Library science

Shelves of hidden treasure

Collections of rare works in Brazil demand protection and promise new discoveries

Copies of the Nuremberg Chronicle (left), dated 1493, Evangelho grego (below), from the sixteenth century, and Compendio (right), dated 1541, are among the rare works found in library collections in Brazil

BN Digital archive and IEB-USP

It was an ordinary day at the library at the University of Caxias do Sul (UCS), in Rio Grande do Sul, southern Brazil, when a man entered the room looking for a copy of De incantationibus seu ensalmis, by Manuel do Vale de Moura (ca. 1564–1650). The reason for the user’s anxiety, and for his having traveled 400 kilometers to put his hands on the title in Latin, was soon revealed: he said he had discovered a pot of gold near the border with Argentina, and needed the book to unearth it. The man had heard of a legend from the early colonial period to the effect that Indians living in the Prata River area had buried a treasure that could only be drawn out of the ground by reciting a prayer. The ritual, the treasure hunter believed, was described in a book published in the seventeenth century, in Évora, Portugal. The librarian agreed to help as best she could. With assistance from a professor of Latin from the University, they scoured the book in search of the prayer, but were unsuccessful.

No one knows whether the man was able to unearth the object of his treasure hunt, but his search for the prayer led to the discovery of another treasure—the book itself, a 610-page volume bound in parchment and with a royal coat of arms on its title page. Marcia Carvalho Rodrigues, who worked as a librarian at UCS during that first decade of the 2000s, remembers the episode fondly. “Studying about unique books and the stories behind them is fulfilling for me professionally,” says Rodrigues, now a professor of library science at the Federal University of Rio Grande (FURG).

Public and private institutions throughout Brazil are known to possess a wealth of rare works like the one the man inquired about at UCS, but many have not been cataloged. In 2017, Rodrigues decided to start a research project to inventory the rare collections existing in her state of Rio Grande do Sul. She began by inquiring at university libraries. Twelve of the 19 institutions confirmed they had rare works in their collections. But when her inquiry turned to public libraries, it came to a dead end. Only 19 of the 533 state libraries registered in the National Public Library System (SNBP) responded—all in the negative. “We asked whether these libraries had any rare works in their collections. When they responded in the negative or not at all, we realized we needed to change our methods,” says Rodrigues, suspecting that an outdated database could be part of the problem.

BN Digital archive Los desastres de la guerra, by Francisco Goya, one of the gems of the National Library collectionBN Digital archive

In 1995, under a National Plan for the Recovery of Rare Works (PLANOR) the National Library (BN) initiated an effort to identify, collect, compile, and disseminate information about rare collections in Brazil. However, not all collections have been documented in BN’s online National Bibliographic Heritage Catalog (CPBN). As a collectively managed platform, it relies on institutions to enter the data themselves. Until they get around to identifying their rare collections, these gaps will remain. There are currently 386 institutions known to have rare collections in Brazil—235 have been documented in the CPBN.

Ana Maria de Almeida Camargo, from the School of Philosophy, Languages and Literature, and Humanities at the University of São Paulo (FFLCH-USP), laments that scientific investigation in this field is still incipient. “We have research about books as objects, about publishing houses, and about reading, but when it comes to rare books or special books there is still a great deal to be done, especially in terms of bibliographies. We have reached the twenty-first century without an exhaustive knowledge of what we have published,” says Camargo, an archive specialist who has worked on a project to catalog the collection at USP—which includes, for example, Compendio, a book on religious sacraments published anonymously in 1541. Curiously, however, cataloging was more efficient in the past. “It may be surprising to know that in 1881, a catalog of an exhibition at the National Library was lauded by bibliophiles from around the world as the best and most elaborate work of its kind,” says Camargo, referring to Catalogo da Exposição de Historia do Brazil (Catalog of the Brazilian History Exhibition), authored by the then-director of the institution, Ramiz Galvão (1846–1938). The catalog lists more than 20,000 titles relating to Brazil, representing, in the words of the late historian José Honório Rodrigues (1913–1987), “a publication of extraordinary importance to Brazilian historiography, not only because it was unparalleled at its time, but also because no better work has been published in Brazil after it.”

The limited scientific knowledge on rare works appears to be directly linked to a common conundrum among collection managers: what are the defining attributes of rare works? Antiqueness, content, illustrations, ownership marks, the type of paper or binding used, whether the book contains handwritten notes, whether it was printed in single or small print run, or whether it was written by a renowned author are some of the internationally accepted criteria for classification. The specific characteristics of each collection also need to be taken into account. To build a collection of rare books, there are multiple aspects that need to be factored in, explains Ana Virginia Pinheiro, head of the Rare Works Division at BN since 2004. “Antiqueness is the most obvious aspect, readily noticeable from the craftsmanship usually seen in old books,” she explains, referring to features such as the use of rag paper, woodcut illustrations, and primeval printing techniques. “But identifying uniqueness requires that curators exercise judgment and have adequate training, as it involves an appraisal of distinguishing features such as artistic binding or annotations made by notable readers,” she explains.

Identifying rare works is a challenge for researchers in the field

The Special Rare Works Collection of the National Library is one of the finest in Brazil. “It boasts more than 2,000 linear meters of items,” says Ana Pinheiro. The collection holds treasures such as the first edition of Os lusíadas (The Lusiads), launched in 1572 by the Portuguese poet Luís Vaz de Camões (1524–1580), and the Nuremberg Chronicle, published in 1493 by Hartmann Schedel (1440–1514) and considered the most richly illustrated book to be printed in the fifteenth century, with 645 different woodcut illustrations.

