From ON Magazine
By Becky Martins
A movement is under way in Latin Americaa movement to restore the life that was Victoria Ocampo. In 2003, a project was launched to conserve the architecture, garden, artwork, furnishings, and library at the Villa Ocampo, the estate owned by the person writer Jorge Luis Borges called "the most Argentine woman." Now that much of Victoria Ocampo's property has been restored, attention is shifting to preserving and sharing her library collection.
Victoria Ocampo was a remarkable woman. In 1931, she founded Sur, considered to be the foremost Latin American literary magazine of the 20th century. In doing so, she introduced modernism to Argentina and influenced its culture. "Nothing can compare to what she did for Latin America," says Villa Ocampo Executive Director Dr. Nicolas Helft.
In 1973, six years before she died, Ocampo willed her villa and its contents to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Today, Villa Ocampo staff members are using digitization technologies to preserve Ocampo's extensive literature collection and share it with a global audience.
A cultural entrepreneur
Ocampo advanced the condition of women, influenced famous writers, and brought together people with different ideas and dissimilar backgrounds. Often, the Villa Ocampo was the backdrop for these meetings. More than a residence, Ocampo's home was also a gathering place for Argentine and foreign intellectuals including Igor Stravinsky, Albert Camus, and Graham Greene. Located 19 miles north of Buenos Aires, the property provided a grand refuge for visitors. But it fell into disrepair after Ocampo's death in 1979.
The material she willed to UNESCO included nearly 12,000 books as well as letters, personal papers, and other communications. The material was later discovered to be uniquely personal, containing handwritten commentaries, inscriptions, and annotations. With most of the villa now renovated and open to the public, Dr. Helft is shifting his attention to this collection.
"Nearly 20,000 visitors toured the house and garden last year," Dr. Helft says. "But we couldn't show them the libraryprobably one of the most attractive and telling parts of the house. We want to make it a truly great library that will explain Argentina's cultural history in the 20th century."
Anthology of an intellectual
The task of preserving the collection involves multiple steps: cleaning and disinfection, conservation and restoration, digitization, and publishing.
Ocampo's collection had been stored in boxes, and many of the books were in poor condition. Dr. Helft and his staff began with the intimidating job of taking inventory. Even with such a large collection, it was necessary to research the importance of every book. Dr. Helft hired Ernesto Montquin, editor of several books by Victoria and Silvina Ocampo, who spent two months assessing the intellectual history of the library. Staff members loaded the expert's findings into a database designed in-house.
After the initial qualification phase concluded in May 2008, every book was cleaned with a special vacuum. Two conservation specialists supervised by a senior conservationist from the Museo Nacional de Arte Decorativo (National Museum of Decorative Arts) in Buenos Aires then physically reviewed each item, checking both for annotations and for evidence of worm or insect damage. Infected books were shipped offsite, fumigated, cleaned, and restored.
Another detail Dr. Helft had to consider was space. Even with two large library rooms upstairs and a small one on the ground floor, the Villa Ocampo can only display 7,000 of Ocampo's books. To resolve the dilemma, every book was cleaned, but the 5,000 least significant pieces were put into archival storage.
It was time for the team to turn their attention to digitizing Ocampo's most noteworthy items.
Two minutes a book
Working with a limited budget, Dr. Helft and his staff purchased a PC and scanner to capture cover illustrations and notations written on interior pages. They devoted 30 seconds to two minutes to each book, using custom-designed software to check for accuracy and automate major parts of the scanning and thus speed up the process.
"The software we developed automates this procedure," Dr. Helft explains. "It automatically resets resolution preferences for each type of scan, for example, 'book cover' or 'page of manuscript.' It also automatically corrects image colors and adds the metadata about the scanned images." Such customization has made digitizing nearly 15,000 pages fairly efficient.
The Villa Ocampo staff oversees daily data backup to a server and a weekly backup to an external drive kept off-premises. In terms of online backup, newly scanned data is uploaded with the rest of Villa Ocampo's business-data backups to an Internet server.
Categorized by genre and author, the cover art and annotations from Ocampo's books and the images of her letters, manuscripts, and other personal correspondence will be made public on the Web by late 2008.
A long literary trail
There is a second aspect to the digitization project, one that extends beyond the Villa Ocampo. Through careful cross-indexing, the new Web page will showcase the collection held in Argentina and direct users to even more information dispersed elsewhere, including the Victoria Ocampo collections held at Harvard and Princeton universities.
"We consider our library to be similar to an art collection," Dr. Helft says. "When you visit the website of a good art museum, you see timelines, information about the civilizations that created the art, and links to the objects themselves. When you make a library collection, you also think collectively. You think about all you're going to tell the public. That is the idea of this library."
When the website launches, Dr. Helft and his team will monitor visits to see who is using it. Using those statistics to establish an appropriate audience, Dr. Helft plans one day to publish a book documenting the restoration project and the life of Ocampo. The book, he hopes, will reach those who have not visited the website or Villa Ocampo's library, which eventually will be open to researchers and the general public.
Victoria Ocampo was always unpretentious, and she regarded her house as a normal home, not an extraordinary villa. Dr. Helft believes she might be taken aback to learn how much influence she actually had. As is the case with so many visionaries, the consequences of her actions were recognized late. According to Dr. Helft, "She had so much opposition during her life. I think she would be most surprised that people in Argentina approve of her work today."