Coimbra University’s Library is a National Monument:
Once referred to as “The House of the Bookshop” Coimbra University’s library is one of the top five libraries in the world. Now called Biblioteca Joanina, this Baroque library was built between 1717 and 1728, during the reign of King João V of Portugal. The library is named after King João V and his coat of arms is over the front door.
Nowadays Biblioteca Joanina is a Portuguese National Monument and one of the University’s main tourist attractions. Its collection of over 200,000 books is of priceless value, both historically and at a monetary level.
Inside the library, there are three great rooms divided by ornate arches. The rooms, with highly decorated ceilings, are rich in gilt and exotic wood and the walls are covered by two-storied shelves of books.
As the books in the Biblioteca Joanina collection date back to the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, great care is taken before granting access to the books. Anyone wishing to gain access to any of these bibliographic collections must first submit an application, stating the reasons for their research.
If approved, the volume is taken to the General Library and made available to the researcher. Preservation of these books are critical as for the most part they represent the best that cultivated Europe had to offer at the time.
Conservation of Biblioteca Joanina Collection
The Library’s bibliographic assets are all well conserved as the building is pretty much like a vault and provides a stable environment throughout the year, both in summer and in winter. Designed to be a “book house”, its external walls are 2.11 metres thick. The door is made of teak, which allows for a room temperature of 18° to 20°C, although we thought it was much warmer than that. The panelled walls in the interior help maintain the levels of relative humidity at 60 percent.
It is well known that variation in humidity and temperatures are a threat to books. Equally well known is that books have another “enemy” papyrophaguses – that is insects feeding on paper. Although, at Biblioteca Joanina insects are not a problem, as the shelves are entirely made of oak. Oak wood is a very hard wood which makes it difficult for insects to bore into and it also produces a worm-repellent odour.
Interestingly, the library has another natural protection against insects. Inside this temple of books lives a colony of bats, which come out at night and feed on the occasional insects. Special monitoring of course is required to ensure that the bats themselves do not cause any damage to the library, especially the valuable wood of the tables. Every evening, before leaving the library, the caretaker covers the magnificent tables with leather towels, and the following morning he cleans the library before opening it to the public. All very interesting.
Photography is not allowed inside the library and the attendants shut the doors very quickly on your way out so you only have one nano-second to take a shot from outside.