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

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