The Story of the Oldest Public Library in The Americas

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Paolo Garcia, Staff Writer

The oldest public library in the Americas is the Palafoxiana Library located in Puebla, Mexico, According to UNESCO. This library is tucked away in the center of the city in a cultural center. But if you enter the Palafoxiana Library for the first time, you may think you entered a church instead. The ceiling is very tall and you can see a gold framed painting of the Virgin Mary, which are very strange for a library. Unsurprisingly, the library was created by one of the first Catholic bishops of Puebla, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who donated his private collection of 5,000 texts in 1646 to a Catholic college. He hoped everyone who was literate could benefit from these texts. In 1773, 127 years after Palafox y Mendoza’s death, the bishop of this time started the construction of an elaborate library to store the collection.

Two tiers of wooden bookshelves were initially added to the walls, and in the 19th century a third tier was added because book donations kept coming from religious leaders and civilians alike. Currently, there are more than 45,000 texts and books in the Palafoxiana Library. Starting on the ground floor, there are over 11,000 bibles, theological documents and religious texts. The first floor is dedicated to the relationship of humans and God, including records of the lives of saints and their religious callings and orders. The second and final floor contains books on mathematics, physics, language, architecture, botany, carpentry and more. In a way, the library is a bridge between religion and science, since both types of texts can be easily found in the Palafoxiana Library.

One of the library’s most valuable treasures are 9 incunabulas, books which were made between 1450-1500 with Gutenberg’s printing technique. Another includes the texts by Vesalius and Galen, who are renowned because of their contributions to medicine. Inside the Palafoxiana Library, none of the texts themselves reveal what you can discover, but on the entrance there are guides who can share its history to anyone who is interested. The materials of the library are usually prioritized for historians and other researchers though.

Palafox y Mendoza’s passion for literature is obvious because of a quote written on a mosaic on the outside of the library: ‘He who finds himself without books finds himself in solitude without consolation.’ But the bishop’s words should be interpreted according to the context of the time. At the time, Mexico was not a country of freedom of thought. Historical records show Palafox worked to affirm the authority and hierarchy of the Spanish Kingdom and the Catholic Church, causing friction with religious groups like the Jesuits who questioned and challenged and the Spanish royal family. Because of this animosity, Palafox was transferred back to Spain in 1653. About 100 years later, the Jesuits were expelled from the Spanish Empire, but many of their texts were added to the Palafoxiana Library when they abandoned Puebla.

The storage of so many books has had a physical toll on the Palafoxiana Library, though. According to the World Monuments Fund, the weight of the stored books on the second floor of the library exposed the bookshelves to damage when earthquakes hit Puebla, Mexico in 1999. The library was forced to close after the earthquakes for 3 years because of this damage. But the World Monuments Fund shortly initiated an extensive restoration project. The bookcases were restructured and cracks in the walls were repaired. The Palafoxiana Library eventually reopened in 2002, and in 2004 it was added to the Memory of the World Register by UNESCO.