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.

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 (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.

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 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.

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.

Academic texts on history of the book say that during the Middle Ages, when Europe wrote on parchment and when 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. 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.

It happened about three years ago. In a corner of the desk I occupy 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.

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...

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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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