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Brazilian libraries endeavor to update their collections

Collections focused on the country's culture and history invest in digitization and incorporation of objects

The Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library, at the University of São Paulo (USP), should incorporate indigenous work and marginal literature

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Over the last 15 years, Antonio Dimas, of the University of São Paulo’s Brazilian Studies Institute (IEB-USP), has studied a collection housed at the University of Texas in the United States. During his studies, he discovered the estate of American publisher Alfred Knopf (1892–1986), responsible for translating and publishing English versions of the earliest works of Bahian writer Jorge Amado (1912–2001) and Pernambucan writer Gilberto Freyre (1900–87). Perusal of correspondence, published opinions, and contracts reveal, among other things, that these authors were well received by American readers, particularly given their alternative views of Brazil, as they relate to Afro-Brazilian culture in Salvador and Recife. “Present all over the world, collections such as Knopf’s should also be considered Brasiliana, despite not being strictly composed of books,” maintains the researcher. By proposing a broadening of the concept, originally restricted to collections comprising works related to Brazil and produced between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Dimas’s thinking is indicative of a movement that has gained momentum in the last five years and was the topic of an event organized by the Guita and José Mindlin Brasiliana Library (BBM-USP) last February.

The term Brasiliana is a neologism and, according to historian Marisa Midori, of the University of São Paulo’s School of Communications and Arts (ECA-USP), is rooted in bibliophilia, or more specifically, collectors interested in Brazil. An example of this is how travelers and intellectuals who study the Orient are known as Orientalists. From the sixteenth century onwards, particularly in Europe, we began to see the formation of collections comprising books and documents on the Portuguese and Spanish colonies in the so-called New World. “The first collections of this kind were called Americanas, while Brazilian works were considered a subsection,” he says. According to Midori, once Brazil began structuring itself as a nation state, following its independence in 1822, statesmen and institutions attempted to identify and organize this bibliographic corpus. A milestone in this effort was the exhibition organized by physician and philologist Ramiz Galvão (1846–1938), then director of the Brazilian National Library, in 1881. “The exhibition catalogue, with a general inventory including more than a thousand sources, books, and documents about the country, marked the beginning of the Brasiliana tradition. However, despite the interest in amassing and outlining collections related to Brazil, the term Brasiliana was not used at the time,” he explains.

Bibliologist Marina Garone Gravier, of the National Library of Mexico (BNM) and the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), explains that, unlike in Brazil, in her country a “Mexican bibliography” encompasses all printed and published material about Mexico, including indigenous works, books, and documents from the twentieth century. She also highlights that the term Mexicana, which would be the equivalent of Brasiliana, does not exist. “Many of our printed materials from the colonial period were written in the indigenous language,” she states, mentioning that the oldest document stored by BNM dates back to 1554. She suggests that the concept of Brasiliana is tied to twenty-first century book collecting in the United States, a country that allocates funds using this nomenclature. Behind the agreement to update the concept of Brasiliana is the idea that it must “reflect a country’s internal changes and correspond with the fields of study, which are dynamic.”

Donaldson Collection / Getty ImagesAmerican editor Alfred Knopf and his wife, Blanche, who acted as informal sponsors for Brazilian authors in the English-speaking worldDonaldson Collection / Getty Images

The National Library of Mexico is located at UNAM, where various networks of researchers study and disseminate its collection, through the Bibliographic Research Institute, which has been around for over 50 years. “With books and documents from all over Latin America, published starting in the sixteenth century, BNM also houses documents subject to legal deposit in Mexico,” says Garone Gravier, who teaches courses at the National Library for graduate students in different departments at UNAM, including history, linguistics, literature, and the arts.

