Stories & impact

Library Conservation for Future Generations in Ecuador

  • Date
    April 26, 2023
  • Country
  • Project coordinators
    Veronica Davila and Ramiro Endara from Conservartecuador, with support from TEFAF and the Whiting Foundation

"We stress the need to digitize and carry out an international cultural exchange. We will not rest until that happens because the libraries we have worked with all have the same problem: access. Creating accessibility by disseminating the books is necessary, says Ramiro Endara, executive director of Conservartecuador, one of the coordinators for the protection of an Ecuadorian library under threat.

Exactly seven years ago, in April of 2016, Ecuador was gravely affected by a major earthquake of a 7.8 magnitude. The earthquake resulted in 661 casualties and more than 27,000 injured, leaving the country dealing with serious repercussions of trauma and loss. Although Quito was not significantly affected in comparison, our partners on the ground observed catastrophic damage to cultural heritage. This was the case for the Monastery in San Augustin, of which its external and internal structure suffered tremendously from the earthquake. The collection of the Library of San Agustin- located on the first floor of the monastery- was most affected as it endured extreme water damage. The collection was at risk of complete degradation and needed to be evacuated.

The earthquake caused the original shelving to come down, leading to severe water leak problems causing the detachment of plaster from the walls and ceiling. The debris came down on the books, weakening the shelve structures made of reed, which rapidly deteriorated the library's floors as well. The high humidity levels in the room also generated greater damage to the collection. The books absorbed the water and caused the development of fungi colonies and the formation of acids, affecting the paper, ink, and cellulose of the books. In short, the library no longer provided adequate storage conditions for the important heritage it housed.

This is when our long-time partners from Conservartecuador ask CER for first aid support to protect the collection. Conservartecuador was founded in 2007 and is dedicated to the conservation, restoration, and dissemination of Ecuadorian cultural heritage. Their approach was special as they were the first external party to gain access to the monastery's library in over 500 years.

The fathers [of the monastery] have never allowed anyone to enter this library because they have kept this library for the sole use of the Augustinian Order. They had never opened to the public. For an entire year prior to the project, Conservartecuador had to actively engage with the library to build a trustworthy relationship.

Ramiro Endara, project coordinator

The library's collection holds valuable books on theology, philosophy, and fine arts, dating back to the 15th century. The library hosts over twenty thousand volumes of national and international masterpieces; 28 incunable books (not handwritten, but printed before 1501 in Europe), 610 volumes of handwritten books, close to fifteen thousand books published before 1700, many rare books (first editions printed between 1455-1500), and 7 European printed books (printed around 1539; supposedly among the first in the world). The library is considered a “memory of the world” by the National Institute of Patrimony (INPC) since it is the only Library in the Americas in its original building, conserving the original shelving as well. The books are written in Spanish and other languages such as Hebrew, Latin, Sanskrit, Caldew, Greek, and Nahuatl. The subjects of the books include details of the travels after the Spanish conquest of the Americas, the history of Ecuador, ancient songbooks, medicine information of the period, and much more.

The library is in great danger of loss or destruction. The enhancement of these documents will bring to light historical, symbolical, aesthetic, and economic attributes that are very important for universal history, which will surely be of value for visitors and online users.

Veronica Davila, project coordinator

CER supported Conservartecuador in their first-aid response to the Library of San Agustin. Understanding the vitality of the cultural heritage at hand, Conservartecuador proposed an emergency preservation plan to stop the deterioration and stabilise the condition of the collection, recover and restore its most valuable pieces, exhibit the collection for academic use, and preserve it for the enjoyment of future generations. The project involved the improvement of storage conditions and the conservation, preservation, and digitization of both manuscripts and books. Conservartecuador asked CER to contribute to the first emergency phase of the project: the recuperation, cleaning, stabilization, and protection of the collection. This entailed transferring the collection to a new safe place, implementing integral protection treatments that included cleaning, control of microbiological activity, and initial protection of the whole documentary collection that was stored in the library, as well as reestablishing the cleanliness and adequacy of furniture and shelves. This process took six months.

The Impact

  • Number of local cultural practitioners involved: 11
  • Number of hours of practical experience by local staff: 460 hours
  • Number of partners involved: 6
  • Number of new contacts: 15

The emergency preservation plan proposed by Conservartecuador has become a landmark in Ecuador and has taken plenty of press coverage as well as interest from universities who have followed the project sequentially throughout its different processes. The project is also a benchmark of international cooperation in Quito since it has received help from multiple partners abroad. Many students came to work as volunteers and learned the skill of book restoration which opened new opportunities for them. Apart from preserving the documentary heritage at risk, the Augustinian community was also sensitized to the importance of the heritage in their own region. The project also helped foster a relationship with the Ministry of Culture of Ecuador, a collaboration that Conservartecuador was missing from their previous modus operandi. Making the library accessible to the public and raising awareness of its existence and value also led to the development of the area surrounding the Library of San Agustin; growth in the city’s tourism development has since been noticed. Lastly, by making this collection accessible to future generations, this project has also helped ensure that future generations will have access to their heritage which will help them understand their past to shape their future. To conclude, this project demonstrated a substantial impact on cultural continuity through which traditional knowledge was maintained and transmitted.

For this coordinated and joint support in Ecuador, we are grateful for the contributions or collaboration of TEFAF and the Whiting Foundation. CER and the Whiting Foundation have been working since 2017 to safeguard documentary heritage that is acutely threatened by recent conflict or disaster. CER and TEFAF have been active partners since 2008.

For the past six years, CER has worked on 44 different documentary heritage projects in 34 countries around the world. Whether etched onto tombstones, drawn onto cave walls, or painted onto parchment these documentary records hold a wealth of information that once lost are irretrievable. Is your documentary heritage in crisis? Apply for emergency support now. Grant applications for documentary heritage under threat may be submitted at any time.