Chilean National Library: a captivating historic treasure

Beyond its impressive walls and remarkable collection of literary works, the National Library in downtown Santiago is full of surprises.

Among the many gems housed in the imposing neoclassical building of Chile’s National Library are its impressive collection of rare manuscripts and the array of quiet, old-European style reading rooms. This is a vast playground for authors and researchers, yet you don’t have to be either of the two to find something special to do in this hidden book-lover’s paradise.

The library invites everyone — free of charge — to enter its majestic space, to spread out old maps across dark oak tables, to listen to the impressive collection of old vinyl records in the music room and to attend a number of cultural happenings such as book launches and piano concerts in the events space, Sala Americana.

The National Library was established in 1813 by the first Chilean government, shortly after the country gained its independence from Spain. The institution appealed for public donations and many prominent intellectual figures of the time answered the call, in some cases even offering their entire life’s collections. Notable donors include politicians, historians and scholars such as Mariano Egaña, Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna and Andrés Bello.

The building boasts an imposing façade of columns and arches, with a very evident neoclassical French influence. The interior, spread out over two main levels and a basement, is embellished with finely crafted elements, such as its carved marble staircases, and paintings and sculptures by some of the country’s classic artists.

“Many renowned painters and artisans of the time were brought in. Stoneworkers focused on various sculptures, such as those honoring the benefactors of the library, while famous Chilean painters, like Alfredo Helsby and Arturo Gordon, created many of those now hanging on the walls,” Soledad Abarca, photograph and manuscript preservation expert at the library told This is Chile.

A significant portion of the library’s extensive bibliographic collection, the most valuable in the country, is shelved in various reading rooms. These spaces are  ideal for working in peace, especially with the addition of free Wifi access. The remaining titles are located in special storage rooms and available upon request. Each reading room has its own literary theme, the largest of these being the Gabriela Mistral room on the top floor.

One of the most impressive of the reading rooms, both in content and design, is the Biblioteca Americana. The room contains the entire life collection of eminent 19th-century Chilean historian José Toribio Medina, who travelled extensively in the US and Europe and upon his return helped design this space.

His is one of the most rare collections in Latin America and includes over 33,000 books and 11,000 valuable manuscripts, maps, and photographs. Though the public can visit the room, it is university students and researchers with specific areas of interest who tend to frequent here, while the newspaper collection in the basement appears to hold the greatest fascination for a general audience.

“Our newspaper and magazine collection is very popular because it’s a strong and accurate source, with publications dating as far back as 1810. Some of the older periodicals are too delicate to be physically handled so must be accessed in ‘microformat’, using the screens we provide in the basement level,” Abarca explained.

And periodicals are not the only publications to be digitalized. To celebrate the library’s bicentennial in August, a new Digital Collections Department was created to expand the online collection.

The library also plays host to a raft of regular as well as special cultural events and public exhibitions. In October, Mondays saw the Sala Americana transform into a concert hall with live orchestra and piano concerts. Tuesday evenings are popular year-round for free screenings of old movies. National and international guest speakers regularly visit, with acclaimed British novelist Adam Thirlwell talking to an eager crowd in October.

The current temporary artistic exhibition, “Catálogo Bicentenario”, was created as an initiative of the library itself.

“As you know, before the list of items available became digital in online catalogues, we used small cards with the title and location of each book. All these cards are now not of use but we didn’t want to throw that history away,” Abarca explained. We mailed the cards to artists in Spain, Italy, Brazil, Portugal, Mexico, Egypt and the US and asked them to do something creative with them and send them back,” she said.

“We got some really creative responses like cards stacked together to resemble figures or colorfully painted ones. To me the response we had for this project shows that the reputation of our library is really growing even in the international community, a symbol of the collective memory of Chile,” Abarca said.

Another great resource the library offers is the Sala de Referencia y Bibliografía, a room that offers materials such as dictionaries and grammar books and general help for those wishing to learn Spanish.

On a sunny day, it’s worth picking up a light snack or drink from the ground floor café and heading to the picturesque garden and courtyard. With bicycle docks recently installed outside the library, coming and going is easy.

To find out more about the library’s history, collections and offerings, pick up an audio guide in English and Spanish, soon to be available to collect from the main reception desk.

By Daphne Karnezis