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Libraries and Special Collections: Visiting the Biblioteca de Montserrat

By Audrey Golden. Feb 20, 2016. 9:00 AM.

Topics: Libraries & Special Collections

If you have an academic interest in historical archives or merely a personal passion for learning more about the origins of literary culture, there are many libraries both in the United States and abroad that are likely to pique your interest. One of the most interesting libraries that you are likely to encounter is one set high above the city of Barcelona in the mountain of Montserrat. Indeed, the Abbey of Montserrat, located in Catalonia, Spain, contains a library founded in the 11th century. And if you make plans ahead of time, you can visit the collections, including various manuscript works from the last several centuries.

Collections in the Montserrat Library

Biblioteca-montserrat_PD.jpg
Biblioteca de Montserrat by Xavier Caballe, used under CC2.0

The Montserrat Library, or the Library of Human Sciences and Theology according to its website, is housed within the Abbey of Montserrat within the monastery. Since its creation in the 11th century, the monastery has contained both an academic library and a scriptorium which are, as the website* notes, “necessary for prayer and spiritual reading.” Yet if you visit the monastery, you will not be directed into an 11th-century building. To be sure, the original library was destroyed in 1811 during the Peninsular War (1808-1814), or in other words during the Napoleonic Wars as Napoleon sought to control the Iberian Peninsula. As a result of the original library’s destruction, visitors now have access to the monastery’s collections in a structure that dates from the mid-19th century.

The library contains monographs, ephemera, and printed books that pertain to the religious and literary history of Spain. Some of our favorite items in the collection relate to Spain’s recent history and the threat of tyranny during the Spanish Civil War. For instance, the library contains multiple works by or in connection to George Orwell, the famed British novelist who fought Franco’s army in Barcelona during the Spanish Civil War. One of the items in the collection marks Orwell’s war efforts: a first Spanish-language edition of Cataluña 1937: Testimonio Sobre la Revolución Española (or, better known to English-speaking readers as Homage to Catalonia). The library also contains a number of works by and about the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. Given that the true first edition of his work España en el Corazón: Himno a Las Glorias Del Pueblo en la Guerra (known in English as Spain in the Heart) was created by soldiers very near the monastery, the space of the library is an important landmark in studies of Neruda’s political impact.colorful_neruda.jpg

In addition to modern works, the library contains numerous pieces of Catalonian history. Included in the collections are works of medieval Catalán literature, including numerous handwritten texts from the 14th and 15th centuries. Many of these are devotional and theological texts, while others are documents that pertain to geographic and cultural features of the region. Currently, the library has more than 300,000 monographs and 1,500 manuscripts.

Getting to the Abbey of Montserrat

How can you reach the collections contained within the library? In addition to making an appointment with an archivist, you’ll need to take an hour-long train ride from Barcelona, followed by a ten-minute cable-car ride up the very steep, curvy cliffs below the Abbey of Montserrat. The ride in the cable-car might seem like a heart-stopping experience in and of itself, but we can assure you that the collections housed within the library are even more exciting than the sights you can see while suspended hundreds of feet in the air. If you’re in Barcelona, the Biblioteca de Montserrat should make its way onto your must-visit list.

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Audrey Golden
World literature scholar and erstwhile lawyer. Lover of international travel, outdoor markets, and rare books.

 

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