Underground Music Records in Rottenbiller Street Library, Budapest

From Unearthing The Music

CDs from the library's collection.

A special music collection created by two librarians in a public library in Budapest, Hungary. This unique repository was established in the branch library of the Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library (Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár, FSZEK). The librarians maneuvered among the barriers of the regime and utilized a loophole which allowed them to copy music recordings. The collection consists of recordings of contemporary Western music and alternative Hungarian bands. The materials reflect the tastes of the librarians.

The music collection in Rottenbiller Street (in the 7th district of Budapest) was a strange institution: cultural materials with content unacceptable to the official cultural policy and principles were collected and preserved in a public institution maintained by the state. However, this was not a unique phenomenon during the Kadár era in Hungary.

The first official popular music collection was based on the collecting activity of two music-loving librarians, Péter Hont and Károly Kály-Kullai. They began this work illegally. They started collecting vinyl records in 1976. In the beginning, the library's directors intended to stop them, but they argued that foreign music was important as a tool with which to learn foreign languages. The associates of the library at Rottenbiller Street themselves created the content of the collection: for example, they recorded the concert of Hungarian punk band Vágtázó Halottkémek/VHK (Galloping Coroners) at the Club of Young Artists.

The collecting took place through channels and forums which were well-known by music lovers and collectors. Initially, the librarians purchased recordings in second-hand bookshops, and later they frequented private shops which were opened in the mid-1980s. Péter Hont also purchased rock, punk, jazz, and alternative music records at a flea market in West Berlin. Contemporary Hungarian alternative music (for example Trabant, Kontroll Csoport, Európa Kiadó, underground music from the 1960s and 1970s) were acquired through exchange and barter transactions. Visitors also gave their discs to the library in exchange for copies of recordings in its holdings.

According to Péter Hont, the collection democratized access to cultures beyond the mainstream supported by the state. This was the first case when people could obtain popular music which was not favored by or even banned by the state. These recordings gained some legitimacy through their inclusion in the library holdings. The collection grew, and this drew in more visitors. There were users among the borrowers who had not used the library earlier.

The technical equipment was essential: the recording, playing, and copying devices. Without this equipment, the collection could not have grown - it would have been impossible to provide access to the materials, and the collection would never have become financially independent. The collection thus became self-sustaining. The camera equipment was used to record a demonstration by homeless people and several concerts in the second half of the 1980s.

The music collection at Rottenbiller Street no longer exists. The varied and unique repository disappeared, but a fragment survived. The leadership of the library sold the vinyl records in the 2000s, and the cassettes were destroyed or became private property. The CD collection was preserved in the branch library of the Municipal Library in Király Street (in the 4th district of Budapest).