early 20th century, Continental Europe, especially present-day Germany, was the center of original scholarly research in classical studies. It is noteworthy that even a graduation day lecture at a Gymnasium in a small German town could produce what may still be one of the authoritative treatments of a question concerning antiquity.

The UC collection is a cultural monument

19th c. humanistic scholarship is not only of vital importance for present-day research in classics; it also represents an irreplaceable set of documents for western intellectual history. Many European copies were destroyed in the world wars and mostly smaller collections of this material made it into university libraries in the U.S. The UC materials were acquired in Germany during WWI both for their unique content and for the purpose of preserving them for future scholars. In a "Progress Report of  the Classics Library 1949-1961,” librarian Mildred Smith writes: “A very little known portion of the Classics collection is an additional collection of 18,000 dissertations and specialized studies, mainly written in German, which was purchased about 1915. These are in pam boxes housed at present in the Classics tea room on the floor, but designated to be the first to occupy the new stack quarters assigned to Classics. The only record I found for this material was a handwritten file of author entries, which made no pretense of combining all works of one author under one name, with only author entries. To make this material available to scholars, I undertook the stupendous task, which Mr. Vail began, of going through every box and making a new catalog file with author and subject entries established according to L.C. rules… In its dirty boxes, this collection may look quite unimportant and it is the librarians’ first impulse to dispose of it rather than cope with the problem of spacing. But it does contain valuable and often rare research material on specialized subjects and it is an asset to a comprehensive collection like Classics…”. 

Even though university students in the 19th c. had limitations such as not being able to access the wealth of materials available to students in the 21st century, they still had advantages such as a solid foundation of ancient language study. The language used by German university professors when lecturing was Latin, and Greek and Latin were studied as early as in elementary school. A humanities education focusing on classical antiquity was fundamental. This gave students a foundation often lacking among contemporary classics students, and a basis from which to ask important questions.

While it is true that many facts and conclusions are no longer deemed accurate or even relevant, some of the questions asked in these academic treatises have gained new interest today. For far too long much of 19th c. classical scholarship was dismissed as speculative and fanciful.  However, these pioneering scholars are now enjoying somewhat of a renaissance.  These slim tomes are in fact a treasure trove for students looking for topics and ideas for their own dissertations. The many discoveries made and insights gained in the last two hundred years have in several instances substantiated the work of the early classical scholars. In other cases, they have been proven false and in yet others the jury is still out.

Moreover, these dissertations give us insight into the history of classical scholarship and demonstrate the classical traditions at a time when the study of Greek and Latin was essential and classical archaeology was just beginning to excite not only the minds of academics, but also of the general public. 

Current Use

The UC collection enjoys a good deal of use by students and scholars from various national and international institutions via interlibrary loan as well as by UC students and faculty.

For example, the following items have seen high circulation numbers:

·       a thesis on Diomedes, hero of the Trojan War, from 1904.

·       on the Sibylline Oracles, also from 1904.

·       on (pseudo) Plutarch’s Life of Homer from 1899 (Plutarch’s authorship had not yet been questioned in this early dissertation).

·       on Clemens of Alexandria from 1892.

·       on the development of the Misanthrope in classical literature from 1906.

·       on Persius’ Satires from 1850.

·       a 1915 study by Hermann Fränkel on the poet Simmias of Rhodes, who in addition to epigrams wrote so called carmina figurata where the poem in form resembles an object.

Project Aim and Scope

Currently, the collection exists in print in fragile condition, and in microfilm (which is lent) in the Classics Library. There is also a microfilm copy at the Center for Research Libraries. The titles are searchable in the UC and CRL catalogs (see and, but the metadata is minimal and the subject headings listed not always correct or descriptive.  

The aim of this project is not only to digitize all c. 18,000 items, but also to provide detailed content analysis, so called metadata, in English (the languages of the dissertations and school programs are mainly Latin, German, and French but also Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew, Dutch and the Scandinavian languages, and the font used is mostly German Fraktur) in order to facilitate their discovery and use by contemporary and future classicists and by all others interested in classical antiquity and the history of classical scholarship.

Having this many historical dissertations and school bulletins in classical studies available in one database would also be unique. About 30 percent of the items have already been digitized by other institutions and are available through various library catalogs in Germany. The Bielefeld Academic Search Engine of the Bielefeld University Library locates a few (  Also, the catalog of the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek in Munich lists some 37,000  Dissertationen from 1895 and onwards in all fields rather than in classical studies only, but these are not separated from books and other library materials, and are very difficult to locate even for the seasoned researcher. The German National Library (die Deutsche Nationalbibliothek) has so far digitized 5,000 books, among them also some dissertations, but these are more recent and not exclusively in classics.

As far as I know, there is currently no project in Germany to digitize dissertations separately, in classics or in other fields. The Universitätsbibliothek Innsbruck in Austria has digitized 215,000 dissertations covering the years 1924-1988, so much later than the ones in the UC collection (see and

Some of the items are also available through library catalogs in the United States and from large scale digital repositories such as HathiTrust and Google Books. Furthermore, some school bulletins from the 19th c. and the early 20th c. have been digitized by the Universitäts- und Landesbibliothek in Düsseldorf ( In addition, the University of Illinois has begun to digitize their Dittenberger-Vahlen Collection, which also contains some German dissertations and school programs:

However, again, the UC project is unique in that it focuses on classical studies, especially philology, and that it offers not only the scanned pages but also detailed content notes and linked data (to source texts, encyclopedia entries and the like) for a very large set of historic items in a field of great prominence at the University of Cincinnati (UC’s earliest area studies program) spanning many centuries.

By R. Lindau

For inquiries about this material and project, and to contribute funds towards digitization and content analysis, please contact Dr. Rebecka Lindau, Head of the John Miller Burnam Classics Library, tel.: 513-556-1316; email:

Classics Library, German dissertations