Although Brasiliana collections originated in the sixteenth century, the concept was not defined until the 1930s, due to developments in the publishing market. Historian Eliana Regina de Freitas Dutra, of the Federal University of Minas Gerais (UFMG), analyzes the namesake collection published by Companhia Editora Nacional from 1931 onwards. Sociologist Fernando Azevedo (1894–1974) was responsible for developing the editorial proposal. Over the course of its existence, a total of 415 titles by Brazilian and foreign authors were published. “The Brasiliana Collection published rare titles, such as those written by chroniclers and travelers from the colonial period, in addition to republishing out-of-print works and publishing new works on history, Brazilian social formation, education, geography, ethnology, and other fields of knowledge. It was even responsible for inaugurating the practice of editorial collecting in Brazil,” she says. The entire collection has been digitized through the Brasiliana Eletrônica project carried out by the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro (UFRJ) under the coordination of historian and engineer Israel Beloch. In addition to Companhia Editora Nacional, other publishers, such as Difusão Européia do Livro (DIFEL), José Olympio, Civilização Brasileira, and Livraria Martins Editora, released Brasiliana collections starting in the 1930s.

Brazilian National ArchiveConstitution of the Empire of Brazil, one of the documents displayed in an exhibition organized by the National Library, in 1881Brazilian National Archive

Another researcher of these editorial collections, historian Fábio Franzini, of the Federal University of São Paulo (UNIFESP), states that José Olympio’s Brazilian Documents Collection has published works that have become classics in the country’s historiography and social thinking circles. Some works include Roots of Brazil, by historian Sérgio Buarque de Holanda (1902–1982), which inaugurated the collection in 1936, and The Masters and the Slaves, written by Gilberto Freyre in 1933 and incorporated into the collection in 1943. In a study of the collection performed by BBM-USP between 2019 and 2020, the library analyzed the prefaces from several editions of The Masters and the Slaves, including three Argentine, two French, one North American, one Portuguese, one German, one Venezuelan, and one Polish edition. The objective: to understand why a book dedicated to the social formation process in Brazil was published in so many countries, including Argentina and the United States, in the 1940s, and France, in the 1950s. “In the prefaces that Freyre wrote for the international editions, he tries to show that his interpretation of Brazil could be universally understood,” he states, justifying the foreign readers’ interest in the work.

In 1965, on the heels of publishers creating Brasiliana collections, historian and bibliophile Rubem Borba de Moraes (1899–1986), in his work O bibliófilo aprendiz (The apprentice bibliophile), first proposed a definition for the concept. According to his interpretation, Brasiliana comprises “books about Brazil printed from the sixteenth century to the late nineteenth century, and books by Brazilian authors printed abroad until 1808.” A letter from merchant and explorer Américo Vespúcio (1454–1512), written in 1504, is considered the starting point for Brasiliana. “In addition to Moraes, other intellectuals formulated definitions, including lawyer and historian José Honório Rodrigues [1913–87], who produced lists of books he considered essential to understanding Brazil,” details historian Carlos Zeron, director of BBM-USP until the start of this year.

John Carter LibraryAmérico Vespúcio written in 1504 is considered the starting point for Brasiliana collectionsJohn Carter Library

Regarding the first collections assembled by bibliophiles, historian Thiago Lima Nicodemo, professor at the University of Campinas (UNICAMP) and coordinator of the Public Archives of the State of São Paulo, recalls that the German naturalist Carl von Martius (1794–1868) was one of the first to amass this type of collection in the nineteenth century, in addition to French historian and traveler Ferdinand Denis (1798–1890). The twentieth century saw an increase in the number of collectors interested in books about Brazil. Moraes and Yan de Almeida Prado (1898–1991) are part of this group of pioneers. Upon his death, Moraes left nearly 2,300 books to the lawyer, businessman, and bibliophile José Mindlin (1914–2010) and his wife, Guita (1916–2006). Over the course of more than 80 years, the couple has compiled a collection with 32,000 titles and 60,000 volumes of books and manuscripts about Brazil, all of which were donated to USP in 2005, upon foundation of the BBM.

