Letters from the Library

Little wings falling like flakes

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.

However, what falls from those boxes is not always dust. Or bits of concrete and dry paint. Or fungal spores. Or droppings from geckos, cockroaches or mice. Sometimes, shaking a book or flipping an artifact may deliver an avalanche of unexpected material.

Such a thing happened to me three years ago, while checking one of the many packages that still remain closed in our archive. This one, in particular, had been isolated and quarantined by one of my predecessors nearly a decade ago, and hadn't been opened since. I considered that any pests that the box might have contained in the past would be dead by now, and I began to carefully peel back the several layers of plastic wrap that covered it. I assumed I was going to get the usual slap of dust and excrement, so I protected myself as best I could with gloves and a mask.

Opening the box, I came across a set of papers severely attacked by what, based on the type of damage, seemed to be some kind of beetle. I immediately understood my former colleague's reason for isolating that container and those documents. After that, I confirmed my initial suspicions after a quick examination: anything that had been living inside the book was no longer alive.

It was early morning, and the rays of the sun were barely filtering through the blackened windows of the archive. I placed the box on my huge, sturdy work table, and pulled out the documents in a single stack. And then, from that mass of half-devoured papers, a drizzle of small flakes broke off, from which the outside light cast a myriad of iridescent gleams.

They were wings.

Hundreds of tiny beetle wings.

Literally hundreds. They fell like minuscule helicopters, covering my table, my gloved hands, my blue shirt, my chair, my computer keyboard... It was a real snowfall of transparent chitin fragments floating in the still air of the Archive, landing one next to the other, covering everything.

Once the documents were removed, I discovered that the bottom of the box was a dense conglomeration of excrement and dark, decomposed exoskeletons, practically ground up. The wings, however, were intact, with their original structure and shine.

There is nothing more worrying, for someone in my profession, than an attack by insects. Molds can be eliminated by controlling humidity and temperature, vertebrates can be poisoned... But insects, or, rather, invertebrates, are terribly resistant and full of tricks; not in vain have they survived where other living beings have become extinct. It's not always easy to get rid of them, and I can easily imagine the horror of my predecessors facing this kind of calamity.

[In fact, there is a very curious report I keep in our collections, which describes the different species found in the CDF Library more than twenty years ago, after placing several traps on shelves and corners. I remember my open mouth and raised eyebrows when I realized that, at some point in CDF's history, the space in which I work today was home to two dozen different invertebrates whose main food was the materials that I have to take care of].

The fact is that, despite the enormous rejection that insect invasions and attacks can cause me, I can't help but recognize that they are fantastic and beautiful creatures. And, somehow, I felt that what in the past had been a terrible invasion of hundreds of tiny cellulophagous beetles had been transformed, by the mere passage of time and life, into a small spectacle.

I spent a lot of time sweeping, cleaning, and trying to remove those wings. I never quite got it. From time to time, one catches my eye with its shine from a corner of the archive. Like the one in the picture that illustrates this entry, which appeared recently.

And it reminds me that, by a simple physical law, nothing is destroyed, everything is transformed: some old papers, probably useless, had been converted, by the magic of biology, into a wonderful rain of tiny shiny flakes.

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