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Oldest public library of São Paulo

No fire hazard at Law School

Ms. Faldini confesses: she was so afraid she could hardly sleep properly. Amongst the great shelves of iron and solid wood that held precious books and documents, some of them dating back several centuries, electric wires installed 70 years ago used to run, by then so worn out that they were practically without any insulation. The risk of a fire, which would be sure to destroy a major part of the collection, was constant. It would not be the first. In 1880, fire took hold of the former building of the convent of São Francisco, where the school was located. It was a close call for the libraryas it barely escaped .

Ms. Giacomina Faldini is the director of the library of the School of Law of the University of São Paulo (USP), which is located in São Francisco square, downtown São Paulo. It is the oldest public library in the state’s capital city. It safeguards, with its team, 320,000 items, some from the 16th century. Since it was built, in the 30’s, the building that houses the Library and Documentation Service of the School of Law, built on the same spot where the old convent was destroyed by fire, had never been renovated.

The danger of fire was just one aspect of the question. At the back of the library, in places where usually only the staff would enter, the scenario was tragic. The lighting was precarious, the shelves were chock-full, books, newspapers and magazines were piled up in the corners. About 6,500 works classified as rare, of priceless value, had no special care for their preservation.

Traffic noise
In the part reserved for the public, the reading room of the central library, the situation was hardly much better. There was no space for the users, the noise of the intense traffic in São Francisco square would dominate everything. The visitors would complain about the lack of computers for research. In the ten departmental libraries, scattered over the second and third floors of the building, the situation was similar.

If anyone wanted a book that was at the top of the huge bookshelves that covered all the walls, a heavy steel ladder, over four meter-tall, had to be dragged there, to be climbed up without any safety at all. In the lending library, which worked in two rooms on the ground floor, it was not uncommon for users and members of staff, carrying piles of books, to slip on the narrow and steep staircases.

The relief with which Giacomina and the other members of the library staff greeted the support and the finance from Fapesp is not to be wondered at. Since 1996, an investment of R$ 800,000 by the Foundation contributed towards saving a treasure of incalculable value. The first measure to be taken was the complete overhaul of the electrical installations. But the work didnot stop there. It was followed by other renovations of the installations, the cleaning and reorganization of the collection, the restoration of rare works, and the computerization of services.

In spite of all this, the reform did not take away the character of what is one of the most traditional spots of São Paulo. For example, all the tables bought for the expansion of the places for the users were custom-made, in the same style as the existing ones. The old cloakroom was kept at the entrance of the reading room of the central library. The room remained as imposing as it used to be in the days when the college in São Francisco square was already one of the great cultural and intellectual centers of the country. The ceiling is almost 5 meters high. The light that comes in through the large glass-paned windows strikes the dark wood of the tables and bookshelves.

An old cart on rails and the hoist used to carry the books from the deposit to the reading room are still working. The environment is traditional, but the information technology equipment put in one of the corners of the room show that things are changing. Close to the legal compendiums published in past centuries, the computers give access to information in Brazilian and foreign databases, such as Web of Science, Probe, Scielo and other virtual libraries.Of the 25 personal computers bought to computerize the systems, 13 have been set aside for the users. They use them to consult magazines and legal publications on CD-ROM, and to make connections to specialized sites on the Internet. An internal network provides access to the School of Law’s own databases, to facilitate looking up at theses and articles in periodicals and making the search for bibliographical references easier.

First day
The library has won a home page. Through it, a person from anywhere in the world can consult the collection and make requests by telephone, fax, or e-mail. The supervisor of User Services, Maria Lúcia Beffa, says that she was amazed with the increase in the number of queries. Right on the first day the site went on the air, ten requests arrived by e-mail.

The departmental libraries were grouped in six rooms along a corridor on the second floor. The entrance is protected by an electronic gate. The rooms have gotten new tables and chairs, increasing the number of places available for the users, as well as computers and printers. No less important are the stepladders, lighter and safer, and are intended to facilitate the access to the higher shelves. With air-conditioning installed in all the rooms, the windows remain closed, which cuts down the noise from the street.

Rare works
On the second floor, there is another result of Fapesp’s investments: two rooms were completely renovated and now serve to house rare works and old newspapers. The renovation included the installation of air-conditioning and sliding bookshelves. It is there, for example, that the 6,500 volumes of works published between the 16th and 18th centuries are kept. Access is restricted, however. These works can only be consulted with a special authorization and in the presence of a librarian.

The creation of new rooms has helped to take the pressure off the big central storage, which is now much better organized and can now accept growth in the collection, which currently has 320,000 items. Part of the collection has already been through a treatment to clean and preserve it. In addition, 231 volumes from the 16th and 17th centuries have been restored. Some of these works took part, last year, in the exhibitions relating to the 500 years of the Discovery of Brazil.

The oldest work in the library is an Italian edition from 1520 of the Divine Comedy, by Dante Alighieri. The positions are occupied by works of a legal nature. Annotations on the 20 Books of the Pandects, a book by Guillaume Budé that deals with the legislation of the Roman Empire, dates from 1534. Then there is the Compendium of Processual Law, by Andrea Alciato, of 1537. There are only two other copies of this book in the world. One is in Paris, and the other in Berlin. In Portuguese, the oldest work is another legal book, Ordenações Manuelinas, of 1539. There are also religious relics, such as a Bible of 1584, printed in Hebrew, and a curious account of the riches of Brazil addressed to the Portuguese Court, the Culture and Opulence in Brazil, written by Padre João André Antonil and published in Lisbon in 1711.

17th Century
There is, however, still much to be done. For example, work has not yet started on the conservation and restoration of the more than 700 books from the 17th century. There is also a valuable collection of old academic journals and periodicals. The library has complete collections of old São Paulo newspapers, such as the Farol Paulistano, the first paper printed on a wooden press in the city, and the Observador Constitucional, founded by Líbero Badaró. Nor is there any lack of collections of more modern newspapers, such as the Correio Paulistano, O Commercio and O Estado de S. Paulo.

But the greatest potential for new research seems to be in the academic periodicals, newspapers and magazines, published by the students of the college themselves. For a long time, the school in São Francisco square used to offer one of the only two courses in law that there were in Brazil – the other was based in Olinda, in the state of Pernambuco. People from all over the country would come to São Paulo in search of a diploma that was a sure step towards the highest posts in the central government, during the Empire and the first years of the Republic.

This is no exaggeration. In the first republican government, no less than five ministers, including Ruy Barbosa, were educated in São Francisco square. Seven presidents of the Republic had also carried out their studies at its benches: Prudente de Moraes, Campos Salles, Afonso Pena, Rodrigues Alves, Delfim Moreira, Wenceslau Brás, Artur Bernardes, Washington Luiz and Jânio Quadros. Add to them12 governors of the State of São Paulo.

Turning over the pages of the academic periodicals, it is not difficult to find articles signed by famous politicians or literati, like Castro Alves, Álvares de Azevedo, Fagundes Varella and José de Alencar. The law course may have been sober and austere. But the students’ union, the Centro Acadêmico XI de Agosto, was a center would bubble over with culture. There are probably many still unknown works of great writers and thinkers in these periodicals (the use of pen names was common in the 19th century). Preserving them, says Giacomina, is the next step towards bringing back vitality to the library.