Underground Music Records in Rottenbiller street Library Budapest
A special music collection was created by two librarians in a public library in Budapest. 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.
Budapest Király utca 5, Hungary 1042
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Name of collection
The popular music collection in the library at Rottenbiller Street (FSZEK)
Provenance and cultural activities
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. Alternative theatre companies performed in the community centers of the Patriotic People’s Front; projects based on interviews about suppressed topics and taboos were sometimes organized with the help of a state institution; political disputes which were initiated by people belonging in some form to the opposition were held under the aegis of the Hungarian Young Communist League. Why should there be no collection of rock, jazz, and alternative music records in one of the public libraries in Budapest?
The first official popular music collection was based on the collecting activity of two music-lover librarians, Péter Hont and Károly Kály-Kullai. They began this work illegally. They started to collect vinyl records in 1976. In the beginning, the leadership of the library intented to stop them, but they argued that foreign music was important as a tool with which to learn foreign languages, and they made use of a rule according to which libraries had to have a certain percent of their holdings organized as an independent collection. The hostility to the music collection started to change in the mid-1980s, as the income generated by copying music placated people higher up in the decision-making processes, but the dilemma as how to treat the collection remained until the fall of the regime.
The practice of 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 own discs to the library in exchange for copies of recordings in its holdings.
In the mid-1980s, libraries began to become more tolerant of cultural artifacts (including recordings of music) that were not paper-based. At this time, the music-loving public and collectors also began to turn to non-classical music. The library began to adapt more to the demands of the public and shift from on-site use to borrowing. This process was rooted in trends in Anglo-American public libraries.
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 or was even banned by the state. These recordings gained some legitimacy through their inclusion in the library holdings. Kály-Kullai did not consider their work an oppositional activity. He said that the power of the community originated from the fact that the librarians and visitors liked the same culture. This culture was oppositional originally, but actually, it became a culture through collections like this one. The branch library at Rottenbiller Street became an example for other music collections to follow.
The establishment and the up-to-date enrichment of the collection was an endorsement of pop music culture. The partly ruled the market, and utilization of the market niche made possible the copying of recordings and, moreover, the registration, public access, and borrowing of pirate discs and bootleg recordings. The collection grew, and this is drew in more visitors. There were users among the borrowers who had not used the library earlier.
A further crucial detail concerned the technical equipment: 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 got support from the Soros Foundation and the Hungarian Young Communist League, but the main source of income was the fees paid for copy making. The collection thus became self-sustaining. It acquired a cassette player, and the first CD was bought in 1985. It acquired 3 CD players and a Dictaphone and video camera two years later. The equipment camera was used to record a demonstration by homeless people and several concerts in the second half of the 1980s.
The music collection was linked to social work with people wrestling with drug addiction. Kály-Kullai (who graduated with a degree in drama pedagogy, too) established the Island Club (Sziget Klub) to help people suffering from drug addiction. He used the music recordings in the collective therapy process. This was the first civil initiative in this area in Hungary, like the music collection itself. Kály-Kullai was inspired by his earlier job, when he did interviews with drug addicts.
A further service provided by the library was to offer a site where people could play board games. After the library had closed, Péter Hont’s circle of friends played foreign board games that were not easily available in Hungary. In the 1980s, lectures were held about the topic of addiction, and the new democratic parties also used the library as a place to meet.The music collection at Rottenbiller Street no longer exists. The varied and unique repository disappeared, and 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).
Description of content
The pop music collection in the branch library of the Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library (Fővárosi Szabó Ervin Könyvtár, FSZEK) in Rottenbiller Street grew continuously from the 1970s to 1989. The outlook and content were shaped by the tastes of the collector librarians. They gathered music from the 1960s and 1970s, contemporary music and progressive rock, rock, blues, jazz, and punk music. Károly Kály-Kullai published some figures in the journal of Library News in 1988. He wrote they possessed 1,550 vinyl records and 50 cassettes. 40 percent of these items were beat-rock-pop music. The rest was classical music. The final repository contained circa 4,000 photographic records and more than 4,000 CDs. This collection grew with the addition of 500 musical scores. At the present, the CD-collection remained in one block and became the part of the music collection in the branch library in Király Street. Vinyl records and cassettes were sold according to the instructions of the leadership of the library.
- music recordings: 500-999
Geographical scope of recent operation
Date of founding
Place of founding
Budapest Rottenbiller utca 10, Hungary
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- Hont, Péter
- Kály-Kullai, Károy
Important events in the history of the collection
- completely open to the public
Author(s) of this page
- Huhák, Heléna
- Wagner, Sára
Wagner, Sára. "Led Zeppelintől a Trabantig: a Rottenbiller utcai populáris zenei gyűjtemény." In n.d.
Wagner, Sára. "Led Zeppelintől a Trabantig: A Rottenbiller utcai populáris zenei gyűjtemény." Volt egyszer egy beatkorszak (blog). February 16, 2018. http://beatkorszak.blog.hu/2018/02/16/led_zeppelintol_a_trabantig_a_rottenbiller_utcai_popularis_zenei_gyujtemeny.
Hont, Péter, interview by Wagner, Sára, February 15, 2017. COURAGE Registry Oral History Collection