Libraries in Latin America

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Libraries in Latin America

While its antecedents reach back to antiquity, the modern library emerged in the seventeenth century. Its features include a designed space, a catalog of the collection, and the concept of a repository of learning. But what most distinguishes the modern library from its predecessors is the elevation of service to its principal raison d'etre. The monastic custodians from Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose who poisoned pages to deter their consultation are replaced by librarians whose mission is to minimize the interval between a request for information and its delivery.

As institutions, libraries reflect the values of the cultures they inhabit and the groups that sponsor them. Their histories reveal intellectual movements, trends in scholarship, and, most importantly, the importance of information to a society. Libraries in Latin America generally follow the same trajectory as their counterparts in Anglo-America and Western Europe. However, due to circumstances peculiar to the region and to countries within it, Latin American libraries have developed their own approaches to providing collections and services to their readers.


Private and institutional libraries played an important role in the intellectual life of the colonial period. Wills and other inventories of property record the contents of early private libraries and demonstrate that literate citizens of the Iberian colonies had access to the full range of European science and humanistic thought. The Catholic Church, which monopolized theology and dominated education, constituted the colony's largest literate institution. Libraries built by secular clergy and religious orders served the colonial church and later became the foundational collections for repositories established by Latin American republics in the nineteenth century. One early ecclesiastical library that survived the vicissitudes of revolutionary struggle and republican anticlericalism is the Biblioteca Palafoxiana in Puebla, Mexico, which opened in 1646.

Independence brought the foundation of libraries, throughout Latin America, dedicated to the proposition that an educated citizenry would reject tyranny. Belief in the virtue of libraries inspired many revolutionary leaders to endow them with their prestige and with their personal collections. And prominent Latin American politicians, such as Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Argentina and Mexico's José Vasconcelos, closely associated themselves with libraries, declaring them inseparable from progress. However, enthusiastic foundation did not insure continued prosperity. Many nineteenth-century libraries languished in an environment of war and regime change. An extreme case is the Peruvian National Library which was twice destroyed and rebuilt: when its collection was sacked in 1879 as a result of the nation's defeat by Chile in the War of the Pacific, and after its destruction by fire in 1943.

The current information landscape features a national library in nearly every Latin American country and a myriad of government, public, school, special, and university libraries. These institutions, some 4,000 in one reliable count, provide their users with a highly variable set of resources. Some rules of thumb apply. Most book and periodical collections show little treatment of subjects beyond national frontiers. National libraries are located in capital cities, though Sucre, not La Paz, is home to Bolivia's Biblioteca Nacional. Public libraries are not well developed, although Colombia provides a notable exception. However, recent developments—investments made from domestic and international sources, the onset of functioning library networks, and, most importantly, the advent of digital technologies—offer the prospect of fundamental change.

National libraries, sometimes closely linked to national archives, preserve important parts of their countries' cultural patrimony. Their collections vary in size, from the 150,000 items reported by Ecuador to Brazil's 5,000,000. National libraries hold the largest and richest historical collections of books and periodicals published in their countries, many acquired through deposit laws that require publishers to supply copies of their works to the national library before they can be sold to the public. These repositories also guard some truly distinguished special collections of books and manuscripts. Among the most illustrious are the Chilean Biblioteca Americana José Toribio Medina, of early American imprints; Colombia's Fondo Cuervo, 5,726 volumes specializing in linguistics; Guatemala's Sección del Fondo Antiguo, an aggregation of former monastic and conventual libraries; and Mexico's Sala Mapoteca, whose cartographic materials include some the earliest representations of American geography.

Since the nineteenth century, national libraries have enhanced access to their collections by publishing important edited series. Brazil's monumental Anais da Biblioteca Nacional (1876–) and Argentina's Anales de la biblioteca (1900–1915) are pioneers of a genre emulated by Revista del Archivo Nacional (1972–) from Peru, among others. National libraries have also provided bibliographic leadership in their countries. They compile and publish most of the region's national bibliographies and introduced professional education for librarians in Peru and Argentina.


