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66th IFLA Council and General

Jerusalem, Israel, 13-18 August


Code Number: 045-163-E
Division Number: VIII
Professional Group: Latin America and the Caribbean
Joint Meeting with:
Meeting Number: 163
Simultaneous Interpretation: Yes

Preserving the past for the future

Rosa María Fernández de Zamora
National Library of Mexico
Mexico City, Mexico

Clara Budnik

National Library of Chile
Santiago, Chile


"... and the tomes which for eras had dozed in their tombs, awake and amaze us, and those which were hidden in obscurity are bathed in the rays of an unusual light" (Philobiblon)


Latin America has a rich, varied and extremely valuable bibliographic and documental heritage. It is an expression of a common past where the cultural, political and social identity and diversity of our nations converges. A large part of the experience- both good and bad- and of the collective memory of the inhabitants of the region is found here: the long and painful centuries of domination by Spain and Portugal, the turbulent efforts to establish independent governments in the XIX century and the unrenounceable demand for more justice and a democratic life, which has characterized the XX century.

Latin American libraries are the memory of this collective culture -a culture frequently forgotten and ignored by the western world- and it is their duty to make known this inestimable bibliographic and documental heritage. This should be done not only in the Ibero American community, but also in the globalized world, through projects involving international co-operation and the use of new information technologies. Only as a result of this knowledge and its dissemination will our society succeed in appropriating this valuable heritage, a source of identity of our people and an inspiration in confronting the challenges of a future full of uncertainties.


1. A common past:

Latin America's particular identity is based upon a past of historical and cultural affinities. The incalculable value of its bibliographic and documental heritage precisely rests in its presence as a testimony of this set of shared experiences. Within the plurality and richness of these cultural expressions, a preferential place is occupied by the written word, the book.

Throughout three centuries of colonization, Latin American countries experienced the integration of indigenous and Iberian cultures (and in some cases, a mix with African cultures as well). This mixture resulted in a cultural framework of unique singularity and vitality. Later, the fight for political and cultural independence made Latin Americans to be open to European influences - especially French - and to intellectual trends such as Enlightenment and Positivism. Throughout the current century, our nations have been involved in a process marked by both hope and frustration, many times in situations of intense conflict and tension, stimulated by a desire to create a more just, democratic and free society.

The history of the Latin American book is a good record of this passionate history where the keys and the basis of our identity can be found. And this is not a brief history.

The beginnings of the book in Latin America are found in the pre-Hispanic pictorial productions - the famous codices, which were notably developed in Mexico: beautiful and expressive records of the indigenous cultures and their vision of the world. These codices survived during most part of the Colonization, used by religious authorities as well by the political power. The attractive Mendocino Codice is an example of a codice used as a means of communication with the indigenous population.

The introduction of printing in the New World, and its development and expansion is a fascinating story; not only because printing was quickly consolidated and established in the precarious Latin American urban centres, despite the distances, but also because, in the midst of a continent largely unknown, and after only a brief series of decades, printing wove a collaborative network which produced a significant flow of printed works, many of them notable for their content and appearance.

The first printing press in Latin America was established in New Spain at the request of the first viceroy, Antonio de Mendoza and the first bishop, Fray Juan de Zumarraga. In 1539 the first American book was printed in Mexico city. The work was carried out by Juan Pablos, a representative of the principal printer in Seville, Juan Cromberger. Other printers followed, among them Antonio Ricardo, who printed ten books in Mexico and then moved to Peru in 1580 to establish the printing house of the Ciudad de los Reyes, today Lima. The Jesuits requested this printing house to satisfy the increasing demand for books in the city, especially from the University of San Marcos which already existed.

In the XVII century, a printer from the city of Puebla (Mexico), named José de Pineda Ibarra, founded the printing house in Guatemala in 1660. At the beginning of the XVIII century, in 1705, the Jesuits introduced the first printing press in Paraguay so that they could translate religious works into Guarani, one of the indigenous languages. Almost at the same time, in 1707, printing was established in Habana, Cuba, and in 1720 in Oaxaca, Mexico.

