LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections has called A Library for the Americas“a love letter to the library,” and I could not agree more. This long-overdue publication fondly celebrates the history and vastness of one of the world’s most important libraries dedicated to Latin American materials, the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection housed at the University of Texas at Austin. The volume includes eight scholarly remembrances by professors of history or art history active in US institutions, all demonstrating deep appreciation for a collection that shaped their scholarly lives. Their essays are written in personal tones that provide relevant insights on their individual intellectual journeys. Barbara Mundy, for instance, recalls that during long solo hours spent examining the late sixteenth-century Mapas de las relaciones geográficas for her first book, she never felt actually alone because she was engaged in “a constant conversation with the works and their creators,” thus building living relationships with them (21). This simple admission explains much of her scholarship, characterized by a constant recognition of the makers of artistic artifacts as individuals with agency and palpable existences.
Mauricio Tenorio expresses an equally revealing emotional connection with “the Benson’s open, welcoming book stacks [that] were for long my home, my absolute pleasure” (10). He recalls the smells and textures of old papers discovered during his weekly visits to the library during the decade (1995–2006) he spent at UT Austin as an assistant and associate professor in the department of History. It becomes evident how in such visits he was building a vast internal archive that continues to resurface in his scholarship about Mexico City and Latin American identity formation. Richard Graham also reveals, albeit in a less personal tone, how the library shaped his inquiry process: as both an archive and a library with an outstanding acquisition policy, the Benson taught him how to diversify the secondary sources required to contextualize the primary documents to which he had access.
Beyond these affectionate anecdotes, in my perspective this volume is also valuable for the more than one hundred extraordinary, high-quality color plates that give a strong sense of the variety of the library’s holdings—“the closest thing to heaven,” as Tenorio calls it, for anyone interested in all things Latin America and Latinx. Just to give an idea of its wide scope, the library is steward of hundreds of sixteenth-century books and documents, among them the copy of Thomas Moore’s Utopia that belonged to bishop Juan de Zumárraga and the genealogy of Netzahualcoyotl’s descendants. It is also custodian of the papers of the Mexican statesman, political leader, and historian Lucas Alamán; the personal editorial proofs Julio Cortázar made for Rayuela (Hopscotch, 1963); and plenty of visual documents, ranging from maps and engravings to photographs of the late-1960s student walkouts in Texas.
David Block’s essay makes clear that this is “a collection of collections,” put together by two generations of librarians and archivists with the vision to bring together different times and interests in one single location. In that sense, many of the essays also emphasize how the Benson is more than a repository of physical items; it supports scholars from all over Latin America through research grants, thus encouraging an energetic academic community. I can personally attest to its value as a site for reunion and partnership where ideas can be shared and discussed, both formally through events of all sorts, and informally in the conversations that organically develop among those who visit its collections. Memory becomes a living thing inside its walls. In a time when the screen format seems ubiquitous for accessing all sort of written publications, the social value of such an institution should be celebrated and encouraged in all its complexity.
Importantly, many of the authors do not shy away from addressing the difficult ethical question of how to justify the fact all of these critical Latin American materials are held in a US institution. Eric Van Young is vocal about this issue, stating that although it might look like modern imperialism, it is not. These documents, he argues, are not stored to control only one official perspective of history. Rather, the library’s commitment is to preserve an array of perspectives on many different social processes. Furthermore, both he and Tenorio stress that many of these books and papers came to UT Austin as the result of monetary transactions: they were purchased, not stolen. Such dealings, they argue, assured the materials’ preservation, as in many cases if they had not been acquired by this institution, they might not have survived.
This does not mean that Latin American countries are incapable of preserving their own archives, but that over the past century, collecting priorities have changed; at different historical periods some countries allowed private entities to sell materials deemed not so relevant. To Van Young’s point, it is possible to say that the Benson’s materials represent the histories of entities that exist outside dominant histories about national identity, proving that government agendas do not dictate the only valid perspectives from which to collect, study, and preserve social memory. Additionally, I argue that the fact that these documentary riches are held in a public institution that educates students from across the social and racial spectrums, not by chance located in a state that has its own shared history with Latin America, and particularly with Mexico, certainly adds another important layer of public service. The impressive digitization project initiated in recent years by the Benson is further telling of the institutional response to this delicate issue of cultural heritage and property. Through this initiative, the library has been successfully sharing its holdings with the countries that produced them. Hence, the volume’s title stands out not as pure rhetoric but as a clear statement of how inclusive the library is meant to be: it illuminates historical developments of the entire continent, and is accessible to all interested scholars, regardless of national origin.
The purchase of the Genaro García collection in 1921 was the origin of the Benson’s Latin American collection. Since then, the library has consciously expanded the scope imprinted by the Mexican politician who served both as ministry of the interior and as director of the National Museum of History. Inclusiveness is indeed at the core of the Benson’s mission, as becomes clear in David Montejano’s essay on the acquisition of Mexican American materials. Elaborating on the Latinx presence within the collection, Tatiana Reinoza and Norma E. Cantú share stories of pride upon discovering six hundred Mexican American silkscreens and lithographs, and the personal archive of Chicana scholar and feminist theorist Gloria E. Anzaldúa, respectively. In terms of commitment to social inclusion, it is pivotal to note that the library was named in the 1970s after the female scholar who served as its director from 1942 to 1975. Honoring the career of a woman who was a pioneer in so many respects is, I think, one of the library’s earliest statements.
Julianne Gilland and José Montelongo’s edited volume provides the full history of the Benson Library, making abundantly clear its intellectual consequence and relevance for scholars of all species. Although the title might suggest that the book is mainly targeted to specialized audiences, its eight essays are all pleasant and easy to read. The relatively modest cost, despite its handsome hardcover design and numerous color plates, makes it accessible in a budgetary sense as well.
This celebratory volume will surely play a key role in the long series of academic events in 2021 celebrating the one hundredth anniversary of the library’s foundation. That same year, of course, will be when Latin Americanists of all kinds address the five hundredth anniversary of the siege of Mexico-Tenochtitlán by the Spaniards and their army of Indigenous allies. It is my hope that we can reflect on those events and the epochs that followed with the critical, responsible, inclusive, and candid scholarship that the Benson Library has encouraged since its inception. That would be the ultimate way to show that this institution’s true role lies not only in its past, but in its potential to create a better future.