Treasures and troubles in the CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva


Aquest curs la temporada d’acollida de bibliotecaris Erasmus+ ha començat a finals de maig, i ho ha fet de la millor manera possible: arribats dels Països Baixos, el Bart i la Gwendolyn han gaudit de la seva estada entre nosaltres, tot descobrint tresors amagats i desxifrant misteris, que seran revelats properament en aquest blog.

The CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva holds one of the most important book collections in Spain, and the most important one in Catalonia. It is situated in a large university building of the nineteenth century that also houses the Faculties of Philology and Mathematics. When we, Bart Jaski (Utrecht University Library Special Collections) and Gwendolyn Verbaak (Allard Pierson Museum and Special Collections of the University of Amsterdam), visit the library, it is exam time, and the reading rooms are full of students. Both curators at our respective university libraries, we are of course curious about all the aspects of Special Collections (Fons Antic) at the CRAI, which we visit via the Erasmus+ programme. We are given a warm welcome by Neus Verger, Gemma Caballer and Marina Ruiz, who have organized an interesting range of tours and activities for us.

We are both impressed by the extensive collections of the CRAI, and are given the chance to work on incunabula – including a beautiful one with a puzzling Middle Dutch text – and on early Amsterdam imprints, of which there are editions not found in any Dutch libraries. We see splendidly illuminated manuscripts, rows upon rows of books from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, a vast collection of old title pages torn out of books (the rest was thrown away), and many other treasures and remarkable items, great and small. These books form a major source of research, either individually or as collections, since the heart of the Fons Antic is formed by the confiscated books of the monasteries of the province of Barcelona. It is clear that this is an important Catalonian heritage collection, and it also tells us much about the contacts between Catalonia and the rest of Europe.

And this was not all, for we also visited the remarkable library of the Pavelló de la República near Montbau metro station. Here Lídia Martínez told us about the history of the building, which is a replica of the Pavelló at the International Exposition in Paris in 1937, and showed us the collections of twentieth century Spanish history. They vary from Spanish civil war posters to relics from war victims. It is the most important collection in its kind, and still growing.

We also visited the restoration facilities in the Zona Universitària. The conservators demonstrated the whole process of restoration of books heavily damaged by insects, using a special washing machine for several leaves at the same time. We also saw a short film about this efficient method.

It becomes immediately clear to us that the conservation of books is a major source of worry. We Dutch aren’t used to heat, so for us the reading room of the Fons Antic, where the sun shines directly on the windows, feels like a sauna! Without climate control, it is certainly too hot for the books. In the open stacks outside the reading rooms there had been an outbreak of fungus – the dread of every librarian – and a team in special suits, armed with instruments and a vacuum cleaner, is still busy controlling the damage. The troubles with conservation are visible everywhere, and cry out for action.

Another struggle for our colleagues – in the CRAI as everywhere – is to show the academic community the importance of their collection. They approach this with energy and enthusiasm by publishing, digitizing, supporting lectures, giving presentations, educating trainees, being active on social media and maintaining a high standard of cataloguing. Besides the old print catalog, there are separate databases for provenance and printer’s marks, as well as a site on decorative endpapers, so every book receives an in-depth analysis. This is exactly what modern researchers want.

In Amsterdam and Utrecht we are also active in facilitating researchers, students and lecturers. For example, we cooperate with heritage institutions to organize (subsidized) projects and exhibitions, involve alumni with our activities, and have students enter information about our manuscripts in Wikipedia as part of a history course. What you can do depends of course on the size of your staff, and so we plan ahead and discuss activities, strategy and ambitions on a regular basis, also with other library departments and with the head librarian. This gives focus on our activities, allows us to set realistic goals, but also forces us to make choices.

Working in Special Collections is often a privilege, for the material is interesting and inspiring. Once students and researchers discover that, they usually stay. We wish our colleagues of the CRAI all the best with the challenges and opportunities the Fons Antic gives them.

                                    Bart Jaski, keeper of manuscripts and curator of printed books, Utrecht University Library

                                       Gwendolyn Verbraak, assistant curator early printed editions, Allard Pierson, The Collections of the University of Amsterdam


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2 respostes a Treasures and troubles in the CRAI Biblioteca de Reserva

  1. Retroenllaç: An old sailor’s almanac from Amsterdam | Blog de Reserva

  2. Retroenllaç: Flemish riddles in an Italian incunable | Blog de Reserva

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