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About the Hispanic, Portuguese, and Caribbean Collections

A Brief Introduction by John R. Hébert

Jump to: Introduction | General Overview | A Brief Researcher's Guide


The Library of Congress is an extraordinary resource for substantive primary research in virtually any field or area of Hispanic and Portuguese studies (commonly referred to as Luso-Hispanic studies after the Latin names for both entities of the Iberian Peninsula, i.e., Portugal was Lusitania and Spain was Hispania), encompassing Latin America, the Caribbean, Hispanics and Portuguese in the United States, the Iberian Peninsula, and other places where Iberian culture dominated and has survived. Within its total Hispanic and Portuguese collections of ten million items are an estimated one million related books and periodicals on Latin America alone and an equal number for the Iberian Peninsula and the rest of the Luso-Hispanic world. For books, maps, and for retrospective holdings of government serials (national and provincial), newspapers, and other periodicals, these are the most extensive collections in the world. So voluminous and diverse are the Library's Luso-Hispanic holdings that it is practically impossible to itemize or categorize adequately significant topical or geographic strengths. Suffice it to say that visiting Iberian and Latin American scholars consistently report the discovery of materials in the Library of Congress that are not available in their home countries.

The Library of Congress's collections reflect admirably on the early wishes of the Congress of the United States to remain informed about the cultures, places, things, and societies outside of the territory of the United States that affect our society, either through direct contact or from afar. At its inception in 1800 the Library of Congress reflected a world view in its collecting patterns, even before the acquisition of Thomas Jefferson's personal library in 1815, following the destruction of the Library by invading British forces. Over these past two hundred years the Library of Congress's Hispanic and Portuguese collections have become unparalleled in their content, breadth, and scope.

These Hispanic and Portuguese collections describe broadly and deeply Native American cultures; the cultures of the independent states of Latin America and the Caribbean; the colonial histories of Spain, Portugal, France, and England in what is now the Caribbean, the United States, and Latin America; a myriad body of material on the literature, art, law, and politics of the Iberian Peninsula; and a treasure trove of rare books, manuscripts, and maps about Spanish and Portuguese exploration, discovery, and expansion globally, from Lucena's 1488 work on Portuguese exploration and Christopher Columbus's own 1502 manuscript book of privileges, to contemporary manuscript accounts of Pedro Alvares Cabral's voyage to Brazil and India in 1500.

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General Overview

The Hispanic and Portuguese collections encompass research materials related to the societies (histories, cultures, languages) of the Iberian peninsula, Latin America and the Caribbean, and those areas where Spain and Portugal ruled--Angola and Mozambique, Damão, Goa, Diu, Philippines, Macao, and parts of the United States that were once Spanish territory.

Separate, considerable collections of manuscripts, pamphlets, journals, newspapers, or books can serve independently as sources of study of many subjects. However, it is in the integration of such materials and media for research that real advancement of knowledge is possible. That is the true strength of the Luso-Hispanic collections and even superlatives are insufficient to describe them.

While it is universally accepted that the basis of the collection was the genius of Thomas Jefferson, the Library of Congress's foundation predates the Jefferson Library purchase. And yet, Jefferson did possess extraordinarily significant publications both on the contemporary and the historical Luso-Hispanic world. He possessed a copy of Cruz Cano y Olmedilla's famous 1775 map of South America, which he had printed in facsimile in 1799 in London because the original was not available through Spanish sources. The practically two hundred-year-old collections are especially important for understanding the Americas, the Iberian Peninsula, and other regions of the world in which there exists long-term Hispanic and Portuguese influence. The first American imprints, from Mexico and from Peru, appear. Reproductions of codices of the pre-European American societies are found. The early cartographic renderings of America from Canada to Tierra del Fuego and early geographic knowledge for Iberia and its advances in the Eastern Hemisphere emerge. The presence of Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures in Iberia, the development of glossaries and dictionaries, and advances in the history of science in Europe through Iberian sources are contained in this remarkable body of cultural output.

