From Wrocław to Munich to Chicago—how Polish materials are reflected in the world’s libraries

Brian Lavoie

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As IFLA commences, our thoughts turn to Poland and world literature…

The international library community is gathered in Wrocław, Poland, for the 2017 World Library and Information Congress. This ancient city by the River Oder will offer many attractions to the delegates, including the oldest zoo in Poland, historic Centennial Hall, and the more contemporary Multimedia Fountain. And, as many librarians will especially appreciate, Poland is home to some of the greatest authors and works in world literature.

Who is the most popular Polish author?

Who is the greatest Polish author? Literary critics can debate the point, but using WorldCat data, we can say something about the most popular Polish authors, measured by the frequency with which their works appear in library collections worldwide. The answer: Joseph Conrad. Conrad was born in what is now northern Ukraine in 1857, at the time part of the Russian Empire and formerly part of the Kingdom of Poland. His parents were members of the Polish nobility, as well as activists for Polish independence. Conrad spent much of his childhood in Poland, before becoming a sailor and later a British citizen. Conrad keeps august company in the pantheon of popular Polish authors, with recently canonized Pope John Paul II and the Nobel Prize-winning writer Isaac Bashevis Singer (born Icek Zynger) taking second and third place.

Given that Joseph Conrad is the most popular Polish author, it is no surprise that he also claims the most popular work by a Polish author, where we again measure popularity in terms of global library holdings. Lord Jim, originally published in serialized form in 1899–1900, is held more widely than any other work by a Polish author. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness and Nostromo capture second and third place on the list, cementing the novelist’s status as the world’s most popular Polish author.

While Joseph Conrad is of Polish heritage, his reputation as a writer was formed outside of Poland, and he wrote in the English language. We can sharpen our view of the Polish presence in world literature by posing another question: who is the most popular Polish author writing in the Polish language? And what is the most popular work originally written in Polish? The answers: Henryk Sienkiewicz and his internationally acclaimed work, Quo Vadis. Despite its Latin title, Sienkiewicz’s epic tale of early Christianity was originally composed and published in the Polish language.

The composer Frederic Chopin takes top honors as the most popular musician of Polish heritage, while director Billy Wilder (born Samuel Wilder in Sucha, Poland) is the most popular Pole in movies.

Polish-language materials around the world

WorldCat data also reveals the diffusion of Polish-language materials around the world. For example, the largest concentration of Polish-language materials outside of Poland can be found at the Bayerische Staatsbibliothek (Bavarian State Library) in Munich, Germany. Harvard University has the second largest concentration of Polish-language materials, followed by the Herder Institut (a German center for historical research on East Central Europe), New York Public Library, and Stanford University.

Recent work by OCLC Research also found that Polish was the most common language after English and Spanish found on the shelves of Illinois public libraries. Illinois, and especially the city of Chicago, is the home of a large and vibrant Polish community, as well as the Polish Museum of America, celebrated examples of Polish cathedral-style architecture, and the annual Taste of Polonia Festival.

From Conrad to Sienkiewicz to Chopin; from Lord Jim to Quo Vadis to the Minute Waltz—Polish authors, composers, and other creative lights have made timeless contributions to world literature and the arts. The enduring popularity of these authors and works is revealed by exploring the global library collective collection, represented by WorldCat. The combined collections of libraries everywhere is the best approximation available of the published record, and as such, offers a unique window into world literature and other forms of creative expression. Using WorldCat, we can ask interesting questions and discover fascinating answers regarding the world’s published output.

Check out our series of reports on characterizing national presences in the published record; reports on Scotland and New Zealand are available, with a report on Ireland coming soon. See this recent Irish Times piece by Lorcan Dempsey for a preview of some of our Irish findings.