Letters from the Library

The librarian's footprints

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.

Gayle came to Galapagos in a unique way. As many of us, I suppose.

Apparently, around 1974 she began a master's degree in zoology at the University of Wisconsin. At that time she was working as a registrar at the University Museum of Zoology (UWZM), under the direction of William G. Reeder. For her master's thesis she decided to combine her background in zoology, her artistic skills, and her interest in museums, to create a zoological exhibit. Her academic adviser told her that the Smithsonian Institute was looking for someone to develop this type of work for an interpretation center located at the Charles Darwin Research Station, in the distant and exotic Galapagos Islands. That center was a collaborative project between the Smithsonian and the Peace Corps.

Gayle agreed. In September 1976, she arrived on Santa Cruz Island, at a scientific station which had just inaugurated a dozen years earlier. Those who knew her say that the arid landscape, with those candelabra cacti here and there, reminded her of the desert of the southwestern United States, one of her favorite places in her homeland.

Before her arrival at the Station, there weren't too many educational exhibits there for tourists. That was one of the reasons for the emergence of the "interpretation center" project: to establish an activity related to environmental education. Gayle immediately went to work developing educational content for visitors. She drew up an action plan and produced panels, posters and other documents on geology, biology, evolution, introduced species, conservation... In an era where computer technology was not at all accessible, she did it all by hand, handcrafted. For three years.

This is how the current Van Straelen Interpretation Center was born.

She never finished her master's degree. She decided that it was much more fulfilling to live and work in/for a unique environment than to pursue an academic degree.

Gayle was the CDF's first librarian. She was also in charge of making translations, editions and, above all, of the publications, especially the CDF's Annual Report. In the late 1980s she was an advisor to the library, and in the early 1990s she was still collaborating directly with it, as "Head of Library".

A beautiful series of slides that we keep in the Merlen Collection of our audiovisual archive collect her last years, writing or reading in the company of a blue-footed booby, in her house in Puerto Ayora. Her portrait presides over the library. Her writing continues to appear every now and then in the documents that we take care of in the archive. And her card, the one that appeared in a hidden corner of my desk, is always on my desk.

To remind me whose heir I am.

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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