The Public Library of the State of Pernambuco is one of the institutions known to have a large collection of rare works, with around 15,000 titles, including books and periodicals. The oldest is Manual de confessores e penitentes (Manual of confessors and penitents), by Martim Azpilcueta Navarro, dated 1560. Poliana do Nascimento e Silva, head of the Special Collections Division, notes that the language in which a book is written can make the task of identification difficult. “In addition to different levels of rarity—international, national, or regional—the language of the book can also make cataloging complicated. We have works in Latin, German, Dutch, French, English.” To work around the language barrier, one solution has been to search bibliographic databases with works in the public domain. “This has helped us in identifying information about rarity,” says Silva. “The world’s most important libraries now allow users to search their digital catalogs of rare works.”

But rare collections are not just about books. The Historical Archive of São Paulo, for example, stores a wealth of documents that chronicle the history of the city since 1555. These include the administration records of successive mayors and other authorities of the Executive Branch, and minutes of City Hall meetings. The Archive contains such invaluable items as minutes from the Municipal Chamber of São Paulo dated 1562, and minutes from the Municipal Chamber of Santo André da Borda do Campo, from 1555. “Each page can reveal hitherto unknown aspects of the city’s culture,” says Luís Soares de Camargo, director of the Archive. A preserved petition drawn up by local residents in the late nineteenth century, for example, provides insight into what led one of the city’s districts, called Bixiga, to change its name. “I had always suspected a link to the fact that the word ‘bixiga’ is also the popular name for smallpox, one of the most contagious diseases to have ravaged Brazil. So I was thrilled to come across a petition from residents to change the name of the district to Bela Vista. They complained that the former name brought back ‘sad memories.’”

Besides manuscripts and books, other items such as maps, photographs, and illustrations can also qualify as rare works, further complicating collection management. At the National Library, for example, not every rare item is in the relevant collection. “The original manuscript of the Golden Law is one of the collection’s rare items, but is kept in the Manuscript Division. The first samba ever recorded, Pelo telefone (1916), by Donga (1889–1974), is kept in the Music Division,” explains Diana Ramos, who manages the Iconography Division. About 440 items are retrieved for consultation each month in the division housing photographs, lithographs, and drawings. Among the 250,000 items in this division are world-renowned illustrations such as Small passion, by Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528), studies by Eliseu Visconti (1866–1944), and the Thereza Christina Maria (1822–1889) photograph collection, donated by dom Pedro II (1825–1891).

Historical Archive of São Paulo A petition to change the name of a district, found in the Historical Archive of São Paulo, offers new insight into the city’s pastHistorical Archive of São Paulo

Heritage at risk
Iconographic collections such as the ones housed at BN are often targeted by antiques thieves. An inventory at the library in 2004 revealed that 14 documents, containing 102 illustrations, had been stolen. The most recent incident, in 2005, involved the theft of 1,096 iconographic items and around 500 menus and 300 labels. The National Museum Library also reported the loss of 51 items in 2004: 12 to theft, and 39 to destruction. Of the stolen items, only nine were eventually recovered. University libraries are also exposed to theft. The Pedro Calmon Library, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ), had 364 of its rare works stolen in the previous decade, according to data released in 2017. In an effort to track down the missing items, Paula Mello, chair of the Committee for Rare and Special Works of the Brazilian Commission for University Libraries, contacted The Art Loss Register (—an international database of lost and stolen art—to request assistance and prevent the works from being sold. “Since then, we have been in almost daily correspondence, sending reports and bibliographic information about the books taken from the library,” she says.

In response to the alarming number of theft reports from libraries and archives throughout Brazil, the 13th National Meeting on Rare Collections (ENAR), held in 2018 at BN under the theme “policies for the security and safekeeping of rare and special collections,” brought together experts and collections managers to discuss ways to protect rare works. “Many institutions have suffered from theft in recent years, and it’s important to share experience and lessons learned from these lamentable incidents,” says Rosângela Rocha von Helde, head of PLANOR. “Preventing losses to fire, floods, and biological attack is equally important.”

Libraries where thefts have occurred have bolstered their security policies by better cataloging their items and adopting strict procedures for access by researchers. A library employee needs to be present at all times during consultation. “Users should never be left unsupervised to avoid both damage caused by mishandling and theft,” says Rodrigues. In her study, she found that only 5 of the 12 libraries hosting rare collections in Rio Grande do Sul had special rules in place on the use of collections. None of them had a practice of digitizing their collections. These findings are worrying: “In a matter of decades, many of these works will no longer exist due to inefficient enforcement of policies to protect and safeguard rare collections in Rio Grande do Sul.”

In addition to digitization, some of the basic measures to protect collections include increasing coverage by surveillance cameras, training security staff, and performing regular inventories. Recordkeeping and ownership marking are also important. When properly documented, missing pages, stains or erasures in a particular manuscript or book can ease recognition. None of this matters, however, if the works are never consulted. “It is the visiting researchers who generate knowledge for the public benefit,” says Ana Pinheiro. “When I catalog a given item, I am merely exercising the power and duty of the State to provide access to culture, education, and information and to preserve memory by recording the particulars of each work. But it is the expert’s eye that leads to discovery.”