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.

There they were. Two white chairs. Foldable. Of plastic. Leaning, both, against the wall in a corner of the museum of the Station.

Yeap.

In all honesty, they were two objects whose simplicity, their lack of any possible secrets and interesting stories, were so obvious to me that I never even bothered to touch them. In fact, I confess that at some point in the recent past I assumed that they did not even belong to us: that they were items that we were taking care of for someone else. "Gathering dirt", as we would say in my homeland.

In the CDF Archive, it is not unusual to open a box or lift a folder and witness a small (or large) amount of dust falls: the disintegration of a tiny dune that had settled over the years among unseen papers and forgotten brochures. For allergy sufferers, as it is my case, it is a real ordeal that not even the most sophisticated face masks can prevent. However, after more than twenty years in this profession, I consider those small accidents to be occupational hazards: a minor problem that I have to deal with.

There are stories that are not written.

And yet they are there.

It happens frequently with illustrations. Memories are hidden under the undecided strokes of a pencil. Behind the soft layers of watercolor that make up the feathers of a bird or the petals of a flower. Beneath the small ink-filled nibbles left by a nib.

Academic texts on the history of the book say that during the Middle Ages, when Europe wrote on parchment and paper was still nothing more than an exotic resource in the hands of the Arabs, those thin sheets of leather were used and reused until the surface of the material refused to receive a single more stroke of ink. For parchment (at least the good quality one) was made from the skin of calves, usually neonates. And that was not a very common element in peasant societies for which a dead calf (and especially a newborn) was a real misfortune, a terrible loss, and who therefore cared for their animals better than their own children.

Libraries, archives and museums are institutions that manage knowledge and memory. In recent times, with information becoming the engine of a new socio-political paradigm and a consumer good that feeds many national economies, the heritage and identity part of the work of these spaces has been somehow forgotten and neglected. But it has not disappeared, nor has it ceased to be important. The memories of societies and entire generations are still stored, organized, protected and accessible there, on shelves, hard drives and boxes.

It happened about three years ago. In a corner of the desk I use in the library of the Charles Darwin Research Station, I found an old card.

"Gayle Davis Merlen. Head of Publications and Library."

I have already learned that every bit of paper inside the Darwin Foundation Library, Archive & Museum has a story behind it. And I've learned to pursue those stories, to unearth them, to discover them... It so happens that this one in particular was familiar to me. The card belonged to one of my predecessors: the woman who, among many other things, organized the Darwin Station library back in the 1970s.

It is well known that the Galapagos Islands are worthy of some dark pages ―one could even say macabre― in the Great Book of History: The deeds of Briones (the "Pirate of the Guayas"), the uprising of the workers of Floreana and San Cristóbal islands against their employers, the cruel penal colonies, the still unresolved disappearances in Floreana, the shipwrecks and their stories of survival... Death, like everywhere else, lurks around the corner on the islands; however, in this somewhat magical and somewhat desolate territory, it seems to acquire novelistic overtones.

Almost two years ago, in the third installment of this series of letters, 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. I commented that between March 23 and May 2, 1930, Astor brought a group of American scientists —researchers from the New York Aquarium, the American Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Botanical Garden— to Galapagos, on an expedition for collecting samples. I ended by mentioning that the "Nourmahal album" showed details of that journey, and that one of the most curious images in it was the one of a sailor holding a sea lion pup on his lap.

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The ‘Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands’, in French ‘Fondacion Charles Darwin  pour les Iles Galapagos’, Association Internationale sans but lucrative (AISBL), has its registered office at Avenue Louise 54, 1050 Brussels, Belgium. Trade Registry # 0409.359.103

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