The Bats that Protect Books in the Biblioteca Joanina

alex atkins bookshelf booksThe Biblioteca Joanina (Joanina Library), located in the center of the University of Coimbra (Coimbra, Portugal) was built between 1717 and 1728. It is considered one of the most beautiful, awe-inspiring libraries in the world. The three-story library, built in the Baroque style of architecture in a cross-shape, features elegant ionic columns that frame a white, gray, and rose marble tiled floor, ornately-carved arched ceilings, stunning painted ceilings, intricate gilded balustrades, and gold leaves adorning bookshelves made of exotic multicolored woods. (Interestingly, the library was built on top of a medieval prison.) But the real treasure is the collection of more than 240,000 books, manuscripts, and incunabula that the library owns. Some of the most prized books include a first edition of Roman Antiquities by Dionysius of Halicarnassus, Encyclopedia by Diderot et D’Alembert, the Latin Bible (1462), and a rare copy of Homeri Opera Omnia (the complete works of Homer). But beyond the beauty of its architecture and collection of books, what makes this library truly remarkable is that a colony of bats protects these precious books — making the library a sort of literary bat cave.

Each day, as the darkness of evening descends on the book stacks, a colony of Common pipistrelle bats that live behind the gilded wood ornaments, swoop down to devour the insects that ravenously feed on paper and book bindings. Fortunately for the librarians, the bats are not interested in eating manuscripts. The bats began their nocturnal book preservation duties soon after the library was constructed in the late 1700s. During the day, the bats keep to themselves, so librarians and guests are safe from any encounters with the winged creatures (otherwise, if you see one, run like a bat out of hell!). The librarians note that on cloudy, rainy days they can hear the bats singing to one another — a series of squawks and chirps resonating throughout the marble chambers of the library. Eerie — in an Edgar Allan Poe sort of way, no?

While the bats are incredibly effective in reducing the insect population, that service does come with a cost, or more precisely, a major annoyance that drives the librarians batty: bat guano (bat shit). Bat guano, as you can imagine, has a very distinct smell. The pellets look like dark brown grains of rice, and often get clumped together by urine. Gross! Needless to say, bat shit on the marble floor of a beautiful library is not acceptable to the librarians — unless you are as blind as, um, a bat. So each day, the first chore of the morning is to clean the library floors. Double gross! After that, they remove the animal skin covers that protect the library’s many 18th century wooden tables. When that task is completed, the library opens its doors to academics who use its resources for study and enlightenment. And most of these scholars are oblivious to the dark, furry winged creatures, hiding in the shadows, that are perhaps the most unlikely — and certainly the most grotesque — sentinels to guard some of the greatest literary treasures in the world.

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Read related posts: Exploring Carl Sandburg’s Library of 11,000 Books
The Lord of the Books: Creating A Library From Discarded 
A Tale of Two Donkeys and a Mobile Library
Lacuna: The Library Made Out of Books
 I Am What Libraries Have Made Me
If You Love a Book, Set it Free
The Library without Books
The Library is the DNA of Our Civilization

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