Fire and Recovery of the National Library of Peru (BNP)

One of the most tragic episodes for BNP was the devastating fire that destroyed much of the institution, including its building and countless collections. But, like the phoenix from the ashes, the library re-emerged with renewed management.

By National Library of Peru

Old facade of the National Library of Peru (Mid 19th century - 1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

The library before being the BNP

The history of the BNP dates back to the year 1568, when the Jesuit Order founded the Colegio Máximo de San Pablo. In 1767, the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish colonies and, the following year, the Order's library became part of the National University of San Marcos.

Former deposit of the National Library Peru, Anonymous, Mid 19th century - 1943, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Colonial courtyard of the old National Library, Anonymous, Mid 19th century - 1943, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Reading room of the old National Library (1905) by Manuel MoralNational Library of Peru

The BNP during the 19th century

On August 28, 1821, a month after proclaiming independence, General Don José de San Martín signed the decree for the creation of the National Library of Peru on the old Jesuit premises. On September 17, 1822, the National Library was inaugurated.

Initially it had 11,256 volumes from the old Jesuit library and from private donations. During the 19th century, the library suffered extensive looting in the context of conflicts. Personages like Ricardo Palma managed to reorganize the institution.

Side view of the National Library after its fire, detail of the affected wall (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

The fire of the National Library of Peru

Peruvian newsreel from the 1940s. Film recorded on 35 mm nitrate tapes and digitized in the Digital Library - BNP.

Aerial view of the National Library after its fire, firefighters still working (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

The fire at dawn on May 10, 1943, left a great feeling of desolation in the Peruvian people, as a large part of the collections of the National Library of Peru had been lost.

As if that weren't enough, the same building housed two other institutions that also lost their archives: the Historical Institute and the Geographical Society.

The firefighters managed to save the National Archive, the section of foreign magazines and part of the office of the director of the library, where some invaluable works were found. They also managed to box the flames so that they did not advance towards the rest of the block.

Rubble of the National Library after its fire, current Ucayali Street, Anonymous, 1943, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Side view of the National Library after its fire, Anonymous, 1943, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Interior room of the National Library after the fire, Anonymous, 1943, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Interior view of the National Library with firefighters (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

After 9 hours of fighting, the firefighters closed their hoses, although some companies remained on duty in turn in case the fire flared up again.

Rest of book burned and wet after fire in the National Library of Peru (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Library workers, under the guidance of then-director Carlos A. Romero, began to search through the rubble and mud for material that would have survived the flames and water. Although they managed to rescue some specimens, others were in very bad condition.

Firefighters and group of people after the fire of the National Library of Peru (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

It was difficult to know the exact figure of what was lost, since there was not a complete catalog of the funds. According to its director, the lost totaled more than 100,000 bound volumes, 4,000 unbound, and some 40,000 manuscripts, among other collections of periodicals.

Carlos Romero, director of the BNP, during his visit to the library after the fire (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Soon, the government created a commission to investigate the causes of the event. Within other hypotheses, the occurrence of a possible electrical failure was considered as a trigger.

For years, the library suffered damages and requirements that could not be satisfied. Despite requests from their directors, they continued to be lagged by state budgets.

Video about the fire at the National Library of Peru

Courtyard of the National Library after the fire has been put out (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Reborn from the ashes

A few days after the incident, President Manuel Prado Ugarteche issued a supreme resolution for the organization of a reconstruction commission, where among other characters was Jorge Basadre, who shortly after would be appointed as the new director of the BNP.

Detail of rubble and remains of printed material in water after the fire of the National Library (1943) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Within the first directions of the new management, an attempt was made to save the collections that could be rescued from the ashes, water and mud, temporarily transferring these materials to the National Archive area, and later to the School of Fine Arts.

Jorge Basadre during the ceremony of laying the first stone for the reconstruction of the BNP (1944) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

The BNP reconstruction commission was made up of subcommittees with tasks such as collecting financial donations, purchasing new collections and books, receiving donated books, and managing the cataloging of collections.

Manuel Prado Ugarteche at the ceremony of laying the first stone of the new premises of the BNP (1944) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Likewise, it was in charge of organizing the reconstruction of the library, which by broad consensus would take place in the same location.

The design of the plans was in charge of the Ministry of Public Works, headed by the architect Emilio Harth Terré. In November 1943 the plans were delivered, and in January of the following year the foundation stone-laying ceremony was held.

Aerial view of reconstruction works of the National Library of Peru, Anonymous, 1944, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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New National Library of Peru completes reconstruction work, Anonymous, 1944, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Interior room of the new National Library of Peru, Anonymous, 1944, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Jorge Basadre with the first graduated class of the National School of Librarians of Peru (1944) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Basadre's administration sought to renew and technify library work in Peru, as he believed in the need of a modern management for a democratic society.

For this reason, in mid-1943 he created the National School of Librarians, from where he promoted the practices of cataloging and classifying books, courses on organization and administration of libraries, as well as other knowledge and services for the public.

Cover of the first edition of Fenix magazine (1944) by National Library of PerúNational Library of Peru

Basadre also created important periodicals: the Boletín de la Biblioteca Nacional, on the activities and operations of the library; the magazine Fénix, specialized in librarianship; and the Bibliographic Yearbook, an annual count of Peruvian publications.

New reading room of the National Library of Peru (1945) by AnonymousNational Library of Peru

Finally, the National Library of Peru managed to reopen its doors four years after the fatal fire. The new library policy and improved services with a social vision laid the foundations to recover and reimagine the institution.

Shelving system for the safeguarding of the new collections of the BNP, Anonymous, 1945, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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New room for periodical publications of the National Library of Peru, Anonymous, 1945, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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New reading room for boys and girls in the National Library of Peru, Anonymous, 1945, From the collection of: National Library of Peru
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Credits: Story

Aguirre, Carlos. "Una tragedia cultural: el incendio de la Biblioteca Nacional del Perú", in Revista de la Biblioteca Nacional de Uruguay: La Biblioteca, N° 11-12, 2016. P. p. 107-139. 
Basadre, Jorge. "La Biblioteca Nacional de Lima (1943-1945)", in Fénix: revista de la Biblioteca Nacional del Perú. N° 2, January-June 1945. P.p. 312-352.
Blas, Benjamín. "El incendio de la Biblioteca Nacional del Perú. Aportes documentales", in Fénix: revista de la Biblioteca Nacional del Perú. N° 46, 2017. P.p. 15-38.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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