This Philippine Library Keeps 30,000 Ancient Books Worth Billions
In celebration of National Heritage Month, the Antonio Vivencio del Rosario UST Heritage Library, or simply the Heritage Library, opened its collection of ancient books to Esquire Philippines. The Heritage Library’s holdings of over 30,000 ancient books that date back to the 15th century up to the 19th century is the largest, oldest, and best-preserved collection of ancient books in the country, and while its value racks up to billions of pesos, the collection’s true worth as part of Philippine heritage remains priceless.
Rare Books from the 17th Century
The Heritage Library is a depository of volumes of historical material from 1492 to the early 1900s. Some of the books in the collection were already owned by the University of Santo Tomas or UST when it was founded in 1611. Other books in the collection were donated to the school in the 19th century.
The Conservation Process
The Heritage Library is a state-of-the-art library and conservation center that has three main parts: The Stack Room, where ancient books are kept in constant cold temperature not exceeding 22 degrees Celsius; the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory; and the Digitization Laboratory.
The Stack Room is where books from the 15th century to the 19th century are kept. To prevent the growth of mold on the books, the room has to be kept at a constant temperature of 22 degrees Celsius. Although the collection is part of the university library, access to it is tightly controlled and regulated. Researchers must submit letters of intent stating the purpose of their research, and then wait for approval.
When the National Archives of the Philippines caught fire in 2018, most of the ancient books in its collection were saved from fire, but sustained severe water damage from sprinklers. The books’ pages became brittle and fragile that they have become almost impossible to restore.
To prevent the same from happening in the Heritage Library, the university replaced the water sprinklers with a dry fire suppression system.
“With the dry fire suppression system, we will be able to save and preserve the books from water damage in case of fire,” said Ginalyn Santiago, Head Restorer and Assistant Head Librarian at the Heritage Library.
The Heritage Library's state-of-the-art dry fire suppression system prevents water damage in the event of fire
Interesting Ancient Books
Some of the interesting ancient books in the Heritage Library include the oldest book in the collection, which was published in 1492, the smallest book in the collection which was published in circa 1890, a Tagalog medicinal book from 1831, and a book scribbled on by Jose Rizal.
La Guerra Judaica (1492) is the oldest book in the collection. It retells the Jewish-Roman War in the first century.
La Guerra Judaica (1492)
The smallest book in the collection is a literal pocket book: its length and width are just above an inch. Part of its title page has been lost, but more interesting is its contents: poetry.
The smallest book in the collection which was published in circa 1890
A Tagalog medicinal book published in 1831 titled Ang Mahusay na Paraan ng Pag-Gamot sa may Saquit (Effective Remedies for the Sick) contains interesting instructions on how to cure various ailments. One such instruction instructs the reader to crush papaya leaves and mash it with polotpocquiotan (honey) and use it as a topical paste for a certain painful skin condition.
Ang Mahusay na Paraan ng Pag-Gamot sa may Saquit (1831)
Other interesting heritage finds at the library are first edition printed copies of Noli Mi Tangere and El Filibusterismo. In the second book, Jose Rizal’s handwriting can be discerned, saying: “A mi antiguo compañero D. Fernando Caron Faustino. Su Amigo, J.Rizal” (“To my old friend D. Fernando Caron Faustino. Your friend, J.Rizal”). The note was dated 1891, the same year that the book was published.
The first printed editions of the Noli and the El Fili
Jose Rizal's handwriting on the first printed edition of El Fili in 1891
Although the book is not the original manuscript, Rizal’s actual handwritten note on the first page significantly drives up the value of the book to the millions of pesos.
Inside the Conservation and Restoration Laboratory
Before a book is restored, a panel of experts decides whether the book is in any condition to be restored at all. Many of the books in the collection, especially some which were damaged by water, are in such bad condition that restoration must be postponed. Some books have poor ink quality, which make them impossible to wash.
This book from 1672 is being ink-tested to see if its ink washes off
The Heritage Library's state-of-the-art Oracle Depulvera for cleaning rare and delicate books
Once a book's ink is deemed safe to wash, conservators will detach the book's pages fiber by fiber - a process that can take months. Once done, they can proceed to washing the pages to remove harmful acids.
According to head restorer Ginalyn Santiago, the water used for washing is cleaner than the drinking water in their dispenser. The water is distilled, then treated, then undergoes further treatment with UV light to kill off any organisms.
Once dried, the pages can then undergo further restoration by being dipped into a solution of paper pulp, then brushed with a special solution to reintegrate the fibers into the original page. This process seals holes, tears, and other physical damage in the paper. If needed, delicate tissue fibers imported from Japan reinforce the material. A single page can take a whole day or two to finish, depending on the extent of the damage.
Exterior of a restored 18th century book
Interior of a restored 18th century book
Once restored, the Heritage Library digitizes and publishes the ancient and rare books in its collection.
The digitization process
The UST Heritage Library is able to restore at least 20 books a year depending on the books' sizes, or one medium-size book per month. Candidates for restoration undergo a selection process which discerns books of significant heritage value not only to the Philippines but also to the world. The Heritage Library's digitzed collection is available to the public and may be viewed through this link.
While the Antonio Vivencio del Rosario UST Heritage Library operates on university budget and private funding, it needs fresh sources of funds to sustain its conservation and restoration efforts. It is open to receiving donations from individuals and private institutions.
For interested parties in visiting or donating to the Heritage Library, you may contact the Prefect of Libraries at 786-1611 local 8234 or 740-9709 or 731-3034 or through email at [email protected] and [email protected].