The Current State of Libraries in Mexico: Service, Connectivity and Culture

Read the previous part: Problems Plaguing Mexican Libraries in the 20th Century and the Plan of 1984

Since the plan of 1984 was so well organized, it was much more sustainable than previous programs, and today, each town with a population of at least 5,000 people has its own public library. Mexico boasts the largest public library system in Latin America, which is a particularly impressive feat considering that the nation is less than half the size of Brazil in both geography and population (Lau 2010b). Public libraries are funded under a three-tier system within the government. Broader library policies and acquisitions and collection development practices are decided by the federal government; building construction and facilities maintenance are the responsibility of state governments; and staff hiring and payroll are handled by the municipal governments (Lau 2010a 3629). Each of Mexico’s 31 states as well as the Federal District have a central public library which fulfills a management role over the network of libraries within that state.

Overall, Mexican libraries are well-renowned for their rich historical significance and unique and rare collections. To examine a particular case, the Public Library of the State of Jalisco holds eleven incunabula, volumes that were printed from 1450-1501, as well as three thousand books printed in the sixteenth century, and 350,000 historical documents spanning the sixteenth century to the early twentieth, which include the Archives of the Royal Court of New Galicia and the Archives of the Supreme Court of Justice.

As of 2005, the literacy rate in Mexico had climbed to 86.1%, and 2010 Census estimates are up to 91.4% (US Dept of State, Censo de Población), representing a very impressive increase over the past century. Today, however, internet access has in many ways become the crucial issue that literacy was to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. First, there is still a big discrepancy in public library services in urban and rural areas. In cities and larger towns,  the libraries are naturally much larger and technologically equipped, while in more remote areas world wide web connectivity is practically non-existent. In recent years, providing internet access to public libraries has become a major task of the Mexican government, at both a local and national level (Lau 2010a 3630). In addition to efforts from inside the country to promote technology, the libraries have benefitted greatly from some outside donations, in particular from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. In 2002, President Vicente Fox announced that the foundation had pledged $30 million “to provide computer and Internet access, staff training and technical support to approximately 1,200 or 20 percent of public libraries across Mexico” (Rios). Six years later in 2008, the Gates Foundation would once again return to Mexican public libraries, this time to award its annual Access to Learning Award to the Vasconcelos Program, an innovative initiative created by the state of Veracruz to provide computer access and training to underserved populations within the state. The program was named after José Vasconcelos, the first Minister of Education who launched Mexico’s first public library program back in 1921, and deploys a staff of workers, most proficient in the local indigenous languages, to rural communities in Veracruz, who spend around two weeks “teaching a variety of computer and Internet courses and updating local technology access points” (Gates Foundation).

These initiatives to connect and train Mexican society in digital age technologies are promising, but other states must follow suit in order to bridge the gap between cities and towns and rural areas. Pausing for a moment to consider the present state of libraries in Mexico in the broader context of their historical development, many of the same themes still hold true. The struggle for libraries to serve the general population has been a consistent theme, from the overt subjugation of the early monastery libraries and early colonial public libraries to the struggles for literacy in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Access to the tools of learning, whether they be printed books in today’s case, the internet, has always been a privilege of the upper classes and a major challenge for rural and indigenous communities. While ensuring that knowledge be made available for all citizens has been a major goal within Mexico from the moment of independence, we have seen how such ambitious goals cannot be realized without institutional support and a strong investment in education. The public library mission of José Vasconcelos ultimately failed for this very reason, and the careful planning and ongoing assessment of the 1984 National Program for Public Libraries was what led to its continued success. In this vein, contemporary public library efforts to bridge the gap in internet connectivity across the regions of Mexico need to have organizational foresight and be focused on long-term, not temporary, solutions. Above all, they must recognize the richness of Mexico’s historical heritage and its diverse indigenous populations, and make sure to work so that the promise of the information revolution reaches all of the nation’s citizens.

Works Cited

Arroyo García, Israel. Constitution of 1857.Encyclopedia of Mexico: History, Society & Culture. London: Routledge, 1998. Credo Reference. Web. 11 May 2011.

“Background Note: Mexico.” Diplomacy in in Action. US Department of State. 14 December 2010. Web. 11 May 2011. http://www.state.gov/r/pa/ei/bgn/35749.htm

Bixler, Paul Howard. The Mexican Library. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1969.

