500 Years of the University Library

History and Memory

From the “chained book” to the home loan

What was the Library like 500 years ago?

The oldest reference to the library is a record that dates from 1513 about the need to repair some pipers that were letting water in. This means that, at the time, the library was already in need of conservation works. This is the reason why the library is said to be at least 500 years old.

How was it called?

The library of the University was then called the “Study Library”

How many books did it contain?

Before 1503 it contained “seventy books of all science that were in the mentioned library in the Old Schools”. By the end of that same century it would have around 739 volumes.

How was it supplied?

The library received its books by purchase and donation. The first known that dates from 1508, was of “fifty eight volumes of theology, Law and Arts books legated by Diogo Lopes on his death to the Study Library, all in cover” (Book term of delivery from February 17, 1517)

How was it organised?

It occupied a ground-floor of the General Schools, built by King Manuel (originally the palace of Prince Henry and donated by King Manuel to which the university and the king added, by purchase, several of the buildings around). In March 5th, 1535, the University requires the King the construction of “the library house, elevating it becuase, in the existent ground-floor the books were damaged by the humidity.” At the time it occupied a room with 24 shelves (simple shelves that would take six or seven volumes each), 12 on each side of the main corridor, on the whole length of the library with a window in between each shelf, as it was expected at the time.

Who was responsible for the Library?

There is no record of old regulations and the Statutes of the University (lost) would contemplate the existence of a “library keeper” with surveillance and cleansing obligations. The library had two opening daily periods (two hours each) as mentioned by Castanheda in his requirement for salary raise: “…open its door, every day twice, and to be open for two hours in each period (…) it is necessary to be present in each period or have someone here to look after the facilities and the books, to maintain the books clean and to prevent them from getting old or free from bugs.” The oldest formal responsible holding the title “Keeper of the registry and library” (which means, the archive and library), of which we know the nomination on November 5th, 1545 was Fernão Lopes de Castanheda, at the time recently arrived from India.

How did it work?

In Coimbra, the library was thought, according to the Statutes of 1544, with chained books, rods and lockers, and organised respecting the order of the Faculties. In the absence of the original text from the Statutes, and to acknowledge more about its operation we can resort to the chapter “De custodia bibliotece & librorum…”, part of the Coimbra’s College of St Peter Statutes (around 1551).

The clear norms for the functioning of the university library are found, more developed, in the Statutes od 1559:

“In the Schools there will be a house for the university library in which all the books from all the Faculties will be archived in shelves, locked in chains, ordered in the best possible way(…) and he will post outside the library door, signed by the Rector, a sign (…) alerting the visitors that they are entering the library under the penalty praestiti juramenti so that they do not take any book with them, do not write in them, and to leave them closed and locked, and , finally, so that they do not disturb each other while they are studying…” (1559 Statutes, chap. 59: from the University Library).

Which progresses occurred during the 16th century?

The funds grew and the opening hours increased to 4 hours a day (in 1548) to 5-6 hours (in 1559) and to 6, both during winter and summer, according to the Statutes of 1591 and those which followed it from 1597 and 1612-1653!

As far as opening hours were concerned, the statues seem to adapt to the needs or they display the changes that occurred, instead of copying each other as it would occur if the library were a mere formality, with no real functioning.

In the Statutes from 1591, the chapter About the Library, was deeply revised and fully updated. It is said, for example that:

“…the person in charge of the Library and of its key, will speak good Latin, Greek and Hebrew, and will hopefully have some knowledge about the books to know how to order them…”

“…there will be a chair very high in the library, from which one can see all that is done inside it”.

“The [keeper] will care for cleaning the books, dust them and have the library swept at least twice a week.”

The Rectors Obligations

The same Statutes proclaim solemnly:

“Since one of the most important things for the University is to have a good library to be conserved and enhanced, the Rector will have the obligation of buying, every triennium, a hundred cruzados (currency of the time) of new and interesting books at the university expenses. If he does not follow this rule, he will lose from his salary fifty cruzados each year on behalf of the library”.