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63rd IFLA General Conference - Conference Programme and Proceedings - August 31- September 5, 1997

Rescuing XIX Century Latin American Newspapers 1993-1997

Virginia Betancourt
Biblioteca Nacional
Caracas, Venezuela



Newspapers, as a form of national cultural expression, reflect not only the most important events of the day, but also, the political, economic, industrial, literary, religious and moral aspects of a society.

Many initiatives have been undertaken at international level to preserve this patrimonial wealth. One of the most important was the resolution emitted by IFLA´s International Conference on Administration and Preservation of Periodical Publications, held in Washington DC in 1989, which gave long due attention to newspaper preservation as part of the preservation of the cultural inheritance of each country.

Nevertheless, it is UNESCO´s Memory of the World Program which gives a definitive thrust to this world crusade. In 1992, the Association of National Libraries of Iberoamerica (ABINIA) granted priority attention to this mandate, submitting the Project “Memory of Iberoamerica”, to UNESCO, obtaining its approval and a grant of US$ 30,000 for the pilot phase.

This Project follows up on ABINIA´ successful experience in creating the Union Catalogue of XVI to XVIII Century Iberoamerican Antique Printed Works which was subsequently edited in CD-ROM format under the name Novum Regestrum, with 100,000 bibliographic references from 22 National Libraries (NLs).

The pilot phase was carried out in the NLs of Costa Rica, Colombia, Peru and Venezuela. Project coordination fell upon the National Library of Venezuela, and activities were initiated in November 1992.

With the help of the Library System of the University of Puerto Rico at Rio Piedras, an information-gathering form for newspaper inventory was revised and adapted. This form had been successfully applied by U.S. Academic Libraries as part of a Federal Project.

To date, the XIX Century Iberoamerican Newspaper Data Base contains an accumulated total of 8,329 records of titles, provided by the NLs of nineteen countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Cuba, Chile, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Peru, Puerto Rico, Portugal, Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Starting in August 1994, project activities have been financed exclusively by the NLs and ABINIA, as outside funding has not been available.

1.- Historical importance of newspapers in Latin America.

The appearance of the printing press in Latin America radically transformed cultural life. Arriving in Mexico around 1535, it had reached Peru by 1584, and much later, at the beginning of the XIX Century, was smuggled into Venezuela by Francisco de Miranda.

Nevertheless, it was through newspapers, not books, that the doctrines of the Enlightenment became known and that the new ideas that would bring about profound changes to the continent’s young nations were propagated.

It is difficult to imagine the cultural situation of XIX Century societies, where the population was 90% illiterate. Books were accessible only to the elite, a small group of privileged and notable families who held social, political and economic power. Newspapers, on the other hand, were read aloud publicly in plazas and markets, and exerted an extraordinary influence in their communities, parochial though they were, but avid of news and willing to change. In fact, at that time, in Latin America, newspaper production was much more important than book production.

Thus, newspapers had a decisive impact on different aspects of Nineteenth Century life, especially in the political arena. Between 1800 and 1820, just before Independence, the reflected on one hand the ideas and values of the monarchic power established in these overseas colonies, and on the other, they contributed to disseminate libertarian ideals and to spread the seed of emancipation, so deeply desired by a wide sector of colonial society.

Independence from Spain became a reality but this did not in any way signify political peace. Newspapers continued to exert a fundamental role as promoters of the debate between conservatives and liberals, the two contending political groups whose power struggle spread throughout all Latin American, from Mexico to Argentina. The press also reflected the clash between militarists and proponents of civilian government.

The rupture with the old colonial order did not prevent new governments from practicing censure, and the press, determined to uphold its commitment in favor of the oppressed sectors, began to produce newspapers edited in clandestine, itinerant “road printing presses” as a response to governmental persecution.

Latin American newspapers of the XIX Century encompass an incommensurable universe. It is difficult to establish the number of newspapers and other publications - some long-lived, some not - that circulated in the continent. Many of them achieved continuity in time, such as Chile’s Gaceta Ministerial, with is 343 numbers, or Venezuela’s Gaceta de Caracas, founded in 1808 and published until 1822 under different names.

Because of their inestimable value, newspapers undoubtedly constitute an essential and primary material for studying history, literature, customs and daily life in Latin America. It was thanks to the press that at the beginning of the XIX Century, the echoes of Romanticism reached many of our countries. This important cultural and aesthetic movement, born in Europe at the end of the XVII Century, was particularly well received and became deeply rooted in the region, generally, linked to nationalism and the liberal doctrine.

As documentary patrimony contained in a particularly fragile support, newspapers, must be preserved and rescued. Safeguarding these materials is a priority task for those of us who have the responsibility of upholding our national patrimony. It is in this perspective, and in the framework of the Memory of the World Program that the project “Memory of Iberoamerica” finds its raison d´être.

2.- Present Situation

As a result of diagnosis and information gathered through surveys, ABINIA, together with the IFLA/PAC Center for Latin America and the Caribbean which functions in the National Library of Venezuela, detected a series of shortcomings which pointed to the urgent need to develop this projects.

The most important of these were:

  1. Inadequate storage conditions, with serious climatic and infrastructure deficiencies.

  2. Uneven collection development.

  3. Weak bibliographic control which impeded the identification of missing issues.

  4. A significant percentage of collections had not been microfilmed.

  5. In the Region, government agencies responsible for the preservation of cultural patrimony have paid very little attention to archives, printed works on paper and audio-visual materials.

3.- General Objective

To identify, localize, organize, preserve, and disseminate information about collections of XIX Century Iberoamerican newspapers available in NLs of the Region, so as to safeguard this support and guarantee access to the information.

ABINIA adopted the project on Rescuing XIX Century Newspapers in its Madrid Assembly (October 1992) taking into account diagnosis results and the importance of these materials to the academic community as a first-hand historical source.

4.- Project Phases

  1. Organization and processing of material to create an Union Catalogue.

  2. Preservation by microfilming, establishment of adequate storage and adoption of other conservation standards.

  3. Assurance of access and dissemination by way of a CD-ROM containing digitized images and bibliographic records of the material.

  4. Promotion of research and exhibits on the subject.

5.- Project Development

Phase 1: Development of Union Catalogue 1993-1995

1.1. Definition of the following normative guidelines for the Union Catalogue:

Phase 2: Preservation

Phase 3: Digitization and Dissemination

ABINIA has submitted a request to the Andrew Mellon Foundation for financial support for the pilot stage of the third phase of the project: digitizing 1,161 titles of Venezuela XIX Century newspapers and subsequent edition in CD-ROM.

6.- Future Actions

  1. Enhance Union Catalogue with entries from countries such as Spain, Guatemala and Paraguay, which hold important collections.

  2. Promote microfilming activities starting from the Regional workshop

  3. Intensify interlibrary loans and exchange of microfilmed material.

  4. Provide on-line access to digitized data base

  5. Transfer digitization experience to other countries which have completed the previous phases (bibliographic control and microfilming).

  6. Promote exhibits and research.