“Censo de Población y Vivienda 2010.” Web. 11 May 2011. http://www.censo2010.org.mx/

Coulmas, Florian, and Konrad Ehlich. Writing in Focus. Walter de Gruyter, 1983.

Durán Juárez, Juan Manuel. “Public Library of the State of Jalisco, Mexico.” Web. 11 May 2011. http://www.varastokirjasto.fi/guadalajara/solis.pdf.

Fernandez de Zamora, R. M. 1991. “Library Resources in Latin America: A General Panorama.” IFLA Journal 17.1 : 45-54. 9 May 2011.

Francis, Michael J. Iberia and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2005. Credo Reference. Web. 11 May 2011.

Jones, Phillip. “Indispensable in a Civilized Society”: Manuel Payno’s “Las bibliotecas de México.” Libraries & the Cultural Record 42.3 (2007): 268-290. 11 May 2011.

Lafuente López, Ramir. Un Mundo Poco Visible: Imprenta Y Bibliotecas En México Durante El Siglo XIX. México : Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1992.

Langman, Ida. “Mexican Libraries Move Ahead.” Institute of Education News Bulletin 35 (1960):  45.

Lau, Jesús. (2010a.) “Mexico: Libraries, Archives and Museums.” Lau, Jesús. In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Sciences, Third Edition: 3624 — 3646.

Lau, Jesús and Janet Lee. (2010b.) “Libraries in Mexico: Context and Collaboration. An Interview with Dr. Jesús Lau, President, Mexican Library Association.” Collaborative Librarianship 2.2: 96–101.

Magaloni, Ana María. “Mexico’s National Program of Public Libraries.” Journal of Library and Information Science. 10.2 (1984): 111-117.

Manrique Figueroa, César. “Libros, lectores y bibliotecas del México colonial.” 11 May 2011.

Martinez, Juan Angel Vazquez. La funcion social del tlacuilo, los amoxtlis y los amoxcallis (Serie Tesis premiadas). Secretaria de Educacion Publica, 1995.

Musmann, Klaus. “The Ugly Side of Librarianship: Segregation in Library Services from 1900-1950.” in Tucker, John Mark., ed. Untold Stories: Civil Rights, Libraries, And Black Librarianship. Champaign, IL : Publications Office, Graduate School Of Library And Information Science, 1998.

Navarrete, Federico. “The Path from Aztlan to Mexico: On Visual Narration in Mesoamerican Codices.” RES: Anthropology and Aesthetics 37 (2000): 31-48.

Pagaza García, Rafael. Las obras de consulta mexicanas, siglos XVI al XX. México: UNAM, 1990.

Pasztor, Susan B. “Education.” (2004). In Mexico: An Encyclopedia of Contemporary Culture and History. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Credo Reference. Web. 11 May 2011.

Payno, Manuel. “Las bibliotecas de México: La gran biblioteca y la pequeña biblioteca de México,”

Boletín de la Sociedad de Geografía y Estadística de la República Mexicana (May 1869): 3-14.

Peñalosa, Fernando. “The Development of Libraries in Mexico.” The Library Quarterly 23.2 (1953): 115–125.

Rios, Rob. Library Hotline. Library Journal. June 3, 2002, Volume XXI, No.22.

Romero, Ignacio Osorio. Las bibliotecas novohispanas Mexico: SEP, DGB, 1986.

Ruy Sánchez, Alberto and Margarita de Orellana. “Artes de México : Biblioteca Palafoxiana.” 2003.

Fernández de Zamora, Rosa María. “Mexican Library History: A Survey of the Literature of the Last Fifteen Years.” Libraries & Culture 32.2 (1997).

“2008 Access to Learning Award: Vasconcelos Program.” Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation Web. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/atla/Pages/2008-vasconcelos-program.aspx. 11 May 2011.

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

Previous part: History of Literacy and Libraries in Mexico: Public Book Initiatives

Around the same period, many of the same problems plaguing the public library system were also seen in the National Library. Peñalosa, writing in 1953, states that although the National Library was unrivaled in terms of its vast holdings and prominent status, it had made very little progress in the way of services and organization since its inception. It had discriminatory circulation policies, as “only professional people and research workers could check out books” (120).

