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DISCOVERY MAGAZINE

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Benson Latin American Collection


The concept of a New World energized the European mind after 1492. Exploration. Discovery. Unknown waters, lands and peoples. Different cultures and languages. Gold and glory. Power and empire. European and African migrations. Philosophical, religious and ethical arguments over the propriety of slavery and forced labor. Catastrophic decline of native populations. Interchange of plants and animals. These and many other subjects were new knowledge that was disseminated to the Old World by the recent invention of the printing press. Overseas empires fed European monarchs and merchants with vast economic wealth never experienced before. And vast amounts of paper were used by lawyers, scribes and notaries to maintain order for the European states. Gone forever were the Middle Ages.

The changes experienced since the Columbian era by more than half of the Western Hemisphere—from the U.S. Southwest and Mexico to the tip of South America and the Caribbean—became the focus of a new special collection at the University of Texas in 1926. Its first librarian, indefatigable historian Carlos E. Castañeda, appealed to government agencies and universities throughout Latin America in 1927 to send materials to a library devoted to their culture and history. And they did.

Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Euphorbia erytrophylla, commonly known as flor de pascua or poinsettia pulcherrima, from Bertoloni, Florula guatimalensis plantas nonnullas in Guatimala sponte nascentes (Bononiae [Bologna]: ex typographaeo Emygdii ab Ulmo, 1840), plate 6.
The University’s initiative in developing a Latin American Collection, however, followed a moment in 1920 when luck and foresight met on a Mexico City street. UT Professor Charles Wilson Hackett and Regent H. J. Lutcher Stark after having witnessed President Álvaro Obregón’s inauguration walked down Madero Street. Soon, they were transfixed by the sight of the first edition of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Madrid, 1632). There, in a bookstore window, was the eyewitness account by a Spanish conquistador of the early Spanish adventures in Mexico. Hackett excitedly remarked, “That is a book that should be in the library of the University of Texas,” to which Mr. Stark responded, “Let’s buy it.”

That single purchase led to their learning of the availability of the unique and exceptionally fine private library that had belonged to Genaro García, Mexican bibliophile, senator and historian. The García library, purchased from his heirs six months later in 1921, subsequently became the nucleus of the Latin American Collection. The García library added to the University library an exquisite collection of 25,000 volumes of books and periodicals relating to Mexico, the Americas, the West Indies and Spain. It contained more than 250,000 pages of original manuscripts made in the course of four centuries of Mexican history, education and law. Its contents bolstered the concept of a research library built on the twin pillars of printed works and original manuscripts.

Other important collections of books and manuscripts for Mexico, Central and South America, and the U.S. Southwest were added in the decades following the García library purchase. Foremost among these were 247 volumes of manuscripts and books acquired in 1937 from the Joaquín García Icazbalceta library. This library brought gems to the University no less brilliant than Colombian emeralds and no less valuable than Brazilian gold. Here was a priceless series of original sixteenth-century relaciones geográficas, reports and maps relating to Mexico and Guatemala, and forty-five of the first books printed in the New World—those published in Mexico between 1543 and 1600—on language, science, history, music and religion.

Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Adapted from Molina’s Parrot from Philip Lutley Sclater and W. H. Hudson, Argentine Ornithology: A Descriptive Catalogue of the Birds of the Argentine Republic (2 vols.; London: R. H. Porter, 1888-89), 2: plate 14.
Under the leadership of Nettie Lee Benson, head librarian from 1942 to 1975 and noted historian of Mexico, the collection expanded to accommodate the increasing number of publications from and about Latin America following World War II. The comprehensiveness and quality of the collection’s growth soon attained worldwide renown. Dr. Benson, a devoted librarian and distinguished historian, showed great resourcefulness in gaining funds from private donors, University administrators and state officials—as well as the remarkably good sense to expand a publication exchange program with Latin American institutions by which duplicate books in the University’s collection are exchanged for publications from Latin America. While no collection can be based entirely on exchanges, the Benson Collection continues to acquire nearly a third of its books by those means. Among many awards and accolades upon Dr. Benson’s retirement, the University’s Board of Regents named the collection in her honor in 1975.
The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection

