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Blessed, cooks and fortune tellers: digital radiography of the National Library

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Before becoming the great genius of police investigation, lawful or illegal, Edgar Hoover worked at the United States Library of Congress. There, according to the legend, he collaborated in the improvement of his cataloging system and acquired a series of organizational knowledge that later were very useful to turn the FBI into the most fearsome weapon against crime. What is in doubt about this story was Hoover’s involvement in that prodigious archiving and cataloging system, which has been replicated throughout the world, never his fascination with him: where some only saw a building full of books , he had to see millions of data and intimacies from which you could get a lot of juice. Who knows, maybe it was one of those people who, when they sit on the subway, look at the corner of their eyes what the one next door is reading …

Yes, Libraries are full of secrets, sometimes inexplicable and, therefore, fun. Nothing more than to take a look at the statistics of the Hispanic Digital Library (BHD), which in 2019 alone registered almost a million and a half visits. There, at a click, we can consult more than 220,000 titles of the funds of the National Library of Spain, which is the one that manages this tool. A paradise, which Borges would say. Although rather it is a luxurious tailor’s drawer where we can find everything from unique codices in the world (such as the “Cantar del Mío Cid” or the incunable of the “Castilian grammar” of Nebrija) to manual manids of Roman law. In between, several worlds. All this makes the data more surprising: the second most consulted work in the history of this illustrious digital library is “One hundred formulas for preparing sauces”, by Mademoiselle Rose. Only the “Beatus of Liebana” surpasses it, a richly lit codex that comments on the Apocalypse. The message is clear: may the end of the world catch us eating.

From the institution they had been watching, with surprise, for several years how this cookbook slipped every January in the list of the most consulted works. But now, after analyzing the registry of consultations since the creation of the BDH, in 2008, they have verified that the anecdote was serious and that this small copy, just 12 centimeters high and 157 pages, is one of his most popular works .

The book was edited by Saturnino Calleja, and was printed between 1896 and 1915. It was sold at the modest price of fifty cents, and belonged to a collection that included other essential titles such as “One Hundred Formulas to Dress Veal Meat”, “One Hundred Different Dishes for vegetarians »or« One hundred ways to prepare eggs », also signed by Mademoiselle Rose. “It is very interesting, perhaps this responds to the interest of a research group on culinary issues or a hotel school that uses it,” says Ana Santos, director of the BNE on the other side of the phone. She, by the way, has never taken this book in her hands, although she did look at it in digital format when she learned of its popularity.

But there is more data, and more surprises. In the list of the most consulted titles in the history of the BDH, to which ABC has had access, there are, in addition to the “Blessed of Liebana” and the Mademoiselle Rose recipe book, the following jewels: the “Cantigas de Santa María », the« Cantar del Mío Cid », a codex full of images of costumes from the 16th century, the prince edition of« Don Quijote », from 1605, the« Castilian Grammar », from 1492, a twelfth-century manuscript that reviews the history of the Byzantine emperors between 811 and 1057 and a book of arms and blazons from the XVI. So far the nine works that have been most searched. Very diverse, at least.

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«This list makes a double portrait of the National Library. On the one hand it contains what are fundamental works for Hispanic culture, books of our funds of undoubted universal value. And then it has less known works, but for some reason they respond to a social or research interest. The kitchen is being investigated a lot, also fashion, hence the codex of costumes. In the end, the Hispanic Digital Library is a way of responding to what society asks for, ”Santos values.

[Puedes ver aquí la lista completa de libros más consultados]

The tenth work, which completes this particular top ten, is another rare avis that has baffled more than one within the institution. It is the «Art of throwing the cards through the Spanish deck followed by the gypsy prophecies and a detailed explanation of each of the cards», a copy dated in 1876 and also edited by Saturnino Calleja. In addition to disseminating the divinatory art, with precise instructions, this book briefly reviews the history of the deck, of uncertain origin. «It is surprising, but this reflects the value of the opening of funds to the digital world. Because these groups that do not form groups of researchers in the traditional sense, but who have an interest in these books, can acquire knowledge based on sources. Maybe they wouldn’t have accessed them in another way, ”Santos says.

Data to celebrate, although in the end nobody knows why these works have triggered their consultations. That said: the libraries are full of secrets, some worthy of an FBI investigation.

The Cervantes Room of the National Library – Matías Nieto
More digital users, less people in the rooms
In front of the more than 3.6 million documents downloaded through the Hispanic Digital Library in 2019, “only” 215,000 titles have been loaned in the room. It is a logical phenomenon, because the difference in public (the one in Madrid compared to the Internet) is abysmal. But there is another phenomenon: that accessibility at the click of a button is imposed among those who previously had to move to access certain books or documents. “Users in the room have declined, but as in all heritage libraries with digitized collections,” says Ana Santos. In fact, he adds, “room consultations respond to the need to consult non-digitized copies.” However, he concludes, the balance is positive: «Digitization increases the value of the Library. It is a way to return the value of the collections to anyone ». .

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