History of Literacy and Libraries in Mexico: Public Book Initiatives

Read the previous part: The Foundation of Mexico’s National Library: History and Cultural Context

After the triumph of the Mexican Revolution, there was a strong movement to make books available to all of the nation’s citizens. Although by this point, this very same goal had been seen before, both at the time of the first public libraries and later on with the foundation of the National Library, this time it had more government support. In 1921, a Ministry of Public Education was founded, and José Vasconcelos was appointed the first head. One of Vasconcelos’ most important plans was to start a nationwide public library program. This program was of a much larger scale than the informal public library movements in municipal governments back near the time of independence. Vasconcelos’ vision for what he could accomplish was rather idealized, as “his dream was to take books to every town in Mexico,” reaching both urban and rural areas. The Ministry of Public Education succeeded in creating around 2,500 libraries across Mexico, with small but diverse collections which contained both literary classics as well as technical books (Lau 2010a 3628). Although Vasconcelos had genuinely positive ambitions and a great number of libraries were created by his Ministry of Education, their maintenance proved to be another story entirely, as summarized by Bixler:

The record of (the Ministry of Education’s) performance is erratic. Too often libraries have been created only later to be left with inadequate continuing support. New books, often for ‘reference’ only, have been few, and assistance in their use small … Books alone, of course, do not create a library. They require organization for accessibility, facilities within a building adequate for use, a trained staff to administer its contents, and most important of all, readers. (9-10)

Overall, the national library project of Vasconcelos lacked foresight as well organization, and it was abandoned by 1940. Sadly, many of these public libraries would disappear in the following years (Lau 2010a 3628). Bixler’s account well summarizes the major ongoing problem with library development in independent Mexico: a tendency to open libraries without addressing crucial aspects of organization, facilities or reference.

Bixler also addresses the continuing issue of literacy by designating readers as the most important group in the development of libraries. Indeed, although the overtly discriminatory access policies of years past were loosening by this point, strong obstacles in the education system remained, which would have much of the same effect. At the same time as the nationwide library program, the Department of Education began organized literacy campaigns, which had some success but was for the most part limited to urban areas. Indigenous and mestizo populations in rural areas were essentially denied education until the 1940s and 50s, when the government first began to recognize indigenous languages in the schools alongside Spanish and took a more bilingual approach to promoting literacy (Bixler 10-12).

To provide some context, the struggle for literacy was also prominently on the agenda of the American Library Association in the early 20th century, and many of the conclusions are comparable to the situation in Mexico. William Yust, a librarian at the Rochester Public Library, addressed the ALA in 1913, stating that “libraries cannot flourish in illiteracy as trees cannot grow in a desert,” and concluded that “education must precede the establishment of libraries” (Mussman 81). The public library projects in Mexico struggled for so long because of high overall illiteracy rates, and the situation of education in rural areas lagged far behind the ambitious goal to provide every town with books and a library.

Continue reading: Problems Plaguing Mexican Libraries in the 20th Century and the Plan of 1984


  1. Jennifer Pierno says:

    Thank-you for this post. I live in Sydney, Australia. I recently visited Mexico City and was very impressed by Vasconcelos library. I’m doing a Master of Arts in International Studies and will spend six months in Mexico City next year. I hope to visit some of your great libraries during my visit. Public libraries plus public education = democracy. My blog: http://latinamericannotebook.wordpress.com/

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