The Primeros Libros Project

By Dolan, Thomas G. | The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, March 12, 2012 | Go to article overview

The Primeros Libros Project


Dolan, Thomas G., The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education


The Study of the First Books Published in Latin America

The Primeros Libros Project, a consortium of U.S. and Latin American libraries, is striving to build and preserve a digital collection of the first books (primeros libros) printed in Latin America. Its overall purpose is to use the digitizing of the books as a major research tool for the global study of these books and the cultures they represent.

Of the 220 distinct works believed to have been produced in Mexico between 1 539 and 1601 (about 100 years before books started being printed in the U.S.), approximately 135 surviving titles are held in institutions around the world. The search has expanded to other countries, including Chile, Peru and Spain. At least 369 surviving^n/weros libros are believed to be in existence. In the course of the project, previously unknown holdings have been revealed in the collections of project participants.

Primeros Libros was initiated in 2010 by a consortium of institutions led by the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of TexasAustin. The original group consisted of six. Now there are about 14, with the number continuing to grow. The newest member is the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, Providence, R.I. The Brown Library brings more than 70 additional exemplars to the collection, the largest of any member institution.

Brown's Ken Ward, Ph.D., the Maury A. Brownsen Curator for Latin American Books, says the majority of the books there were purchased in 1896 from Nicola Leon. "The study of the history of the book, both in terms of the bibliographic study of the physical book itself, as well as the broader context of the role of the book in society, is much more advanced in Europe and the U.S.," Ward says. "There are some good scholars working in the field, and in the past 10 to 15 years there has been a greater interest in Latin American books, but studies still lag behind. This project is really a good first step and impulse for the renewed study of the history of the book in Latin America."

David Block, bibliographer for Latin American studies at the Benson library, says that "Scholars are very interested in seeing a number of copies of a particular book rather than just one." Block explains that by digitizing these works there is much more material for scholarly study, for marginalia, font sizes, typographical variants, ownership marks, and other copyspecific attributes are often critical for interpretation.

Anton duPlessis, MA, curator of the Mexican colonial collection and Los Primeros Libros Project director at another original corsortium member, Gushing Memorial Archives & Library/ Digital Initiatives, Texas A&M University Libraries, College Station, Texas, says that advanced imaging tools are also being developed. For instance, images can now be enlarged so they are very clear, down to the finegrained details of the page. Also, instead of pressing buttons to advance, a slider is used to move easily through the book.

"I know a professor in Puebla who is using these digitized versions to teach Mahua, the language of the Aztecs, rather than microfiche photocopies," duPlessis relates. "He says there's a tremendous jump in quality." Also, continues duPlessis, "What we're trying to promote is what could not be done before, the idea that universities and other research institutions can work together collaboratively on very focused digitized collections to reveal what has been neglected."

In terms of content of these books, duPlessis says, "There's not a whole lot in terms of literature. But there's a wealth in terms of linguistics. And there's much of interest for anthropology, such as the role of marriage ceremonies among Aztecs and what these tribes expected of marriage. There is a lot relating to theology or religious studies. Some of the priests and friars were in disagreement on how to best translate some of the conceptions of Christianity, such as the Trinity. …

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