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Damaged books: the mark of time at the Rare Book and Manuscript Library

Damaged books: the mark of time

An exhibition by the CRAI Library shows the most common damage on some bibliographic heritage of the UB

The bibliographic heritage fund of the University of Barcelona is an incalculable treasure, both from the quantitative perspective —it has more than 120,000 printed works from between the 16th and the 18th centuries, as well as more than 1,000 incunabula— and the qualitative one. The history of this distinguished heritage, mainly coming from disentailed monasteries, hides unknown episodes of damage due to several situations.

The exhibition focuses on books from the disentailed monasteries of the provincial area of Barcelona during the 19th century

Now, the exhibition “Malferits. L’empremta del temps al CRAI Biblioteca de Fons Antic” (Damaged books: the mark of time at the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library), organized by the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library, recovers this unfriendly story to document a selection of cases. Neus Verger, head of the fund, says they wanted to reconstruct this bitter reality by selecting fourteen books they classified according to the damage they underwent: “We identify three categories of damage: natural force, i.e., damaged by the action of animals, dampness or fire, represented in the glass cabinet “Devorats” (devoured) and “Socarrimats i mullats” (scorched and wet); a misuse from the readers and librarians, in the cabinet “Mutilats, Gargotejats, apropiats i empastifats” (mutilated, scribbled, borrowed and smeared) and “Desmembrats” (dismembered), and the effects of the ecclesiastic censorship, seen in many volumes of the collection.

The glass cabinet “Desmembrats” (dismembered) shows some examples of book covers that document the institutional mala praxis during the 30s (20th century). “We think that, due to a lack of space and with the excuse of a bad conservation, people decided to get rid of a great amount of volumes, and they only kept their covers —sometimes, with the front matters— and the bindings. We calculated they threw about 67,000 books, which is half of our current fund”, says Verger. This action was carried out randomly and meant the irreparable loss of many unique books. This is the case of Johannes Scheffer’s The History of Lapland, which would have been the only known issue of an edition in Barcelona in the 16th century, or the first edition of Antonio Possevino’s Moscovia.

The book covers have been listed by the cities where they were printed and occupy 189 boxes.


The exhibition is shown in the glass cabinets of the exhibition space of the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library until 15 July 2022.
The exhibition is shown in the glass cabinets of the exhibition space of the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library until 15 July 2022.


The effects of censorship

Regarding the glass cabinet called “Censurats” (censored), the Nuremberg Chronicle, an incunabulum of great importance both from the formal and content perspectives, is a clear example of a damaged book by censorship. The UB fund guards five copies, three of them cleaned up. The most common censored chapter is the one in the verso leaf 169, corresponding to the portrayal and text of Popess Joan.

The legend says a woman from high nobility, dressed in men’s clothes, ascended to papacy by mid-9th century. She was discovered in the middle of a procession when she gave birth, a fact that led to the establishment of a new procedure, previous to the enthronement of popes, which consisted on undergoing a genital test through a holed chair.

Damaged due to animal actions

Regarding the cabin “Devorats” (devoured), Verger says: “85% of the books we guard are eaten by bookworms; not all of them with the damage we show in the exhibited books, but it is a real fact. This is one of the weaknesses of this collection”. The passing of books through different venues —from the original monasteries to the current location—, long stays in panniers and the lack of resources in the origins of the university library caused much of the collection to be characterized by the presence of holes made by bookworms.

Among the books affected by worms, the volume of Portuguese sermons is quite impressive, since this is an extreme example that shows the action of these insects can even make it impossible for us to open a book.

The exhibition is part of an initiative by the Group on Bibliographic Heritage of the Spanish Network of University Libraries (REBIUN), which consists of the joint virtual exhibition “Malheridos. La huella del tiempo en las bibliotecfas REBIUN”.

The exhibition is shown in the glass cabinets of the exhibition space of the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library until 15 July 2022.

The exhibition is part of an initiative by the Group on Bibliographic Heritage of the Spanish Network of University Libraries (REBIUN)
The glass cabinet “Desmembrats” (dismembered) shows some examples of book covers that document the institutional mala praxis during the 30s (20th century). This is the case of Johannes Scheffer’s <i>The History of Lapland</i>.
Damaged books: the mark of time at the Rare Book and Manuscript CRAI Library