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Rediscovering Stories in the Stacks: The Carvalho Monteiro Collection

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This is a guest post by Amy Olson, 2021 Junior Fellow in the Collections Management Division and recent graduate of Smith College in Women & Gender Studies.

This summer, I have worked as a Junior Fellow with the Carvalho Monteiro Collection, a project to locate and digitally reunite a 30,000 book library within the Library’s General Collections, which houses well over 25 million books to date. Antonio Augusto Carvalho Monteiro (1848 – 1920 ) was a Portuguese philanthropist, lawyer, and entomologist whose impressive library boasted collections on Portuguese history and culture, the flora and fauna of Brazil and Portugal, and 19th century decorative arts and architecture in a wide variety of languages.

Carvalho-Monteiro portrait
Portrait of Carvalho Monteiro. Open access image from (2014)

During his life, he built a magnificent estate, Quinta da Regaleira, which features Classical and Christian iconographies, beautiful gardens, a chapel, and an initiation well symbolizing the journey of man to enlightenment.

On the left: Quinta da Regaleira. Photograph by Ajay Suresh (2017) On the right: Poço Iniciático (Initiation Well). Photograph by Nuno Trindade Photography:

After Carvalho Monteiro’s death in 1920, his personal library was sold by his heirs to the Maggs Brothers, who then sold it to the Library of Congress between 1927 and 1929. This acquisition, the largest of the Library at this time, serves as the backbone to the Library’s Luso-Hispanic Collection.  Yet, despite this impressive purchase, no acquisition list was made. The books were cataloged without provenance and spread out through the Library’s collections, with the vast majority going to the large General Collections.

Since 2012, Beatriz Haspo, Collections Officer of the Collections Management Division, has spearheaded a project to locate all 30,000 books and digitally reunite them by assigning provenance in the Library’s bibliographic database. To date, over 25 interns and volunteers have found over 9,000 confirmed books. Interns and volunteers research the life and intellectual interests of Carvalho Monteiro to gain clues to possible books in his collection. Then, they perform specific searches in the Library’s bibliographic database by topic, year, and language, among other things, and come up with a list of possible books. Then, interns and volunteers go into the stacks to locate the books in their search and confirm whether or not they are part of the Carvalho Monteiro collection. The books in the collection are identifiable only by three unique acquisition numbers on the verso of the title page. Because of the intense research completed before even entering the stacks, books in the collection have been found in the stacks with an 80% success rate.

On the left : Cover of the Book Novo almanach de lembranças Luso-Brazileiro para o anno de 1901 Lisboa, AY1014 .N6, c. 1901 On the right: one of three unique acquisition numbers 387270, 1929. Photographs by Beatriz Haspo (2021).

This summer, working remotely, I have pursued research and created a search list of possible books and subjects, uploaded images of confirmed books into the Carvalho Monteiro database, and assigned provenance to confirmed books in the Library of Congress’s bibliographic database (ILS). I have also created a condensed, clear workflow for future interns and volunteers. When the library announced its partially reopening this summer, I jumped at the opportunity to experience searching the stacks to find Carvalho Monteiro’s books.

During my visit onsite, I entered one of the storage spaces in the stacks of the Jefferson building with potential books that could be from the Carvalho Monteiro library. The door shutting quietly behind the cold, dark room. Beatriz turned on the lights and rows of books were illuminated, the deep red of their covers coming to life. I walked down the hallway, following the classification numbers, in search of a specific range from my list. I made it all the way to the end of the deck and found row upon row of empty shelves right where the books I intended to search were meant to be. “They moved them to Adams!” I yelled back down the hallway. I opened my spreadsheet, made a note of the new location, and walked back toward the door.

I experienced first-hand the quick rate at which the General Collection grows, moves, and shifts. In fiscal year 2020, the Library of Congress recorded more than 25 million books in its classification system. Not all of these books are shelved at the Library of Congress, and many of them are housed in the Library’s offsite storage facilities. Yet this number gives an idea of the rate at which the Library of Congress grows each year. This quick rate of growth makes it all the more important to locate and reunite the Carvalho Monteiro Collection so that the library of this incredible Portuguese figure can be accessible to researchers worldwide.

There is no provenance project quite like the Carvalho Monteiro Collection in scope, size, and subject. Most provenance work in libraries consists of finding a book and doing research on the signature, bookplate, or other markers to figure out who it belonged to. The Provenance Online Project uploaded digital images of provenance evidence, along with catalog and bibliographic information, so that the public could play a part in doing provenance research, mostly of UPenn’s collections. Started at the University of Virginia, Book Traces focuses on the provenance of books in the General Collections from 1801-1923 to gain insights on middle class readership. Though the scope and intention of this project is different from the Carvalho Monteiro Collection, both projects have located books in need of preservation actions, including rehousing and conservation; books which may have otherwise been left on the shelves for years to come.

Stacks in the Adams Building. Photograph by Amy Olson (2021).

Once I found the correct shelves in the Adams Building, I got to work, locating books I had searched by their call numbers, and checking the acquisition number on the verso of the title page. Doing so enriched the work I had been doing from home, as I could locate gaps in my spreadsheet: columns to add or rearrange to improve onsite workflow. Being able to see each step of the project enhanced the already important work I was doing, and I got to experience the excitement and joy of flipping to the verso of the title page of a book and seeing one of the acquisition numbers.

Now that I’ve returned from my trip to the Library of Congress and completed this incredible internship, I have developed a passion for collections management and detailed cataloging work. In a collection of almost 30 million books that grows every day, it is important to ensure each and every book is cared for, from preservation actions to assigning provenance. There are endless stories located in the books of the General Collections. Each book in Carvalho Monteiro’s collection tells a story of his life and intellectual journey. I am grateful to have been a part of the work to make these books come alive, give future researchers better access to library collections, and foster a deeper understanding of Carvalho Monteiro’s life and intellectual impact.

Amy Olson holding a confirmed Carvalho Monteiro book. Photograph by Beatriz Haspo (2021)


Comments (11)

  1. Great job Amy!

  2. This is a great story, Amy. Libraries and archives need so much more care than they get–not just physical care, but care in the sense of meaning collection and storytelling.

  3. Amy, that is excellent work. Thank you for publishing such an informative piece. I had no idea how much work is involved in assigning provenance to such a prolific donor.

  4. Excellent work, Amy. You’ve given me an understanding of what is involved in catalog management and assigning provenance. Thank you.

  5. Cool project! It’s obviously so much work so it’s fun to read about how exciting it is, too! Good job. I’m going to share this with my librarian friends.

    • Thanks for sharing this project with your friends. I am glad you liked it.

  6. I’m so happy for you to be able to learn about Carvalho Monteiro’s fabulous library! Thanks for all your work making more of it accessible to readers and allowing us to “know” him a bit better.

  7. Hello,
    Great story and search, indeed! Would you have some information on the name of the mining company the family owned in Brazil at the time or any related information? Thank you Amy “Sherlock”.

  8. Hello Beatriz,

    …my comment above perhaps (#7) is to be addressed to Beatriz Haspo instead. My apologies.

    • Dear Jean-Claude, I don’t have this information but will investigate. Thanks for following our blog. Beatriz

  9. Great job, and thank you for this update! I was part of the original Fundação Cultursintra research team that started the project in 2011 and am so happy to hear how the work is progressing. It’s such an exciting project – there’s nothing quite like the thrill of the hunt! All the best to you in your future work, Mikhelle

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