The collections are not restricted by chronology. In the holdings, original manuscripts or codices on America prepared after 1492 appear. Precious reproductions of pre-European written documents--codices--by indigenous peoples are collected extensively, and original pre-European musical instruments from Mayan and Andean sources are found in the Music Division. Similarly, the collection of original materials from Iberia, both printed and manuscript, date from the fourteenth and the fifteenth centuries. That historical record of the vast stages of human development in the Iberian Peninsula and in Latin America, prepared since the mid-fifteenth century, is extraordinarily rich.

The Library's collections, unlike those of an archive or a museum, include recent research contributions, thereby providing a complementary body of research materials for serious study. This extraordinary body of material has been supplemented by benefactions that have further strengthened it, in many cases providing the original printed or manuscript document that has been the subject of later study, as for example, in materials related to Christopher Columbus, early printing on and in America, exploration in America, or the changing composition of Luso-Hispanic cultures. The Library's collections, especially in relation to America, are significant in providing the materials necessary for analyzing the varied understandings of what came to be called America and continuing broad research interests on a variety of topics related to America.

The Library of Congress contains treasures for the serious researcher as well as extensive holdings of documents that reflect upon the five hundred-year presence of Spanish and Portuguese societies in the Americas and the very rich cultures of indigenous Americans, Africans, Asians, and other European peoples who occupy the region. Equally, the history of Spain and Portugal, with their multiple cultures within the Iberian Peninsula as well as elsewhere in Europe, Africa, and Asia is strongly represented.

The collections include rich holdings in the area of recorded knowledge of the peoples of Hispanic and Portuguese origin in the United States, from the initial Spanish presence in what is now the United States to continuing incidents of arrival. Our collections, because of their early establishment, mirror the changes occurring in Luso-Hispanic America during the entire national period, with full records of governmental publications, gazettes, and newspapers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that allow considerable in-depth research.

Thomas Jefferson, whose private collection served as one of the cornerstones of the Library, felt a special concern for books on the Americas. He believed in the basic unity of the Western Hemisphere and understood the need for a special relationship among the American republics. As early as 1809 he wrote that "Mexico is one of the most interesting countries of our hemisphere, and merits our attention." And in 1820 he declared further that "I should rejoice to see the fleets of Brazil and the United States riding together as brethren of the same family and pursuing the same object."

The library sold by Jefferson, rich in books about the regions of the world and relating to most branches of knowledge, included almost two hundred volumes about Spanish and Portuguese America, the Caribbean, and the Iberian Peninsula, in Spanish, French, Italian, or Latin, all languages which the former president read with ease. Jefferson possessed an insatiable curiosity about America, and in his attempt to learn as much as possible about the diversity of human societies, as well as the environment of the region, and the conquest of a large portion of it by Spain and Portugal, he had amassed a learned collection of books and maps. He believed that it was important for North Americans to learn Spanish because "our future connection with Spain and Spanish America will render that language a valuable acquisition," and he also stated that one ought to keep in mind that much of the history of the Americas was written in Spanish. Both the collections of the original congressional library, organized to meet the demands of the legislators for law and general literature, and Jefferson's library, which expanded considerably the subject and language scope of the collections, held primarily contemporary, scholarly editions.

After the war between the United States and Mexico (1846-1848) there existed a practical need to acquire information about the latter country. On August 4, 1848, the Joint Committee of Congress on the Library resolved that "the Librarian be authorized to purchase all the constitutions and laws of Mexico, and also to subscribe for a newspaper published in Vera Cruz and for one published in the City of Mexico." The acquisition of the Peter Force collection in the 1860s brought additional historical materials on the Americas to the Library, including nineteenth-century manuscript copies of Fray Diego Durán's 1585 Historia Antigua de la Nueva España, Fray Jerónimo de Alcalá's 1537-1541 Relación de las ceremonias y ritos y población y gobierno de los indios de la provincia de Mechuacán, and Mariano Fernández de Echevarría y Veitia's eighteenth-century Historia del origen de las gentes que poblaron la América septentrional.

The opening of the Library of Congress building in 1897, now the Thomas Jefferson Building, led to a reexamination of the purposes and possibilities of the institution. New departments for Manuscripts, Maps, and Music were created. As part of that reexamination, Librarian of Congress John Russell Young recognized the need for special development of materials related to the nations of the Western Hemisphere:

The interblending of Spanish-American history with that of the United States makes it advisable that we should continue to strengthen ourselves in that department...It would be wise to the development of the manuscript department to note particularly what pertains not only to the United States, but to America in general, Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the West Indies, but more especially the countries to the south--Mexico, Central America and South America....

