Spanish Libraries in Mexico: Shift from Religious and Private to Secular and Public

History of Libraries in Mexico Part 1

The first Spanish libraries in Mexico were located in monasteries. Their collections served an almost exclusively religious mission, as the majority of the books held “dealt with ecclesiastical or philosophical subjects; heretical or liberal works were excluded” (Peñalosa 116). To refer to these colonial libraries as non-circulating would be an understatement, as taking works from the library was an offense punishable by excommunication. These monastic libraries served a very elite clientele, not just in its active exclusion of Indians and Mestizos[1], but even among Spaniards and Creoles[2]. The only individuals deemed fit to use the collections were preachers, along with some “doctors of law, who sought out quotations to use in their lengthy harangues,” and by historians documenting the Spaniards’ evangelical mission (Peñalosa 116).

Over the course of the next two centuries, libraries in colonial Mexico would begin to shift from private, religious institutions to open, public resources funded by local and national government. Despite serving as some of the earliest examples of public libraries, their limitations, along with a marked gap between theory and practice, would turn out to be a continuing theme of Mexican libraries for three centuries.

After flourishing during the earlier colonial period, the missionary libraries began to disappear in the eighteenth century. Peñalosa recounts this period of decline, very much a result of diminished motivation and financial problems in the religious orders, and the resulting loss of much of Mexico’s library holdings:

The initial impetus of conquest and colonization was spent. Gold and other precious commodities were no longer easy to come by, and the mother-country depleted its gold supply in fruitless wars with dire economic consequences. Intellectual inquiry was stifled by state and church. The great missionary zeal of the early friars was virtually gone, and the religious orders suffered from the general economic and intellectual depression. Monastic libraries were often left utterly unattended, and many books and manuscripts were stolen or sent to Spain. Some books were even sold as scrap paper to makers of firecrackers. Valiant efforts on the part of some librarians to save the literary and historic treasures in the monastic libraries were largely without effect. (118)

In their place, increasingly secular libraries intended for use by the public began to be founded, although their status as “public libraries” by contemporary standards is debatable.  Although Peñalosa refers to the library of the Convent of San Agustín as “semipublic,” and the monastic Bibliteca Palafoxiana founded back in 1646 would later become a public institution, the first library agreed upon among scholars as “public” (Zamora 1997, Lau 2010a, Jones) was founded in 1788, after the monastic libraries were in decline. This library, the Biblioteca Turriana was founded with the donation of the Torres family, a vast collection explicitly designated by priest Cayetano Torres to be made available for use by the public (Pagaza García 56). The location was the Cathedral of Mexico in Mexico City, and the Torres collection was supplemented by an endowment of 20,000 pesos by the municipal government to purchase materials. The Biblioteca Turriana was a free library, but its access policies were still very discriminatory. Romero argues that Mexican libraries “served an oligarchic white social class” and the book in general was a gateway to European culture and “another privilege of the white population during the colonial period” (257). Native and mestizo populations were allowed no access to the collections of the Biblioteca Turriana or any other library (Lau 2010a 3625). It is also important to note that all education in Mexico at this time was still being provided exclusively by the Catholic Church, with the intention of spreading Spanish culture and Christian religion (Jones 270). All in all, colonial libraries were a key institution for the Spaniards in their subjugation of the indigenous cultures of Mexico, even towards the end of the period when the library was beginning to become more of a public institution.

Keep reading Part 3: Libraries at the Time of Mexico’s War of Independence

[1] Individuals of mixed descent, with one European and one indigenous parent

[2] Individuals of entirely European descent who were born in the New World

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