Letters from the Library

"Letters from the Library" is a series of notes written by Edgardo Civallero, library coordinator, about the contents of the Charles Darwin Foundation library & archive.

These notes are inspired by what Edgardo finds among boxes, shelves and old documents: photographs, notebooks, artifacts, reports, slides, maps… All of them, even the smallest ones, are an essential part of the identity and social memory of the Charles Darwin Foundation. These notes give us a look at the history of science and society in the Galapagos Islands at the time they were written or photographed.

In the following articles, you will be able to enjoy a story built bit by bit, step by step.

Almost two years ago, in the third installment of this series of letters (https://www.darwinfoundation.org/en/blog-en/letters-from-the-library/540-with-a-little-sea-lion-on-the-lap), I wrote that the oldest collection of photos in the CDF Archive to date is the so-called "Nourmahal album", a set of paper-based photographs taken in 1930. I said that the USS Nourmahal was a ship of about 80 m in length, built in 1928 as a pleasure yacht for the American billionaire Vincent Astor.

One goes over the spines of the documents that make up the collection of the CDF Library and comes across a small linguistic kaleidoscope. In addition to English and Spanish, the stronger languages, many others have nested among the old wooden shelves: from Mandarin, Japanese and Korean to Russian, Swedish and German, passing through French, Italian and Spanish. Dutch.

And even a couple of indigenous languages.

Not everything we store in our archives and libraries displays trustworthy information or documents an event reliably. There is, in our knowledge and memory repositories, a lot of information that is far from being "true".

And yet, even knowing it, we keep it. Because these documents reflect a very particular way of seeing, understanding and explaining the world. One that, while not always being "the truth," at least makes an effort to capture reality in a credible way.

The man, already aged but with a vitality that many twenty-somethings would want for themselves, walked with us the bunch of yards from the CDF library until the entrance to the "Playa de la Estación". We were interviewing him for our oral history program. Throughout the journey we were chatting about times gone by, about people who are no longer among us, about events that were recorded only in some corner of his head, about things said and done, about adventures and misadventures, and about other memories — some of them quite blurred, others not that much.

Sometimes I find it difficult to understand what I read. I try to find fragments of my old knowledge of palaeography in the back of my memory, but to no use: Some of the handwritings that cover —like a tight carpet of scribbles— the pages of the manuscript I am transcribing resemble real hieroglyphs. Or some of those exotic writings still to be deciphered: those that only its scribes are able to understand.

I remove the slide from the plastic sheet, which stores other nineteen, all in consecutive order. I take a look at the small notes crowded on the edges of the plastic (cardboard, glass, metal) or frame. Sometimes scribbled directly onto the material, sometimes written on labels that barely hold there, sometimes typed on pieces of paper glued to the frame — and already showing a worrying brown color...

The figure of Charles Darwin —Darwin the scientist, scholar, believer, citizen— has attracted the attention of specialists and laymen alike for more than a century. Not in vain his ideas revolutionized the 19th-century academic thought, and even today they continue provoking debate, as well as inspiring studies and advances in countless fields and disciplines.

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The “Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands”, in French “Fondation Charles Darwin pour les îles Galapagos”, Association International sans but lucratif (“AISBL”), has its registered office located at Chaussée de la Hulpe 177 Bte 20 (rez) - 1170, Brussels, and is registered under the trade registry of Brussels under the number 0409.359.103.

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