In this way, printing and books accompanied the Spanish through the three centuries of their domination, in all of their colonies, being used as much for evangelizing the natives as for supporting the administration. However, towards the end of the XVIII century and at the beginning of the XIX century, printing and the book began to play a much different role: as a tool of the learned elites and later, as a mean for the citizens masses to distribute their independence messages, an activity that broke out with singular intensity in the first decades of last century.

The book in Brazil has a separate history. When the Portuguese court moved to Brazil before the invasion of the Napoleonic troops, the royal printing house and the royal library, (later the National Library of Brazil) were also transferred to the New World.

In all of these cases, the bibliographic production of these centuries expressed the complexity of the society and the culture that gave it life. Many books reflect the cultural renaissance of the conquest of America by Spain and later the culture of Europe from the XVII and XVIII centuries. The majority of the books were of a religious character, promoted by the church, which on the one hand supported the educational institutions but on the other, rigorously censored the circulation of printed works that spoke against the Catholic organisation of the society. But the Latin American press also encompassed many other forms and disciplines. Among its production are found texts of grammar and vocabularies for indigenous languages, legal texts, medical and botanical books and literary and philosophical texts.

In general, cultural life in Latin America during the Colony was very active, especially in two countries, Mexico and Peru. Both countries had prestigious universities from early on, which required printing services for theses, and literary, musical, scientific and technical works, to meet the needs of the educated elite. (The Book in the Americas, p.3).

In the XVIII century, printing also served to bring information to a less erudite public with the start of the publication of gazettes and magazines, a phenomenon, which grew along with the independence movements in which periodicals played a very important role in supporting both the insurgent groups and the royalists.

During the XIX century, after the success of independence, the inherited culture of the Colony was ignored or rejected, which later had seriuos consequences in terns of the preservation of this cultural heritage, especially the bibliographical and documental patrimony.

Latin American countries, some more than others, have shared or suffered in the same way from the exodus and migration of their printed cultural property. It is enough to think of the numerous collections and other loose works that left the continent, legally or illegally, during the second half of the XIX century and the first decades of the XX century - works which can now be found in both public and private libraries in the United States and Europe. Alfonso Reyes said: "Why tell of the shameful thifts that some of our national collections have suffered? Why tell of the disappearance and loss, of which we are all aware, of works that had been patiently and knowledgeably collected by Genaro García in Mexico or Oliveira de Lima in Brazil?" (Reyes, p. 13).

As an example, the pre-hispanic codices of Mexico are found in European libraries, the few leaves of Manual de adultos, the oldest printed work from America still in existence, is the in National Library of Spain. The two known copies of the first Peruvian printed work : "La pragmática sobre los diez días del año", are found in the National Library of Spain and in the John Carter Brown Library of the University of Providence in the United States. In the Benson Library at the University of Texas in Austin there are more Mexican prints from the XVI century than in the National Library of Mexico. It is equally surprising that the original manuscript for one of the most emblematic texts of the emerging mixed culture of Latin America, the Nueva Crónica y Buen Gobierno by Felipe Guamán Poma de Ayala, was "found" in 1998 in the Royal Library of Copenhagen.

Paradoxically it was also in the second half of the XIX century, when the interest in the colonial bibliographic production of Hispanic America increased, that prestigious scholars throughout the continent dedicated their time and money to the study and rescue of this heritage. In Mexico, the work of Joaquín García Icazabalceta was well known, at the same time as the Chilean, José Toribio Medina was visiting various countries in Latin America and Europe to collect printed works from Latin America. In this way, and thanks to the visionary work of these bibliophiles, it is not surprising that the only complete collection so far identified of El Despertador Americano, first insurgent newspaper of Mexico, is actually kept in Santiago, Chile and not in Guadalajara, the city where it was printed.

In the XIX century printing presses continued to be established in all of the countries of the region and the publication of books, magazines and newspapers grew considerably. Official publications began and modern journalism multiplied the number of informative, political, literary, scientific and miscellaneous publications, many of these with iconography and engravings of high aesthetic value.