The Benson Collection contains about 800,000 books, periodicals, and pamphlets; 2,500 linear feet of manuscripts; 93,500 photographs; 19,000 maps; 21,000 microforms; 11,500 broadsides; and 38,000 items in a variety of other media that includes sound recordings, drawings, videotapes and cassettes, slides, transparencies, posters, memorabilia, and electronic media. Additionally, more than 40,000 periodical titles, including about 10,000 currently received titles, are available. The Benson Collection hosts several Web-based exhibits highlighting its holdings. These presently include the sixteenth-century Mexican relaciones geográficas and contemporary conjunto music of the Texas-Mexican border. Researchers worldwide may consult UTNetCAT, the online catalog of UT Austin libraries, for publications and other materials held by the Benson Collection. For more information contact the resource staff or visit the Benson Latin American Collection Web site.

Today, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection is the largest university library collection in the United States of Latin American materials in total number of volumes. A comprehensive collecting policy is in effect, with special emphasis on current information about Mexico, Brazil and the countries of the Río de la Plata. The Mexican American Library Program, established within the Benson Collection in 1974, collects all relevant current and retrospective books, serials, audiovisuals and archival collections related to Mexican Americans and Latinos in the United States.
Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Photograph of Mexican American children in classroom, San Angelo, Texas, 1949, by Russell Lee. From the George I. Sánchez Papers, 1892-1972
As the twenty-first century begins, the Benson Collection is very much alive. The collection adds about 14,000 volumes annually—many of which are donated through the generosity of Latin American governments and institutions, friends, and University faculty, staff and students. The Internet provides the Benson Collection with new opportunities to expand its worldwide presence. Rapidly evolving technology to advance its mission. Full-text news services. Specialized databases originating in Latin American countries. Digital exhibits that combine images and music.
The Benson Collection’s unique combination of materials and human resources affords the students and faculty on UT’s campus rich educational opportunities. It supports research and teaching by one of the largest, most diverse Latin American academic programs in the country, spanning many University departments and including the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies and the Center for Mexican American Studies.
Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Liturgical texts and music books were among the first publications printed in the New World. The Benson Collection houses one of the most extensive collections of sixteenth-century Mexican incunabula including Antiphonarium (Mexico: Petrum Ocharte, 1589). Joaquín García Icazbalceta Collection

The Benson Collection supports faculty members who seek to pursue and promote a better understanding of Latin America—its history, culture, politics and future—in their classrooms and publications. The Benson Collection also supports the research activities of the faculty of the Center for Mexican American Studies, a national leader in teaching, research and publications. These kinds of study and teaching programs facilitate better appreciation of the integral connections between North and South America, which are crucial to the development of lasting bonds of friendship and understanding between members of all the countries and ethnic groups represented in the collection.

The treasures in the Benson Collection attract Latin Americanists from all parts of Texas, the United States, Mexico, Canada, Latin America, Europe, Australia and Japan—indeed, the world. In addition to providing excellent resources for scholarly research, the library is also a place where scholars congregate to share ideas and information. This scholarly exchange makes the collection a vibrant center for the development and dissemination of information about Latin American society, culture and politics. The Benson Collection is thus at the nexus of the global community that is concerned with U.S.-Mexican issues and Central and South American development.

Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
above: Poster, Chicano Mexicano Art Symposium, University of Texas at Austin, 1986. Ricardo Romo Papers
The Benson Collection serves, too, as a resource for factual information about Latin America beyond the campus community. Reference questions are answered in person, by telephone and letters, and increasingly by e-mail communications, which allow the collection’s staff to give help to seasoned researchers, students and patrons wherever they may be. Thus, requests in English, Spanish and Portuguese come in daily from Latin America, Europe, the United States and all parts of Texas. Who is the president of Brazil? Which agency do I write for birth and marriage records in Saltillo? What census records do you have for Chile? Texas legislators or the Governor’s office staff may call for current sources of information about border issues and immigration. And students from area colleges and universities are frequent weekend visitors working on class projects and term papers.