Knowledge of the Library's growing specialization in the Hispanic and Portuguese field began to attract important gifts. The family of Ephraim George Squier gave to the Library the papers of this pioneer American anthropologist and U.S. diplomat, including over two thousand letters from correspondents principally relating to the indigenous histories of the Americas, especially of Peru, Central America, and Mexico. The Henry Harrisse bequest of 1915 added the correspondence and profusely annotated copies of the many writings of this scholar of Columbus and the early colonial period of the Americas.

In 1926 the Library published a desiderata list of what Librarian of Congress Herbert Putnam termed "bibliographical monumenta, which should indisputably be represented in the National Library of the United States." That list, which includes such rarities as Columbus's 1493 printed account of his first voyage to America, has served as a major collection focus for rare Luso-Hispanic works. Over the years, through gifts and purchases, the Library of Congress has been able to acquire many imprints on the list.

In 1927, Archer M. Huntington, Hispanist, poet, and president of the Hispanic Society of America, established the Huntington Endowment Fund as the first of several important donations. The interest from this gift continues to be devoted annually to the purchase of books related to Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin American arts, crafts, literature, and history published during the past ten years.

Huntington gave the Library a second endowment the following year to facilitate the selection and servicing of those materials and helped create a consultantship in Spanish and Portuguese literature. The first appointee was Juan Riaño y Gayangos, a distinguished Spanish diplomat who had served from 1914 to 1926 as ambassador of his government to the United States.

In the first year of the appointment, the Library received two significant gifts from Edward S. Harkness, who donated a magnificent collection of Spanish manuscripts relating to the early colonial history of Mexico and Peru, and from John D. Rockefeller, Jr., who provided funds for the photocopying of foreign archival manuscripts relating to the history of America, the result being that many manuscripts concerning the sixteenth- to nineteenth-century history of the United States's southeastern and southwestern areas were copied in Mexico, Spain, France, England, Germany, and Austria.

Father David Rubio served as consultant from 1931 to 1943 and, for the period 1939-1943, was curator of the Hispanic and Portuguese collections. Rubio, with the use of the Huntington acquisition funds, helped the collections grow from 15,000 to more than 100,000 monographic volumes, and unprecedented efforts were made to develop further special groups of material. An example of that effort was the work of John Lomax, who enriched the Archive of American Folk Song in the American Folklife Reading Room by collecting Hispanic folk music, including a San Antonio, Texas, version of Las Posadas and the Los Pastores miracle play.

It was while Father Rubio was serving as consultant in Spanish and Portuguese literature that Archer Huntington gave the Library of Congress a monetary grant for the construction of the Hispanic Room and a trust fund for its maintenance. Father Rubio provided a graphic description of how the decision for those commitments was made:

After five years of work and several journeys to Spain and Portugal we now had some one hundred thousand volumes in the Hispanic Section, whereas there were no more than fifteen thousand when I had begun. From Latin America there had not been even a single volume of Rubén Darío. Dr. Putnam [the Librarian of Congress], very pleased with my labor, informed Mr. Huntington of the state and progress of his foundation and invited him to pay a visit. Putnam and I were in the central office awaiting him...After lunch...we walked around Deck A, where the Semitic Division was then located. On seeing it, Huntington asked: "Where is the Hispanic Division?" I replied: "We are waiting for some Mecenas [patron of the arts] to help us found it..." Mr. Huntington said goodby to us and some months later the director of the Library called me to his office and said: "We have here a new gift from Mr. Huntington to create a special room dedicated to Hispanic culture."