In the first half of the XX century, vigorous public and private publishing houses were established, disseminating new books and magazines as well as text books, posters, brochures, fly sheets and books and magazines for children. In some countries, like Mexico, the government editorial production began to have great importance. At the same time, university editorial houses began to appear and the first book fairs were organized. In Argentina and Mexico important editorial houses were established, some of which still exist today. A further increase in editorial production occurred, first in Argentina in the 1950's and later in Mexico in the 1970's, a country that has become the major editorial producer in Latin America, although in real terms, Brazil produces the largest number of printed books in the region.

Besides the increase in printed publications, other means of communicating and passing on knowledge have appeared, especially audio visual materials and films which are of growing importance. In recent years the region has started to incorporate new resources in terms of electronic and digital technology, a process which has been intensified in recent times.


2. A similar Present.

As it can be seen, the bibliographic and documental heritage of Latin America is vast, varied and of great richness. For this reason, the task of preserving and making it know, is enormous. This heritage is made up of manuscripts, books printed in Europe and America, newspapers, magazines, photographs, maps, scores, engravings, brochures, videos, CD's etc. It extends from the pre-hispanic Mexican codices and the first colonial printed works to the digital publications of recent years. This big reservoir of common cultural heritage is found in disperse locations: as much in the national libraries, who received bequests from the colonial libraries, as in the university libraries and the public libraries, big and small, as well as in private libraries, collections of bibliophiles and other unexpected places.

In all of these locations, this heritage is in constant and permanent formation. The writers of today will enrich the memory of the future. Cultural memory has a singular vitality, able to reconstruct and recreate the past in ever different ways, opening up new readings of the past and the present, offering unexpected perspectives and keys to understanding and re-formulating our identity. In the case of Latin America, the amplitude, diversity and richness of its bibliographic heritage makes the task of preserving and disseminating this patrimony one of the major challenges that we must confront without delay.

The balance of the state of our cultural heritage, specifically in the bibliographic and documental sphere, the overall picture is a long way from being satisfactory. In truth, we must begin with the basics: the heritage which is kept by our libraries has still not been recognized and valued in its importance, and neither given the priority required and necessary to preserve such collections, as difference to what is happening, now more than ever, in the developed countries. There is much left to be done. We must recognise that in our countries the preservation of this heritage has not enjoyed the level of importance which is accorded in other latitudes.

For example, the activities related to preservation have increased notably in the developed countries of Europe; consciousness of the importance and value of these patrimonial collections has grown, conservation departments have been established in libraries, training programmes to qualified staff have been implemented and publications about the subject, both printed and electronic, have increased dramatically. In addition, research work on the topic, the adoption of standards, cooperative programmes, and seminars and conferences have been increased in a sustained and intensive manner.(Lyall p.43)

In general, in Latin America, the panorama is much more adverse. Despite the fact that in the last few years promising initiatives have been developed, both nationally and regionally, the majority of our countries have not succeeded in formulating and consolidating national plans for preserving documents. Basically, this is for three reasons: first, the well known lack of resources that affects a great part of the region, secondly, the lack of professionals, knowledge and the experience needed to face the challenges posed by the preservation of bibliographic and documental heritage, and thirdly, the weak and erratic presence of cooperative projects and programmes, not only in each country but also between the region as a whole and other countries that have developed successful policies for the preservation of their bibliographic and documental heritage.

Also contributing to this situation is the fact that the notion of cultural heritage in Latin America was more associated with archaeological sites, architectural monuments and museum collections, than with bibliographic and documental heritage.

Nevertheless, the cultural globalization which marks the end of this century, has encouraged Latin America to acquire a greater consciousness and sensibility with respect to bibliographic heritage.

Working in this area, the Association of National Libraries of Ibero America (ABINIA) has developed a series of projects directed towards saving the documental heritage of the region. These projects include the Catalogue of Heritage Collections of the National Libraries of Ibero America (Novum Registrum), the Digital Library of Latin America, a project to rescue the press of the region, the Collective Catalogue of Microfilms, and the Catalogue of Incunables, among others.