In addition to serving scholars and students, the Benson Collection provides assistance to officials whose research has a direct impact on Latin American communities within and outside the United States. Legislators, lobbyists and other researchers from the state’s and the nation’s capitals make frequent use of the collection’s resources to determine the needs and concerns of Latino populations, which now comprise 31 percent of the Texas population and the country’s largest minority.

Historically, the General Libraries has accepted responsibility for sharing with other libraries the resources of the remarkable Benson Latin American Collection and the technical expertise related to these resources. Benson Collection resources, for example, are represented in LANIC—UT’s Latin American Network Information Center. The General Libraries cooperates with the University of California, Berkeley Libraries and the Stanford University Libraries in the acquisition of materials in Latin American studies, and in specialized circulation and interlibrary loan agreements that benefit the students and faculties of the three institutions. Other General Libraries activities promote a leadership role in shared microform library materials and cataloging efforts, which aid in the efficient control of books, periodicals and all other library materials worldwide.

Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Record of tribute paid in kind and in cash by indigenous communities of the Valley of Mexico. The notations are in native glyphs with Spanish glosses. Libro de tributos, Mexico, 1550? Genaro García Collection
Do you remember the old card catalog? Or when you simply had to use whatever was on the shelf in the library to write a term paper? And you do know how so many old books, magazines and newspapers fall apart when you turn their pages. Thanks to numerous federal grants and state-sponsored programs, familiar ways of doing library work have been automated and converted to electronic format to benefit all patrons.

The Benson Collection’s unequaled resources have been among the first in the country to receive competitively awarded federal grants to acquire, preserve and catalog its holdings. These grants have included eleven U.S. Department of Education grants and six National Endowment for the Humanities grants in the recent past. These grants have been awarded for microfilming unique sources, preserving thousands of books and newspapers originally printed on acidic paper, and creating huge databases that detail the resources of the Benson Collection.

The results of these and other federal grants and state-sponsored initiatives are now widely available through the World Wide Web. Moreover, microfilmed material that resulted from some of these initiatives is now readily available in U.S. research centers and from the Benson Collection through interlibrary loan service or purchase. Other recent grants have allowed the Benson Collection to acquire Mexican research materials in economics and to enrich it in the areas of Latin American finance, environmental studies and government through awards from the Center for the Study of Western Hemispheric Trade.
Pieces from the Benson Latin American Collection
Map of Cempoala, Mexico, 1580. Relaciones geográficas. Joaquín García Icazbalceta Collection
The Latin American Collection was housed within the Main Building when the University library opened there in 1934. The growth and expansion of the University library system necessitated new quarters and in 1971 the Benson Latin American Collection moved to its present home in Sid Richardson Hall. The facilities offer a general reading room with access to electronic databases, reference sources and periodicals, and four floors of book stacks; a rare books and manuscripts reading room; a study carrel area for 200 graduate students and faculty; a microform reading room; administrative offices; and processing areas for archival collections, acquisitions and serials cataloging. The Benson Collection also pursues an active publications program of bibliographies designed to assist its users and to disseminate information about its holdings to the world scholarly community.

The Benson Latin American Collection will celebrate its seventy-fifth anniversary in the academic year 2001-2002. What luck to have had in Mexico City University of Texas representatives who took the initiative to acquire the García library in 1920. What greater foresight could there have been than that by those individuals who in 1926 had the vision to expand the García library into one devoted to all Latin America? The joint efforts by University faculty, librarians and administrators since then have consistently expanded the depth of what is now the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection. Its success in its mission to gather and provide access to the ever-expanding knowledge of and about the New World is a crowning achievement in the University of Texas’ commitment to Latin American studies.

Adán Benavides

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