The establishment of the Hispanic Foundation in 1939 was a natural outcome of generations of collection development that had begun in 1800. The Hispanic Room, designed by the architect Paul Philippe Cret and completed in 1939, was intended to draw the researcher into the beauty of the Spanish and Portuguese Renaissance reflecting the taste of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Iberia, through its vaulted ceiling, wood paneled alcoves, a dado of Puebla blue tile, and wrought iron balconies. The room was dedicated on October 12, 1939. In his address, Librarian of Congress Archibald MacLeish emphasized the oneness of the Americas and the need for Americans, both north and south, to appreciate their land for its own merits. To those living in the United States he presented the challenge of learning about the other American past, a past that defended human liberty at a time when witches were being hanged in Salem. In his eyes, Latin America shared with the United States the "unforgettable experience of the journey toward the West and the westward hope." He saw, in the Hispanic Room, a place where students of the Americas could follow the great Hispanic tradition that, with its ideas and its poetry, had populated "by far the greater part of these two continents." He closed his remarks by appealing for a universal brotherhood of the human spirit.

There are men in the world today--and many rather than few--who say that the proper study of mankind is not man but a particular kind of man. There are those who teach that the only cultural study proper to a great people is its own culture. There are those also who say that the only real brotherhood is that blood brotherhood for which so many wars have been fought and by which so many deaths are still justified. The dedication of this room and of this collection of books is a demonstration of the fact that these opinions are not valid in the Americas: that in the Americas, peopled by so many sufferings, so many races, the highest brotherhood is still the brotherhood of the human spirit and the true study is the study of the best.

At the time of the Hispanic Room's dedication, it was hoped that the two vestibules could be decorated by a Latin American artist. Cândido Portinari, the outstanding Brazilian muralist, was selected to prepare four large paintings, which he completed between October 1941 and January 12, 1942. In designing the murals, Portinari imposed the restriction that the figures and the objects be so represented as to apply not to one age alone but to the whole succession of periods since the arrival of the Spaniards and Portuguese in America. Through four panels, Discovery of the Land, Entry into the Forest, Teaching of the Indians, and Mining of Gold, the muralist represented Indian, black, and white peoples in America.

It is evident that over the years the Library of Congress has been assembling remarkable Hispanic and Portuguese collections, located throughout the Library; in its Hispanic Division and other area studies divisions, in the special collections, and within the general books collection. These collections have been assembled and continue to be enhanced by timely donations of rare and unique treasures and by consistent acquisition of contemporary items through purchase, exchange, and the efforts of the Library of Congress's overseas offices. An office was established in Rio de Janeiro in 1966 which has had a major impact on the quantity and the quality of our Brasiliana collection.

In the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, there are copies of the earliest books printed in America--the 1544 Mexican imprints, Juan de Zumárraga's Doctrina breve muy provechosa, Juan de Gerson's Tripartito del christianissimo y consolatorio doctor Juan Gerson de doctrina christiana, and Denis le Chartreux's Este es un copedio [sic] breve que tracta.... Two of the earliest books printed in South America, in Lima, form part of the collection: Luís López's 1585 Tercero Cathecismo y exposición de la doctrina Christiana and Antonio Ricardo's 1586 Vocabulario en la lengua general del Peru llamada Quichua. Among Spanish incunabula are a 1491 edition of the Siete Partidas and Fernán de Mexía's book of noble families (1492). The Hebraic Section of the African and Middle Eastern Division has the first book published in Portugal, Moses ben Nahman's Perush ha-Torah (Lisbon, 1489).

One of the unique documents housed in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division is the Trevisan Codex, a highly prized manuscript forming part of the John Boyd Thacher collection and constituting the 1502 report by a Venetian agent in Spain of Spanish explorations in America and Portugal's arrival in Brazil and Calicut (presently Kozhikode in Kerala State, India). A collection of manuscripts and printed books dealing with the exploits of Sir Francis Drake in America and Europe was a gift in 1979 from Hans P. Kraus. Among other valuable items, this collection contains sixteenth-century manuscript descriptions of the coasts of Central America, of the greater part of the Viceroyalty of Peru, of Francisco de Ulloa's 1553 expedition through the Straits of Magellan, and of the exploits of Nunho da Silva who, captured by Drake in 1577, became part of his command and later explored the Pacific coast of South America.

The Manuscript Division possesses outstanding Luso-Hispanic items including Columbus's 1502 manuscript book of privileges on vellum. That Division additionally holds several major groups of Hispanic and Portuguese materials, such as a collection of Portuguese manuscripts, the Hans P. Kraus Collection of Spanish Manuscripts, the Edward Harkness Collection, and the Henry Albert Monday Collection of Mexican colonial materials.