There was also a shortage of staff, and most workers had little knowledge of classification schemes and organizational best practices. Much of the National Library’s holdings were already in poor physical condition, and the lack of organization was so poor that “valuable works rotted on the floor or were piled high, wrapped in newspapers” (Peñalosa 120). Also, despite the library’s status as an official National depository, there was very lax enforcement of the law, and many important works lacked representation in the collection. Genaro Estrada, a prominent Mexican bibliographer, went so far as to say that reference service was lacking to such a degree that the Mexican library patron was “a lonely hero who carries on his work without any encouragement, within an atmosphere of abandon and misery” (Langman 45).

Following this bleak period around the middle of the twentieth century, libraries in Mexico would languish for the next two decades, with little progress or development.

In the late 1970s, however, public libraries entered their “second golden period,” and this time, superior funding and organization and long-term thinking lead to much more successful results (Lau 2010a 3628). In 1978, Guadalupe Carrión, the director of public libraries, began to construct a new plan on a national level to develop a widely used library system, but his approach was much more practical than the quixotic dreams of Vasconcelos, and he had the benefit of a significantly higher literacy rate and continued efforts to reach out to indigenous populations with educational programs (Pasztor). The first five years of this plan centered on the reorganization of the existing libraries, including an in-depth assessment study of various “indicators and parameters for building, equipping, and creating library collections” (Lau 2010a 3628).

This foresight and assessment was exactly what was lacking from previous efforts, and Carrión also addressed the issue of lacking service principles and inadequately trained staff by organizing an intensive library 3-month library workshop where roughly 500 staff members were trained at three different locations in Mexico. After this thorough assessment of the existing public library system and the creation of a workforce equipped with specialized library skills, Mexico’s National Program of Public Libraries, the official plan, was announced in 1984 by Ana Maria Magaloni, its director general. This plan was ambitious but precise, calling for a public library in every State capital city by December 1984, a public library in every municipality larger than 300,000 inhabitants by December 1986, and enabling library service in every municipality (all 2,377 of them) by 1988. The plan also outlined in detail how the State governments and municipalities would need to work with the Secretary of Public Education in terms of space, collections and even funding for staff payroll (Magaloni 1984). Over the course of the next five years, the plan was put into action and a strong system of public libraries came into place (Lau 2010a 3628).

Continue reading: The Current State of Libraries in Mexico: Service, Connectivity and Culture

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

The Foundation of Mexico’s National Library: History and Cultural Context

Read the previous part: Libraries at the Time of Mexico’s War of Independence

While the topic of public libraries was discussed in numerous other municipal legislatures around this period, a small number of projects would actually be implemented, the most notable being the State of Mexico Central Public Library in Toluca in 1827 (Peñalosa 117). This is due to the fact that the governmental dialogue was starting to shift to a new goal which embodied these same ideals on a larger scale: the National Library. The movement for a national library was a drawn-out process spanning nearly half a century, and although stemmed from a noble ambition to allow the general population access to recorded culture, it ended up serving a much more symbolic rather than practical role, due to the same ongoing problems.

The decades immediately following Mexican independence were marked by a constant political struggle between liberals and the conservatives. Well aware of the struggles of poverty and illiteracy that plagued the nation, the liberals made the National Library one of their biggest goals, as recounted by Jones:

Those who lived distant from Mexico City in provincial cities, rural towns, and Indian pueblos had little access to education or currents of culture offered by museums and libraries .. What became clear was the need for a national library, a collection located in the capital city in which the nation’s bibliographic history and continuing output could be gathered and made available to all persons. (270)

A plan for the National Library was first presented to the Mexican congress in 1828 and an official decree followed in 1933 from President Valentín Gómez Farías. The National Library project, however, did not progress further due to economic struggles and, more importantly, political instability which lead to a rapid shifting of national priorities. From 1833 to 1855, the Mexican presidency changed hands thirty-six times, which served as a strong obstacle for the liberals to achieve their mission. Nevertheless, further attempts were made, most notably in 1846, and 1851, and books were collected and gathered to be assimilated into the National Library, which still lacked a location (Jones 272).

