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Doing research in US libraries

A friend in the United States who heard I was visiting the Newberry Library in Chicago for a few days repeatedly asked me for the name of a contact person who could facilitate his research. I told him that research in the United States is easy. He was not convinced, and even said that whatever rare Filipiniana I stumbled upon was made available “because you are Ambeth Ocampo.”

But clerks processing library cards didn’t know me from Adam, and all that was required of me was to fill out an application online, turn up at their doorstep carrying a photo ID with an address and proof that I was 16 or older, and I was given access for three years at the Newberry Library, the New York Public Library and the Frick Collection Library. Their library catalogs were searchable online, and requesting books was also done online; no more paper slips or cards to fill out. Once you are a registered library user, you can even request books before you show up at the library.

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At the Library of Congress where one needed a secondary screening before being given access to the Manuscripts and Rare Books, the librarian swiped my card and said: You were last here 18 years, seven months and 12 days ago. My data, and I guess even my previous requests, were in their system almost two decades since I first visited on a Fulbright senior research fellowship.

There was so much in the Library of Congress that made me wonder why the late nationalist historian Teodoro A. Agoncillo discouraged me from visiting the United States earlier than I did. As I mentioned in columns last week, I consulted original manuscripts in the hand of Emilio Aguinaldo, Apolinario Mabini, Antonio Luna and other heroes there.

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In the Newberry Library, I requested manuscript letters by Rizal to A.B. Meyer, an ethnologist from Dresden. I went through Rizal’s Clinical Diaries page by page, because while I presumed to know its contents from publications of the 1961 Jose Rizal National Centennial Commission, I only knew about the text and not the many drawings that described his patients, their symptoms, illnesses and their cure. I compared what I knew from the printed 1884 Madrid diary with the original manuscript and realized that some texts were missing from the translation. Worse, some texts in the printed edition do not appear in the original handwritten version.

In the Newberry Library, I asked to see an album of Philippine costumes that have plates of different individuals in their daily, occupational and seasonal clothing. These are all signed “Damianus Dominicus pinxit” [Damian Domingo painted these], unlike similar albums in private collections whose plates resemble those in the Newberry but are not signed. Art historian Dr. Florina Capistrano-Baker argues from the latest material evidence that many of the unsigned costume albums previously attributed to Damian Domingo, who was active in Manila in the first quarter of the 19th century, are actually copies by Chinese artisans!

Another album of Philippine costumes in the New York Public Library (NYPL) have been rightfully attributed to Justiniano Asuncion (1816-1901), who was a better artist than Domingo. Although I had seen the NYPL album before, and the images are available online, it is important to study the plates again with a magnifying glass to pick out details previously overlooked. In the 1980s, when I first handled the original bound album, I was even allowed to bring it out of the reading room into a hallway that had more natural light. Now that the value of these plates is known, I was allowed to access them in a cold locked room, under the watchful eyes of CCTV cameras and a live librarian.

The album is no more and the plates have been separated, cleaned and conserved in acid-free board and mylar. I was told to keep everything flat and to handle the material with care. In Manila, one would have to know someone to physically examine such a precious and rare album.

From the time I had my first run-in with a school librarian who would not allow me to photocopy a page from a book allegedly due to copyright, or librarians who enjoyed the sheer power of allowing or restricting access to materials in their charge, some would not grant access to preserve the physical copy of a rare book or manuscript. In the age of the smartphone and the internet, we are at the crossroads of universal access.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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