The celebration of the 150th birth anniversary of Dr. Jose Rizal on June 19 becomes more meaningful because the public will be able to view the original manuscripts of his famous novels, Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, at the National Library, courtesy of the German conservators who have meticulously restored the national hero's works.
Aside from "Noli" and "Fili," the conservators worked on Guillermo Tell, Rizal's translation of Friedrich Schiller's William Tell.
The project of restoring Rizal's works is a joint project of the National Library of the Philippines and the German government.
"The ultimate objective (of the restoration project) is to leave a legacy to another generation," said NLP Director Antonio M. Santos.
Noli Me Tangere and El Filibusterismo, scathing commentaries of the Spanish colonial rule of the Philippines, inspired a nationalist revolution and caused the execution by firing squad of Rizal on Dec. 30, 1896.
The restoration project is more than three years in the making, when it was first conceptualized in 2007 by the NLP's then director Prudenciana Cruz as a joint undertaking with Germany where Rizal studied and wrote the two novels. The first copies of Noli Me Tangere were published in Berlin in 1887.
Rizal also has a statue in his honor in the German town of Wilhelmsfeld, where he met Pastor Karl Ullmer who opened his home to him. Ullmer's grandson Fritz donated the Ullmer Collection to the country in 1961, which includes letters and sketches by Rizal.
The Department of Budget and Management gave P2 million as seed fund for the library's conservation room, furnished with basic tools and equipment used by German restorers Monika Gast and Katrin Hüpeden.
"We established the Conservation Center to mark the first major step in achieving a better storage condition and a better preservation program for the posterity of our collections," Anne Rosette Crelencia, NLP Rare Books and Manuscripts head, said.
The Philippine government acquired Noli Me Tangere in 1911 along with other manuscripts by Rizal for P32,000. El Filibusterismo was acquired in 1925 for P10,000.
In January 1945, during World War II, the manuscripts were stored in vaults in the Manila City Hall but were found to have been looted during the Battle for the Liberation of Manila that started in February that year.
Efforts to retrieve the manuscripts bore fruit in April 1946 when a messenger of an unidentified individual offered to return the manuscripts on the following conditions: The individual would not be identified, no questions about the return would be asked, and no publicity regarding the return.
The NLP recovered 106 out of 120 stolen manuscripts. In 1953, the Spanish government also donated manuscripts of Rizal in its possession to the country. Rizal's manuscripts are kept in three vaults in the Rare Books and Manuscripts section.
Conservation, according to Crelencia, has a bigger scope than restoration.
Conservation consists of the storage of objects not limited to manuscripts and the monitoring the conditions of the area where these objects are stored, including boxes, air and temperature in the storage area. Restoration, on the other hand, is focused on the object or manuscript being repaired.
The restoration done on Noli Me Tangere includes reattaching loose pages, replacing missing areas in the manuscript's pages, taking off previous repairs done to the manuscript that have degraded, and mending breaks and tears in the manuscript.
El Filibusterismo was repaired by reattaching pages to the book block and mending some tears that are in the book's binding. Guillermo Tell, as it only has one-section binding, was sewn again and the tears on its pages mended.
"On the whole, the state of the manuscripts is quite good," said Gast. But she suggested improvement of the room where the manuscripts are kept.
Crelencia said the ideal conditions to slow down a manuscript's decay involve a round-the-clock and unvarying air-conditioning system, set at 18 to 22 degrees Celsius, with a temperature and humidity meter to monitor the conditions; clean air inside the storage room, minimal exposure to light especially ultraviolet light that can negatively affect the manuscript's pages, and minimal handling of the manuscript.
As of now, she said the air-conditioning of the section she heads operates only on the NLP's working hours.
"With the technology and discoveries today, we need to adapt some changes to keep our valuable collections in superb condition so many more generation of Filipinos can see and use all those resources," said Crelencia.
She said, too, that conservation of resources is "a very tedious process," and having a conservation room is just a part in preserving these resources.
The works next in line if ever, according to Crelencia, are Rizal's diary entries, postcards, other manuscripts, sketches and correspondences, as well as letters written to and by the revolutionaries such as Andres Bonifacio and Apolinario Mabini.
The NLP plans to present the restored manuscripts to President Benigno Aquino and afterwards hold an exhibit showcasing these for the public to be able to view them in time for Rizal's birthday.
"Dr. Jose Rizal's manuscripts will always be a remembrance to every Filipino that our country is worth its freedom and liberation," said Crelencia.
(VERA Files is put out by veteran journalists taking a deeper look at current issues. Vera is Latin for "true.")