Matters appeared to be helped by a new constitution established in 1857 which emphasized individual liberty and took steps to limit the power of institutions, including the Catholic Church (Arroyo García). Conservatives, however,  rebelled against this constitution’s ideology, sparking a conflict against liberal president Benito Juárez, who had just ordered that the National Library be located within the University of Mexico. This rebellion once again took attention away from the plans to move forward with the National Library. A few years later in 1863, the situation continued to worsen with the French Intervention, in which Juárez was removed from power and Austrian archduke Maximillian was thrust into the role of emperor of Mexico. Maximillian rejected the idea of a National Library serving the general population in favor of an imperial library supporting his regime (Jones 272).

During his time in power, some of Mexico’s treasured collections which had been gathered for inclusion in the National Library were sadly boxed up and shipped away to Europe and the United States. This period of intervention would only last until 1867, when Mexico prevailed against its imperial conquerors, and the National Library was once again back on the agenda. The turmoil from the war lead to a rather chaotic national agenda, but President Juárez, who had returned to power, made it a top priority, and he was also aided by some other important liberal figures who fought valiantly for the cause. Jones argues that the most influential of these figures was Manuel Payno, a writer and local politician who wrote two key articles in newspapers and magazines which expressed the need for continued federal funding to complete the National Library project. He pointed out many of the previously mentioned shortcoming of the existing libraries, and added that those which claimed to be for public use were only open certain hours of the day, with so little space, chaotic organization and nonexistent instruction for patrons. Payno’s writing eloquently demonstrates the crucial role of the National Library for Mexico as an emerging nation:

The alphabet, another marvel, makes eternal both thought and word, preserving in living substance the man of genius, even as these fragile pages will in centuries be reduced to dust—such are the thoughts that come to my pen upon writing this single word: “LIBRARY.” That such an institution is indispensable in a civilized society, as necessary as food, no one doubts. Thus, what should be done is not to collect books without taste, with neither criterion nor discernment, in humble, dark quarters distant from the center of cities, but to erect a dignified, grand monument to inspire the august ideals of scholarship and of scientific inquiry. (Payno, tr. Jones)

In 1867, the Mexican secretary of education decreed that the Church of Saint Augustine in downtown Mexico City, near the central square, would be converted into the National Library. President Juárez had already expropriated and nationalized a number of university and religious collections, and later that year, the National Library opened its doors. The long-time dream which had encountered so much resistance was finally a reality. At this time, the library held over 100,000 volumes and Dr. José María Benítez was named its first librarian (Penalosa 119).

Although the establishment of the National Library was certainly a major triumph, much of the value surrounding it was merely symbolic of Mexico’s progress as a nation, as Payno’s writings certainly suggest. Zamora states that “the liberals conceived of the library as an instrument of culture and progress,” establishing the National Library “to meet an emotive and romantic need to have libraries as a symbol of modernity and progress, regardless its pragmatic usefulness” (228). In reality, Mexico was still suffering the same problems as before, including widespread illiteracy and limited education, and the National Library did little to practically solve these concerns, jeopardizing its ambitious mission to allow all of Mexico’s citizens access to the nation’s bibliographic output. These inequalities would only become exacerbated under over the course of the next few decades and the regime of Porfirio Diaz, a Mexican statesman who had initially supported Juárez and the liberals before becoming embroiled in a battle for the presidency after he lost the 1876 election.

When he assumed power, he would run an authoritarian regime for over thirty years. To his credit, Díaz brought some political stability to a nation that greatly needed it and also was responsible for significant economic development, but this came at a great social cost. There was intellectual and literary progress in Mexico, but in the form of exclusive societies solely for the cultural elites. For everyone outside of the small upper class, civil liberties were greatly curtailed. When Díaz rigged the 1910 elections and sent his opponent, Francisco Madero, to prison, the mounting tension between the elites and the agrarian workers reached a breaking point, and the Mexican Revolution began. In what would turn out to be a decade long battle between conservatives and two factional revolutionary groups, liberal forces finally emerged victorious (Francis).

Continue reading: History of Literacy and Libraries in Mexico: Public Book Initiatives

Libraries at the Time of Mexico’s War of Independence

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

The next major event of interest to libraries is Mexico’s War of Independence, which took place from 1810-1821, resulting in the separation from Spain and the creation of a new republic (Francis).

Around this time, in line with the spirit of the independence movement, libraries in Mexico continued to become more secular and liberal in character, although they would continue to face many of the same access problems as in the colonial period, even if the official politics had changed. One of the first library developments in independent Mexico was the understanding of the need for public libraries by several local governments.