However, despite the importance and significance of this work, the majority of the projects and other initiatives that have taken place in the region have not had the necessary influence to translate themselves into permanent institutional and national policies, as much in the area of preservation and conservation of this heritage, as in the dissemination of the valuable heritage collections which are kept by our libraries.

The scenario is again more complex when one takes into account the changes that are currently taking place in terms of different ways of passing on knowledge, not only in Latin American libraries but also in the rest of the world. As well as the book and traditional prints on paper, libraries now have to confront the problems of preserving electronic publications, already a preferred format for a high percentage of reference works and scientific and technical periodicals which already are in a great number.

In synthesis, at a time of decisive cultural changes, Latin America is facing a huge challenge: to define and consolidate a coherent, consistent and sustainable policy with respect to one of its most valuable assets, its bibliographic and documental heritage.


3. A shared future.

The similarity of the cultural development in Latin America, with its attendant strengths and weaknesses, offers the possibility of devising a common and coherent strategy for preserving, recognising and making known its valuable bibliographic and documental heritage.

This strategy must uphold three basic working premises. First, take advantage of the strengths and experiences gained at both a national and regional level in Latin America in regard to the bibliographic heritage. Secondly, make these strengths and experiences available to others so that they can be extended, developed and made more dynamic by co-operative actions between institutions and countries in the region, as well as between the region and more developed countries. Thirdly, favour the leadership that the national libraries can and must provide in terms of encouraging and promoting cooperative action, within each country as well as regionally and inter-regionally.

Even though we know that in each country the development of library science and electronic mediums follows its own paths in response to cultural habits, and political situation and economic specific conditios, the national bibliographic and documental heritage will best be served if libraries are open to co-operative programmes and projects with other institutions and countries. This will not only optimize professional and technological resources but will also advance the primary task, that of articulating a national and regional policy for their bibliographic heritage.

To a large extent this initiative must be led - although not exclusively and certainly not excluding others - by the national libraries. It is the national libraries that have normally been in a better position to organize cooperative programmes, professional exchanges and projects focussed on new technology for information management. Also, the national libraries have a much better capacity to draw together the necessary people and institutions to establish - in conjunction with the rest of the libraries of the country - national plans and policies for preservation, access and conservation of bibliographic and documental heritage.

The leadership of national libraries in forming cooperative networks of national and regional heritage collections is even more of a priority now that technology offers the possibility of efficiently accessing heritage collections by means of on-line collective catalogues. This technology also facilitate the exchange of cataloguing details and information as well as the use of digital documents.

Starting from the principle that it is impossible to preserve or protect that which is unknown, it is clear that a catalogue or inventory is necessary to register the bibliographic and documental heritage of an institution, a place or a country, thus acting as an indispensable tool in making this heritage known, valued and protected.

However, establishing institutional, local or national catalogues is neither an easy nor an individual task. For this it is necessary to think of co-operation, of bringing together diverse efforts. Cooperation is complex: collaboration with the different institutions that work in this field is not always straightforward. But there are examples of co-operative projects that confirm the will to create these instruments of knowledge and access so that all the participants can benefit.

In this context, national libraries can work to set up data bases which function as:

  • national collective catalogues of bibliographic heritage
  • source of reference for researchers and the society in general
  • component for forming other catalogues
  • standardization of registers in MARC format and the ISBD(A) standard
  • access to digital documents.

New technology has enabled information to be transferred to mediums which are efficient and easy to access and consult allowing bibliographic heritage to stop being elitist and instead be placed at the disposition of all who are interested. This will be a determining factor in ensuring that this bibliographic and documental heritage occupies an important place in the society, operating as a dynamic force in the cultural creation in the Latin America of the present and the future.

With this focus, work on collective national catalogues of bibliographic heritage would lead towards their integration in an Ibero American data base of information about the bibliographic and documental heritage of the region.

Entering into the cooperative and electronic world requires the formation of highly trained personnel in the handling of new technology and specialized materials to do with bibliographic heritage. This training must be ongoing as the technology is ever changing, along with techniques of conservation and restoration.