In his project titled “Memória digital: Arquivo e documento histórico no mundo contemporâneo” (Digital memory: Historical collections and documents in the modern world), started two years ago, Nicodemo works with the idea that Brasiliana collections are important to pooling knowledge to support the formation of public policies. “Brasiliana collections also serve to promote projects aimed at modernizing the country, by providing a better understanding of its populations and borders,” he states. According to him, starting in the nineteenth century, various institutions began investing in these collections to establish connections between knowledge production and practical interventions. “The traditional concept of Brasiliana involves books produced about Brazil by foreign travelers and works by iconic authors from our history. However, we now advocate for the inclusion of indigenous works and marginal literature, for example. We must seek new lenses through which to view Brazil,” affirms sociologist Alexandre Saes, current BBM director.

Mindlin Family ArchiveBusinessman José Mindlin and his wife, Guita, in their home libraryMindlin Family Archive

The idea of broadening the concept of Brasiliana, as proposed by Antonio Dimas, of the IEB, involves including foreign collections about Brazilian culture that are not necessarily composed strictly of books. One such collection is that of historian Simona Binková, of Charles University in the Czech Republic, which includes iconographic documents of Brazilian cartography produced in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, showing aspects of Czech naturalists’ participation in a scientific expedition carried out in Brazil in 1817. In the United States, there are the collections maintained by geologist John Casper Branner (1850–1922), with manuscripts and maps from studies of Brazil from the late nineteenth century, and that of historian Ludwig Lauerhass (1936–2020), which includes approximately 4,000 items related to Brazilian history, anthropology, and sociology from the last century. According to Dimas, like the Knopf collection, these and other collections are still obscure and could serve as a basis for new scientific discoveries. “For example, when working with the American publisher’s estate, I identified that Freyre and Amado had promoted our country’s culture in the United States, while Knopf was a type of informal sponsor for Brazilian authors in the English-speaking world,” he says.

Ana Virginia Pinheiro, of the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro’s Library Science Program, has reservations regarding the idea of incorporating items other than books into Brasiliana collections and extending the time frame originally proposed by Moraes. “Broadening without criteria could detract from these collections’ distinctive features,” argues Pinheiro, who was a librarian of rare books at the National Library Foundation (FBN) from 1982 to 2020. Broadening of the concept, as conceived by her, would include adding books that circulated within the colonies during Portuguese rule, such as works that were used by the Jesuits to instruct students or books about Portuguese coins and stamps. “There is important literature, for example, on education and economics, which, although not written by Brazilians or in reference to Brazil, was fundamental for its constitution as a nation,” she argues. Originally the Portuguese Royal Library, the FBN houses collections of this kind that have not yet been researched. “In Brazil, interest in studying old books is recent, having started in the late 1970s,” says Pinheiro, when advocating for the establishment of partnerships with universities to promote works in little-known collections. In fact, it was during his efforts to identify obscure documents and books that João Marcos Cardoso, a curator at BBM-USP, discovered, in 2015, a feminist treatise published in 1868. “This document was written by an immigrant woman, in Imperial and slaveholding Brazil, claiming the right of women to participate in politics, the workforce, and education,” he recounts, explaining that this finding was the subject of his master’s thesis. Published by the same publisher as typographer Francisco de Paula Brito (1809–61), responsible for releasing the first Brazilian women’s magazine, the work was written by Anna Rosa Termacsics, a Hungarian woman who came to Brazil at the age of 7, where she remained until her death, in 1886.

Léo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESPDigitization of a book from the BBM-SUP collection: 15% of the collection is digitizedLéo Ramos Chaves / Revista Pesquisa FAPESP

Today, 15% of the collection at BBM-USP is digitized. “BBM has a technical reserve to acquire over ninety thousand books and is in the process of defining new policies to guide the expansion of its collection, starting in 2023,” says Saes, director of the institution. The process of digitizing the collection began in 2007, with funding from FAPESP. As a result of this project, titled “Digital Brasiliana,” around four thousand items gathered by Mindlin have been made available online, including books, engravings, maps, manuscripts, and other documents. At FBN, the digitization process began in 2001 involving rare works. Five years later, the Brasiliana Collection was incorporated into the project.

