The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - FRONT -

In the guano sec­tion Dur­ing the day, as vis­i­tors file through the 300-year-old Joan­ina Li­brary at the Univer­sity of Coim­bra in Por­tu­gal, the crea­tures re­main hid­den be­hind the grand, gilded book­cases. At night, they come out to pro­tect the books. As lovers of lit­eral book­worms, about a dozen res­i­dent bats eat the moths, bee­tles and other in­sects that de­vour the tomes’ pa­per and glue, so they are also un­wit­ting con­ser­va­tion­ists. But their pres­ence is driv­ing the staff batty. The li­brary draws about half a mil­lion vis­i­tors a year but in­stead of field­ing schol­arly in­quiries about rare, hand-il­lus­trated Bibles or cen­tury-old world at­lases – ev­ery book among the li­brary’s 60,000 dates from be­fore the early 1800s – staff mem­bers find them­selves mostly an­swer­ing ques­tions about the lives and habits of the bats. “It pains me,” says Jorge Manuel Neves Justo Alexan­dre, who has been care­taker of Joan­ina since 2000. “Here you have all this beauty, this knowl­edge, and they are ask­ing where the bats poop.”

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