Although Carnegie libraries were built in the English-speaking Caribbean as early as the 1910s, Latin America's public libraries are largely a development of the post-World War II era. Much of the impetus came from the United States and international organizations that promoted libraries as instruments for democratic change in Latin America. In words reminiscent of the early nineteenth century, UNESCO, the Organization of American States and Pope Paul VI's Vatican extolled libraries' democratizing, liberating, and educating virtues. The high point in this wave of library promotion came in 1968 with the foundation of the Escuela Interamericana de Bibliotecología (Interamerican Library School), with a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation.

Though international support flagged in the 1970s, two countries developed their own programs, each of which linked a system of public libraries with the national library. Cuba made public libraries a component of its highly effective literacy campaign. In the 1960s it developed a program that assembled book collections and provided professional staff training at the Biblioteca Nacional José Martí. In Venezuela, oil revenues and the work of a charismatic and well-connected national librarian resulted in the Red de Bibliotecas Públicas (1974–1994) (Public Library Network), which acquired, processed, and delivered collections of representative works to public libraries throughout the country.

A convergence of events in the past decade has produced renewed attention to libraries in Latin America. Projects long on the drawing board have come to fruition in new buildings for the national libraries of Peru and Bolivia. In both cases, their former homes were refitted to provide public and school library services. Colombia, which boasts what has long been one of Latin America's premier public libraries in Bogotá's Biblioteca Luís Angel Arango, has seen a resurgence of interest in public libraries. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation jumpstarted the enterprise by funding Red Capital de Bibliotecas Públicas (Capital Network of Public Libraries) in Bogotá. Not surprising given the donors' orientation, the libraries emphasize digital rather than paper information. Less predictable is the new libraries' architecture, designed to establish them as community centers in a country with a very difficult political climate. Recently, Medellín's mayor has taken a page from the Gates' notebook, constructing several attention-grabbing library buildings in some of the city's poorest areas.


Twenty-first century libraries have been fundamentally changed by the Internet. And while there is insufficient space to describe more than the broadest contours of the transformation, digital technologies will have the last words of this entry. The greatest noncommercial potential of digital libraries lies in its ubiquitous presentation of information. Several studies of digital libraries published in the 1990s suggest that Latin America and other regions of the developing world have the opportunity to bypass paper collections as they construct their research infrastructure. Where copyright barriers are low, Latin America has made considerable strides to develop this potential. The pioneering work of SciELO, the Scientific Electronic Library Online, the Red de Bibliotecas Virtuales de Ciencias Sociales de America Latina y el Caribe (Latin American and Caribbean Network of Social Science Virtual Libraries), and Hemeroteca Cientifica en Linea (Online Library of Scientific Periodicals) makes thousands of articles freely available to anyone with an Internet connection. Brick-and-mortar libraries in the region have used digital technologies to scan books, newspapers, and other sources of information in their collections, originally printed on paper. And government entities maintain portals that have become the sole sources of many official publications. Brazil is particularly active in distributing government publications in digital form; its Portal Oficial do Governo do Brasil is a model for the genre. Latin Americanists in search of single port of entry to the digital world should first consult the Latin American Network Information Center developed and maintained at the University of Texas.

See alsoEducation: Overview; Literacy; Universities: The Modern Era.


Asociación de Bibliotecas Nacionales de Iberoamérica. Historia de las bibliotecas nacionales de Iberoamérica: Pasado y presente. 2nd ed. Mexico City: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1995.

Krzys, Richard, and Gaston Litton. "Latin American Librarianship." In Encyclopedia of Library and Information Science. Vol. 14, edited by Allen Kent and Harold Lancour. New York: Marcel Dekker, 1975.

Leonard, Irving A. Books of the Brave. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Libraries Online

Archivo y Biblioteca Nacionales de Bolivia, Bolivia:

Biblioteca Nacional del Perú:

Biblioteca Palafoxiana, Puebla, Mexico:

Hemeroteca Cientifica en Linea (Online Library of Scientific Periodicals), Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, Mexico City:

Latin American Network Information Center, University of Texas at Austin:

Portal Oficial do Governo do Brasil:

Red de Bibliotecas Virtuales de Ciencias Sociales de America Latina y el Caribe (Latin American and Caribbean Network of Social Science Virtual Libraries), Buenos Aires:

Red Capital de Bibliotecas Públicas (Capital Network of Public Libraries, BiblioRed), Bogotá:

Scientific Electronic Library Online (SciELO), São Paulo:

                                            David Block