Reflections on Girolamini: Libraries, funding and the people we trust
Finally, just last week, some resolution was brought to the developing crisis in Naples around one of the region’s oldest libraries, the Biblioteca dei Girolamini. This library, built alongside the Church and Convent of the Girolamini of Gerolamini in the late 16th century serviced the Oratory of the convent, but was also open to the public from its very beginnings. It is one of the richest libraries in the south of Italy, and one of the oldest in Naples and a particular example of the public library in pre-Unification Italy. The library expanded in the following centuries to a collection of almost 160,000 books which range in subjects from theology and church history to contemporary literature, archaeology, numismatics, music and local history, all dating from the 15th-19th century. Since the late 19th century the library has been administered by the local Cultural Ministry (Ministero per i Beni e le Attività Culturali) and the Oratory.
So why should a blogger working for a Scottish University be concerned about this southern Italian gem? Well, to be honest, I hadn’t heard of the Girolamini library until April, when my attention was caught by a petition started by Italian academics which asked why the current librarian, Massimo Marino De Caro (a man with no professional qualifications and a dubious background), and his staff had been appointed to take care of this beautiful and important library. This came on the heels of De Caro’s announcement earlier in April that over 1,500 books were missing from the library, after which the shady background of De Caro began to unfold. This petition was signed by over 2,000 Italian and international academics and librarians (including this blogger). Three days later, the library was closed by the Naples Public Prosecutor and De Caro had been suspended and placed under inspection for embezzlement. Following these events, evidence came to light that De Caro had been recorded on surveillance tapes removing boxes of books from the library, and that at least three volumes with the Girolamini stamp had been found in his Verona home. On Friday, 18 May 2012, 1,000 books were found in a storage facility in Verona connected to De Caro, 250 of which had the Girolamini stamp on them, along with records of other which had been sold to foreign buyers. Last week, De Caro and five other individuals were formally arrested for suspicion of theft and embezzlement. [Many thanks go out to Jennifer Lowe, at St. Louis University, for tracing this story on the Ex-Libris listserv and on the RBMS Security Committee website]
There has already been a serious amount of public uproar at the Ministry’s handling of this situation, and popular concern for the future of the library. There is no doubt that in the near future there is bound to be larger discussions about the handling of cultural heritage collections such as this in Italy, but that is not what I’d like to discuss here. Instead, I’d like to focus some discussion on the prevention of this kind of thing happening in the future by proper curation, funding and cataloguing of these historic collections.
Funding crises and libraries are almost synonymous in modern day’s news, it seems that every week an A-list author is speaking out in favour of more funding for public libraries. I am in full support of these movements, and this post is by no means meant to detract from a focus on the public library funding crisis, but I think that just as much attention needs to be paid to our historic libraries and collections. Historic libraries such as privately owned collections, libraries owned and run by churches, or collections once privately-owned but now held publicly were often the main access providers to the public of old and rare books before universities began opening their collections. In many instances across Europe and the United States, privately owned but publicly accessed historic libraries are crystallized time-capsules which provide invaluable data not only in the form of the books they hold but also historic records of who was using their books, where they came from and what they read. Collections such as Innerpeffray Library and some of England’s Cathedral Libraries are wonderful examples of and collections which have survived centuries of borrowing, fluctuation in funding and use and changes in management. These libraries have survived in the face of great change, and have made do with varying levels of institutional support because of the strength of their collections. Other libraries such as The Women’s Library in London and the Girolamini are examples of wonderful libraries that are currently threatened by under-funding and poor management. National libraries in smaller countries being hit by financial crises are also facing similar risks, most recently Bosnia-Hercegovina’s National Library has had to shut its doors and limit its services due to budget restraints.
The Girolamini incident also brings up another issue particular to the management of private libraries: qualifications. One of the major reasons that the above-mentioned petition addressed the appointment of De Caro was the fact that he was not a qualified professional librarian. The petition went on further to state that hiring him instead of one of the hundreds of librarians looking for work in Italy was an outrage. This is not such a major problem in public institutions and libraries, where almost all new job advertisements require applicants to have a professional library degree from an accredited institution. Indeed, many of the privately run libraries, including those listed above, do hire accredited professional librarians, and it is one of the reasons their collections thrive in a modern environment. However, privately owned or operated libraries can get around this, and sometimes do, especially if it means offering a lower salary. The Girolamini library in particular should serve as a warning to any institutional body considering cutting corners by staffing someone who does not come with professional qualifications.
Finally, and briefly, I wanted to touch on the importance of cataloguing and access to these collections. Complete and fully described bibliographic records of an institution’s holdings are one the easiest security measures for a library to put in place. Not only do catalogue records provide the information about what a book is, where it came from, who might have owned it previously, &c., but they also provide a record of what a library owns. Having a thorough catalogue of a library’s holdings has proven to be useful in court most recently with the return of the Durham First Folio, and will, I think, also play a crucial role in the return of the Girolamini’s lost books. Thankfully, there was a published catalogue of the library’s antiquarian works in 1975, and this, along with records of the library’s stamps and ownership inscriptions, should help booksellers, librarians and collectors alike to identify if they are dealing with stolen goods.
All of this boils down to one thing: the people we entrust with the care of our cultural heritage. Yes, qualifications are the way a field regulates itself (unless, as Brooke added, you’re on Wall Street …), but more importantly the process of accreditation is mainly a process of communing with other colleagues-in-training. You learn, together, about the history and standards of the profession and, hopefully, some of the ethics of the profession rub off too. The training you get from these courses gives you the tools to describe books in such a way that it makes it nearly impossible to get away with stealing, you learn the importance of a preservation policy or a disaster plan or building management. However, not only does this training give you the tools and networks you need to do the job, but it also makes it near impossible for a total criminal to be put in charge. Hopefully incidents like what is happening in Naples can be avoided in the future by the strengthening of our professional networks and our combined ability to speak out against poor decisions and bad management.