Digitizing 500 years of history

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Collections hundreds of years old are being digitized in Pernambuco’s largest libraries as a way of preserving history and facilitating public access.

Works of literature that are so rare that they can only be handled by specialists – a book published just 50 years after the discovery of Brazil, some manuals from past centuries, warehoused in handmade boxes so as not to be damaged. All of this is preserved in the State’s Public Library collection, in downtown Recife, and thanks to a digitization process, it should be available to the public in the next few years. Other public and private institutions are also going through similar processes, with an aim to freely disseminate knowledge to the public, without harming the fragile volumes, which have survived for centuries.

Two of Pernambuco’s libraries are running against the clock to digitize, by 2017, their collections of rare works. The challenge is part of the 2015 Digital Memorial project, which makes digitizing machinery available to 10 of the country’s institutions, which can be used by the institutions for a specific period of time. At the Public Library, the challenge is to scan nearly 700 books from the 19th century. If digitized in time, the institution gets the right to use the equipment from other collections on the 275 thousand books on site. “We are advancing at a good pace and we are going to meet the deadline”, affirms Andréa Batista, librarian and head of the customer service unit.

Another library that was contemplated was the Richard Brennand Institute, in Recife’s West Zone. The digitization of rare works, just as photographs and postcards, was started in 2011 through a partnership with the UFPE Information and Technology Lab. Today, the computerization of a 340 book collection about Dutch Brazil, the library’s most popular theme, is in the process of finalization. At the moment, 78.6 thousand images were already digitized. “We are a reference point for Dutch Brazil, we have publications about the history of sugar in Pernambuco and even huge collections of music from Pernambucan composers”, says Aruza Holanda, the person responsible for the library.

Another important collection from Pernambuco with part of its books available online is the Joaquim Nabuco Foundation, in Recife’s North Zone. Over 5,000 archives such as books, postcards, photos, cordel literature and even cigarette labels are available for public consultation. The number doesn’t even reach the vastness of the library’s collection, of close to 120 thousand titles, but it allows the public to get an idea of the quantity of Pernambuco’s historical records, observing cordel literature or seeing photographic collections of the state’s Carnival over the years.

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(Average monthly visitors, left, and Libraries in numbers, right. Click to enlarge)

Pernambuco’s Public Library: a treasure unknown to Recife residents

According to the Pro-Book Institute, 75% of Brazilians never entered a library and the State Public Library is one of part of those statistics. Located beside the 13 de Maio Park, one of the busiest in the city, the location only gets 6.5 thousand visitors per month, a number that’s been falling as the years go by. “Before a lot more people came, many traded books for the computer, but they don’t realize that, sometimes, an intermediate is necessary to do research. Here, we have people to help them with this”, affirms Hélio Monteiro, a library employee since 2006.

A decrease in the Brazilian’s intimacy with books in the “traditional” format may be one of the reasons for the public distancing themself from libraries, but what many may not know is the breadth of services this space offers, beyond books. “The social role of the library in the 21st century is very different from one it played in the 1980s. Today, it’s a place not just for reading but with the potential to host cultural events, to reunite people”, affirms the UFPE professor of the Information Center Diego Salcedo. For him, some incentives, such as the promotion of the library’s brand, children’s games or even the use of souvenirs are options that could be considered by the institute.

In the space, internet-enabled computers can be found and freely used, as well as a range of photographs, cordel literature and even a section dedicated only to braille books, one of the areas that really gets the public’s attention. The Bible in braille is the book with the most pages in the entire collection: there are 39 volumes for just one edition, since all the pages don’t fit in a single book; also in braille, the Breaking Dawn book, from the Twilight saga, with 17 volumes that can be lent out in parts with a simple registration process.

Source (PT, partially interactive)

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