June 4, 2018. This is a day that finally ends a three year wait to see Brazil’s Biblioteca Nacional (National Library). The last time we visited Rio, this was on our agenda, and the day we arrived in Rio, the government workers went on strike. I hoped that it would end before our visit was finished, but alas, it was not meant to be. I was crushed. This year we received word that the building was undergoing a restoration project, and I was worried that they would not allow visitors yet again, but fortunately, operations are proceeding as normal in conjunction with the restoration. So naturally, the librarian is visiting a library – not just a library – THE Library – while on vacation!
The Brazilian National Library is the largest library in Latin America, and Fifth largest in the world. It is the country’s oldest cultural institution and has a multidisciplinary collection comprising nearly nine million pieces. Like the Library of Congress, in the United States, they deal with copyright and assign ISBN numbers to newly published materials.
The library offers a guided tour every day at 2:00 pm, and an English language version is available upon request. Our delightful tour guide was giving her first ever English Language guided tour to us! She was so concerned about her ability to speak English for an extended period of time, but her worries were completely unfounded. Her English was beautiful, and her personality and enthusiasm was so charming we made sure to speak a good word for her when we finished.
Our delightful guide showing us an example of the newspapers on film
Mauro unrolling the microfilm
this paper was from the 1800s
We learned from our guide that the original collection was brought to Brazil from Portugal by D. Joã when the royal Portuguese family fled the country during the Napoleonic wars. That original collection was moved from location to location until 1910, when the current building was inaugurated. I was amazed that this vitally important collection to the history of Portugal was never returned to its home country, but apparently one of the sons of D. Joã bought it from the government, so it has stayed in Brazil. Some of the manuscripts in the collection date back to the 1400s.
The public has access through the following areas: Reference, Serial Publications, General Collections, Documental Information, Iconography, Manuscripts, Rare Collections, Cartography, and Music and Sound Archives. (*pamphlet for National Library), and of course, the digital collection. These rooms are housed on the second and third floors, and these are the only floors open to the public, and therefore the only floors covered during the tour. We were not allowed into the actual rooms, as we did not have a specific research agenda, but instead were able to peek in as our guide discussed the various collections and functions. This is very much on par with what we experienced during our tour of the Library of Congress, so not surprising. Photos are allowed, without flash, and many are through glass, as we were not allowed to enter the rooms entirely, so I apologize for the graininess of the images.
Getting help at a Reference Desk
original furniture for the building
Notice her layers!
Ceiling in the Rare Manuscripts room
One of several card catalogs
Empty display cases
Rare manuscripts area
The building itself, is spectacular – beautiful, grand, breathtaking. The architectural design is completely symmetrical, so if there is a column on one side, you’ll find an identical column on the other. They held to this so firmly, that we actually saw a fake door created specifically to keep the design symmetrical.
The Fake Door!
As mentioned, only the second and third floors are available for exploring. The first floor, which is below ground level, houses their extensive labs geared for conservation, restoration, binding, digitalization, and microfilming. The fourth and fifth floors are all administrative offices, and also off limits.
Some things that surprised me: The collection is classified using the Dewey Decimal System. I’m not sure why, but I expected a system different and unique. They do exhibits and programs, which was not surprising, but the lack of space designated specifically for this surprised me. They appear to work exhibits into what ever space they can find that will work. At times, we would be looking at part of an exhibit and not really aware that it was part of a larger exhibit until we stumbled on another part of it. This issue could also be more because I do not read Portuguese well, and perhaps was not keying into the signage properly. I was also surprised that they do not capitalize on the building and library itself like the Library of Congress does. Their book and gift shop held no totes, coffee mugs, shirts, pins, etc. with the image of the library. I did buy a beautiful book of photography, but it seemed more the exception than the norm. Overall, though, the visit was all I had hoped, and my geeky librarian self was as giddy as a child in a candy store!