NO VISIT to Washington, DC would be complete without looking into the Library of Congress, which stands behind the US Capitol, perhaps in a symbolic juxtaposition of knowledge and power. The library was, in fact, originally lodged with the Congress, but had to be rebuilt when British troops sacked and burned the Capitol in 1814, starting with the wholesale purchase of Thomas Jefferson’s personal collection of almost 7,000 books for about $24,000.
The LOC has come a long way since then; Jefferson’s volumes are still on display, but they have been joined by 36 million more books, not to mention more than 120 million more non-book items such as photographs, manuscripts, recordings, and sheet music. It’s easily the world’s largest library, adding some 12,000 new items to its roster every day, largely because of the copyright registration process. According to the LOC, half of its collections are in languages other than English—about 480 languages all in all, including nearly 3 million items from Asia.
A simple search of the LOC collections shows that there are more than 40,000 items here related to the Philippines (including, should you want to hear it, a recording of William Howard Taft talking about the Philippines shortly before he became President in 1909). The LOC has early editions of Jose Rizal’s Noli and Fili, which, along with other important Rizaliana, were put on special display at the Asian Reading Room in 2011 to commemorate Rizal’s 150th birth anniversary.
Last week, thanks to the combined efforts of the Filipino-American community in Washington and former LOC librarian and Fil-Am activist Reme Grefalda, I had the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see the crown jewel of the LOC’s Philippine holdings—the only known copy in the world of the 1593 Doctrina Christiana, the first book published in the Philippines.
The Doctrina is essentially a catechism, a collection of common prayers, including the Lord’s Prayer and the Hail Mary. Being basic prayer books, there had been other Doctrinas published earlier in other countries. The Philippine version was put together by Fray Juan de Plasencia, a Franciscan friar who helped found many Philippine towns, including Antipolo, Lucban, Meycauayan, and Tayabas. In 1585 he wrote King Philip II of Spain that he had already written several religious and scholarly books that could help spread the faith in the islands—including the Doctrina and studies of the Tagalog language—and asked for royal assistance in funding their publication.
But the good friar died in 1585, and it wouldn’t be until some years later, in 1593, when we see Governor General Gomez Perez Dasmariñas writing the King to present him with copies of the Doctrina in two versions—Tagalog and Chinese—and to explain that he had granted a license for the printing of these books (under Dominican auspices) because of their great value to the evangelization effort. And then, so the story goes, all copies of the Doctrina vanish, until the Tagalog one reappears—presumably the royal copy—in Paris in 1946, where it’s bought by an American dealer, who then resells it along with many other books in a lot to the American book collector and onetime Sears Roebuck chairman Lessing J. Rosenwald (1891-1979), who then bequeaths his collection, including the Doctrina, to the Library of Congress upon his death.
So the LOC’s copy, as far as we know, is the only one of its kind, and it was with great anticipation that Beng and I joined a group of ten Filipino and Filipino-American scholars and advocates who were kindly admitted by the LOC’s Rare Books Division to a private viewing of the Doctrina, with LOC librarian Eric Frazier doing the honors. (While waiting for our appointment, we had taken in a few of the LOC’s other prime offerings including the Gutenberg Bible, which is on permanent display near the stupendous main lobby that welcomes visitors, and the Magna Carta, on loan from the Lincoln Cathedral.)
I should’ve read up more on the Doctrina before we went up there, but I was surprised by two things I realized only when I saw the book up close: its relatively small size, and the fragility of its paper. It’s only about 9 by 7 inches, not much bigger than a contemporary textbook. It was a further surprise to hear Eric say that “As far as I know, among the millions of books we have at the LOC, this is the only one whose every page is sheathed in Mylar.”
I had asked Eric about the condition of the book and the paper, having seen and even handled other books from the 1600s (many of which, printed on stout, crisp linen paper, look good as new, and have survived in much better shape than the acid-lined paper of the 1800s and 1900s). The Doctrina, as it turns out, was printed xylographically—like a woodblock with the letters carved out—on mulberry paper (other sources say rice paper, although that term may have covered other papers made from mashed material). I’m not a professional historian, so I stand to be corrected on these presumptive facts by people who know vastly more about the Doctrina Christiana and about the history of books than I do (two immediately come to mind, our foremost book historians: Dr. Von Totanes and Dr. May Jurilla).
It was with the greatest of care and respect that we flipped those pages, and we saw what generations of the faithful must have seen (that is, if they saw the book at all): a syllabary, followed by prayers and other articles of faith, presented in Spanish, Tagalog, and baybayin, that pre-Hispanic script that survives in our consciousness only in the Katipunan “ka.” What’s remarkable is how fundamentally familiar the text of the prayers is: “Aba guinoo Maria matoua cana, napopono ca nang gracia. ang panginoon dios, ce, nasayyo. Bucor cang pinagpala sa babaying lahat….”
And so it went, a cry of praise and supplication across the ages, come to life again at our trembling fingertips.
I can only hope that, perhaps through an arrangement with a responsible Philippine institution, the Doctrina can be brought back to the Philippines for a special exhibition (the forthcoming Papal visit would have been the perfect occasion), or at least that more Filipinos in the US could see it, along with the other Philippine holdings at the LOC. It does take time and effort to arrange for a viewing, but in the meanwhile, the full digital copy of the book, provided by the LOC, can be found here: http://tinyurl.com/knpzkn5. For more information on the Doctrina Christiana and this particular copy, see the notes of Project Gutenberg editor Edwin Wolf at http://tinyurl.com/p6uqlvr.