Important groups of materials can be found in the Law Library, the Hispanic Division, the Music Division, the Prints and Photographs Division, the Motion Picture, Broadcasting, and Recorded Sound Division, the Geography and Map Division, the Serial and Government Publications Division, the Microform Reading Room, the African and Middle Eastern Division, the American Folklife Reading Room, and the general collections of the Library of Congress. An outstanding strength of the Library's collections lie in the accumulation of printed materials from and on the areas of the Luso-Hispanic world. For practically two centuries, the Library has obtained complete sets of official gazettes, debates of parliamentary bodies, and all other significant official publications of national agencies, as well as selected provincial or state imprints. As a result, its collections of official documents are among the strongest in the world, as are its holdings of newspapers from Latin America, Spain, and Portugal. Microform copies of more than 4,000 pre-1800 Latin American imprints selected from the bibliographies of José Toribio Medina, Organization of American States's technical reports, and 8,179 nineteenth century Spanish plays are part of a rich body of research materials copied from other archives and collections.

As an integral part of these large and expanding collections, since 1942 the Library, through the Hispanic Division, has developed the Archive of Hispanic Literature on Tape. The Archive today contains the recordings of more than 650 authors reading from their own works; eight of them have been awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature thus far.

Although most published Hispanic and Portuguese materials are located in the general collections and other special collections in the Library, bibliographic activity and reference services are conducted primarily in the Hispanic Division. In addition to special bibliographies and guides, the Hispanic Division prepares the annual, annotated Handbook of Latin American Studies. First published in 1936, the Handbook is universally recognized by scholars as the basic reference and acquisitions tool on Latin America. This long-term cooperative enterprise, which has more than a hundred contributing editors, each a noted specialist, effectively allows the Library's Latin American materials and its specialists to interact with others in the field, for purposes of research, collection development, and advancement of scholarship, and it is used by librarians to gauge the quality of their collections.

The primary function of the Hispanic Division continues to be the development of the Library's Hispanic and Portuguese collections, the facilitation of its use by the Congress of the United States, other federal agencies, and scholars, and the explanation and interpretation of its nature and content through published guides, bibliographies, and studies.

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A Brief Researcher's Guide


The primary function of the Library of Congress is to serve the Congress. In addition, the Library provides service to government agencies, other libraries, scholars, and the general public. All researchers preparing to come to the Library are strongly encouraged to pursue preliminary exploration in public, academic, or special libraries, so that they can make efficient use of their time in the collections of the Library of Congress.

The Library of Congress is a research library whose collections are kept in restricted, closed stacks. The Library's lending is restricted to official borrowers. Under certain conditions, the Library lends materials from its collections to other libraries for the use of their readers.


The Library of Congress does not have separate Hispanic and Portuguese collections. Upon arrival at the Library of Congress, a researcher interested in the Luso-Hispanic world should consult with the reference specialists in the reading room of the Hispanic Division, located in the Hispanic Room on the second floor of the Thomas Jefferson Building (LJ 240). That room contains a specialized reference collections on Hispanic and Portuguese themes.

For materials other than periodicals or books from the general books collection, the researcher must visit one of the Library's specialized reading rooms. Generally these research areas have custody of material based on format rather than their geographic origin. So, graphic prints usually are found in the Prints and Photographs Division and maps are found in the Geography and Map Division. Occasionally, such items may appear elsewhere in the Library's collections. Maps and graphic prints in bound volumes can be found in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. One of the essential tasks of the reference specialists in the Hispanic Division is to provide specialized assistance to a researcher seeking materials in this large and complex library of over one hundred million objects.

Each reading room offers finding aids, bibliographies, and pertinent reference materials as well as access to the Library's main computerized catalog. The Library's Reference Referral Service provides information by telephone (202-707-5522). It directs reference calls or correspondence to the appropriate reading room as necessary. Email inquiries may be directed to the appropriate Ask a Librarian address.

The following is a list of the reading rooms and special collections, in addition to what is offered in the Hispanic Division, that could be of value for the researcher with an interest in the study of the Luso-Hispanic world:

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  June 6, 2006
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