This resulted in the creation of the first state library in Oaxaca in 1826. This library was more secular and general in nature than any of the libraries in the colonial period, although it still contained around 50% religious books (Peñalosa 117). In this period, the discrepancy between official policy and actual status was becoming even more pronounced.

Although after independence, “public institutions were decreed to be for the entire population,” (Lau 2010a 3625) few institutional changes actually changed the situation for the masses. Libraries may have been officially open to anyone, they continued to serve only elite patrons, as 80 percent of the Mexican population (of ten years of age and older) was illiterate, and thus, the vast majority of the population still lacked access and the institutions continued to serve a very select group (Zamora 1997 228).

Continue reading: The Foundation of Mexico’s National Library: History and Cultural Context

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

The History of Libraries in Mexico: For All or For Some?

Throughout Latin America, libraries have faced significant challenges in their development, including high rates of illiteracy, uneven population distribution and political and social instability (Zamora 1991 45). Mexico is a country which exemplifies these major problems, although it is also the site of several significant events in library history in the region, dating back to the colonial period. The journey of the Mexican library has been a long, gradual shift from a selective, restricted institution serving only an elite group to one that served the general public. From the early years as a colony of Spain, to an independent nation, and finally to the revolution in the early 20th century and the subsequent democratization movements, some important questions guide our understanding of the Mexican libraries. What was their official status? What types materials did they collect? Who was allowed to use them? Who actually used them? What factors impeded their development?

Libraries have been a crucial part of Mexico’s larger, long-term struggle to establish democracy and provide education for the masses, and many of the same themes of subjugation and restricted access hold true across diverse periods of time, even up to the present day, where internet access has overwhelmingly become the key. Although libraries in Mexico have encountered many challenges, with promising initiatives failing to materialize on a number of occasions after independence, they have nevertheless made major strides, especially in recent decades. As this paper is primarily concerned with libraries as they affect the general population in Mexico, the focus will be on public libraries and the National Library.

First, although some European accounts report that the first proper libraries in the region were established by the Spaniards, indigenous Mesoamerican civilizations had long been collecting and storing their recorded histories long before their arrival. The Aztecs, an umbrella term encompassing several ethnic groups who ruled over a large area including Tenochtitlan, present-day Mexico City, had institutions known as amoxcalli which served the basic functions of a library. The amoxcalli housed the various codices and manuscripts of the civilization, which were heavily archival in nature (Lau 2010a 3624). These works, which contained pictographs and hieroglyphics, served to document the culture of the Aztecs, and typically covered history, social customs, economics, religion and even scientific accomplishments. The Maya, a Mesoamerican civilization which occupied Southern parts of present-day Mexico, known for its fully-developed writing system (Coulmas and Ehlich 7), also had similar institutions located in its urban centers. Unfortunately, these early libraries met their definitive end with the arrival of the Europeans. Since these library institutions represented the core of the Mesoamerican cultures, they were a major target for the Spanish missionaries who were under orders to eradicate the lifestyle and convert the populations to Catholicism. The Aztec amoxcalli were systematically destroyed in the conquest lead by Hernán Cortés in 1519, while in the case of the Maya, the process was more gradual, due to its loose association of independent city-states. In both cases, however, few books escaped burning and total destruction, and the rare few codices that did are now housed in European museums, mostly in fragments (Lau 2010a 3625).

In the colonial period that followed, libraries would come to represent Spanish domination over the native Indian and mestizo cultures. After the conquest and destruction of the Mesoamerican archives, Mexico became the site of several notable library and cultural accomplishments from a European perspective. The first “official” library in the new world was the Library of the Cathedral of Mexico, established in 1534. In addition, the first printing press was established in Mexico by Juan Pablos in 1544 and the first book printed in the new world soon followed. The first title printed in Mexico was “(the) Brief and more compendious Christian doctrine. . .” (Breve y más compendiosa doctrina Cristiana…) by Fray Juan de Zumárraga, the first bishop and archbishop of Mexico (Peñalosa 115). The book’s religious subject well sums up the main theme of these earliest colonial libraries.

Keep Reading Part 2: Spanish Libraries in Mexico: Shift from Religious and Private to Secular and Public