The book has united us throughout our history. Now, the new electronic products and information technologies will allow us to draw even closer to our valuable heritage, placing the bibliographic and documental patrimony of the region within the information society. Without this technology, the UNESCO project, Memory of the World, would not have been possible. Latin America is keen to fully participate in this project as its memory and past cannot be disassociated from the memory and past of all the human beings inhabiting this planet. For this reason we search for new and more efficient ways of recuperating, preserving and disseminating out bibliographic heritage.

Definitively, what we propose is to confront the challenges that time has presented us with, so that we can re-appropriate that which most belongs to us: our memory, our past and our identity, whose most fragile yet powerful ideas are to be found in the infinity of books and printed works kept in our libraries.

We pointed out at the beginning of this talk that the value and richness of the bibliographic heritage of Latin America is a reflection of the diversity and eminently pluralistic nature of the region. It is represented by a huge number of texts, added to over more than five centuries by men and women in the most varied conditions and positions, recording the creation, knowledge, experiences, dreams, happiness and pains of all the people of Latin America. The time has come to rescue this extensive body of forgotten texts so that they can stop being the frozen property of a certain elite and can at last become the possession of all the inhabitants of the region, without exception, so that each person can continue creating and giving meaning to this continent, that constitutes our home. Only when this happens will we be loyal to our inheritance and to those who have contributed throughout the centuries to the creation of such an invaluable heritage. As has been expressed in the beautiful and lucid phrases of Pablo Neruda:

    " Cada uno de mis versos quiso instalarse como un objeto palpable, cada uno de mis poemas pretendió ser un instrumento útil de trabajo, cada uno de mis cantos aspiró a servir en el espacio como signo de reunión donde se cruzaron los caminos, o como fragmento de piedra o de madero en que alguien, otros, los que vendrán, pudieran depositar los nuevos signos". "Each one of my lines wanted to install itself as a palpable object, each one of my poems purported to be a useful work tool, each one of my cantos tried to work in space as a meeting point where roads crossed, or as a fragment of rock or wood on which someone, others, those yet to come, would be able to leave new marks".


Works Consulted:

  • La Biblioteca Nacional miembro de la Asociación de Bibliotecas Nacionales de Iberoamérica (ABINIA) http://www.bne.es/esp/abinia.htm

  • The Book in the Americas, Catalogue of an Exhibition by J.G. Johnson. Providence: J. Carter Brown Library, 1988, p. 117.

  • Conway, P., Preservation in the Digital World, Washington: The Commission on Preservation and Access, 1996, p.24.

  • Eden, P. et al., Developing Methods for Assessing Preservation Needs in Libraries. Library Management V. 20, no. 1, 1999 p. 27-34

  • Fernández, I., La sociedad de la información en América Latina y el Caribe. Estrategia regional 2000-2001. Talk presented at the International Meeting of CUIB. México, 1999 (in the press)

  • Fernández de Zamora, R.M.. El acceso al patrimonio bibliográfico de México, La información en el inicio de la era electrónica. México: UNAM.CUIB, 1998 p.182-225

  • Hoch, Ph. La conservation du patrimoine écrit, un défi permanent. BBF v.44, no. 4 p. 92-94

  • Lyall, J. National Preservation Programmes: Such Stuff Are Made of. IFLA Journal v. 24, no. 1, 1998 p. 42-48

  • Masse, I. Le coûts de la conservation et la valorisation du patrimoine. BBF v.44 no. 5 p. 88-89

  • México un libro abierto. Memoria. Feria Internacional del Libro de Frankfurt. Dirección general Eugenia Meyer. México:CNCA, 1992 p. 211

  • Reyes, A. Imágenes del libro. Bajo el signo del libro. México: 1946. p 11-14

  • Patrimoine écrit. Patrimoine vivant. Régles élèmentaires pour la conservation et valorisation des documents patrimoniaux. Paris: Fédération francaise de cooperation entre bibliothèques, 1998.p. 48

  • Smethurst, M. The Consortium of European Research Libraries (CERL) Alexandria v. 11, no. 3, 1999 p. 149-160

  • Testimonios. Cinco siglos del libro en América. Caracas- Madrid 1992. Madrid:Sociedad Estatal Quinto Centenario.


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