With what is considered one of the largest collections of Brasiliana located outside of Brazil, the Oliveira Lima Library, at the Catholic University of America, in Washington, USA, has successfully digitized part of its collection, which has just been made available online for free. In an effort that began ten years ago, they have now digitized 3,800 publications, letters, and pamphlets, totaling over one million pages. The oldest rare book dates back to 1507. “More than just a collection of Brasiliana, the Oliveira Lima Library can be characterized as an Ibero-American library, in that it comprises items related to the expansion of the Portuguese empire around the world and the history of the Americas, including the work done by the Jesuits and the history of slavery,” reports astronomer Duília de Mello, vice provost at the Catholic University of America. She emphasizes that, because of this characteristic, the collection assembled by Manoel de Oliveira Lima (1867–1928), Brazilian diplomat and historian, differs from other Brasiliana collections. “Going forward, we plan to digitize the thousands of pages that are part of the extensive correspondence among Lima and Brazilian intellectuals, such as Machado de Assis [1839–1908],” relays Mello, mentioning a letter in which the disheartened Brazilian writer writes of his wife’s death. According to her, only 10% of the correspondence has been digitized. Another goal, according to Mello, is to raise funds to translate the website, which is currently in English, into Portuguese (see Pesquisa FAPESP issue nº 266).

Oliveira Lima Library - The Catholic University of AmericaLeft, feminist treatise of 1869 discovered at BBM-USP. Below, two items from the Oliveira Lima Library, at the Catholic University of America, in the United States: document from 1652 from the Order of the Discalced Carmelites (left) and a letter in which Machado de Assis writes about his wife’s deathOliveira Lima Library - The Catholic University of America

The Oliveira Lima Library collection is mainly composed of books, documents, and objects acquired by the diplomat himself during his life. There are other important Brasiliana collections in the United States, such as the collection at the Lemann Center for Brazilian Studies, at the University of Illinois, and the John Carter Brown Library. “Foreign institutions with collections and libraries may have benefited from the initiatives developed by the Getúlio Vargas administration [1882–1954]. Gustavo Capanema [1900–1985], Education Minister from 1934 to 1945, established donation policies and sent books from Brasiliana collections, which were published by Brazilian publishers and the National Institute of Books (INL), to embassies, universities, and associations for artists and writers around the world,” recounts Dutra, of UFMG.

According to Midori, of USP, European Brasiliana collections characteristically focus on works from the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. “Institutions and collectors from the region were interested in these works not only for what they revealed about Brazil, but also because they exposed the development of printing techniques from that period,” relates the historian, mentioning, for example, woodcuts made for travel reports. In a study of documents stored at Nostitz Palace in Prague, she identified navigation logs with folded paper, similar to modern-day pop-up books. “These documents are valuable because they display existing techniques for creating the world’s first picture books,” she concludes.

Towards a Brasiliana digital library (nº 07/59783-3); Grant Mechanism Regular Research Grant; Principal Investigator Pedro Luis Puntoni (USP); Investment R$908,042.85.

Scientific articles
DEAECTO, Marisa Midori. Uma brasiliana para o leitor do século XXI. Da sala de leitura a um projeto museológico imponente. Revista do Núcleo de Estudos do Livro e da Edição (Nele), vol. 7/8, 2019.
DUTRA, E. F. The Atlantic space and global civilization: The history and development of the book in Latin America. Língua Franca – The History of the book in translation. vol. 7, 2021.
ZERON, Carlos. Biblioteca brasiliana Guita e José Mindlin. Futuro pretérito e pretérito futuro. Revista do Núcleo de Estudos do Livro e da Edição (Nele), vol. 7/8, 2019.