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

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  1. […] I’ve been reading about libraries in Mexico.  An excellent series on the blog Career Librarian, “The history of libraries in Mexico: for all or for some?” documents the history of the public library system south of the border, which is more successful […]

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