Bibliotheca Mexicana: Virtue, Condemnation, Possibility

Bibliotheca mexicana: virtud, condena, posibilidad, originally published in La Gaceta del Fondo de cultura económica, No. 499, pp. 10-11

Original publication date: 06/2012

Ernesto Priani Saisó. Tr. EN: Glen Worthey

Abstract: The magnitude of a potential national digital library is such that it must seek a solid foundation — one which might impede the manifestation of that most Mexican of syndromes, the desire always to invent everything anew, from zero.  With a nod to history and a frank commitment to the digital humanities, this article calls for the definition of strategies of cooperation among the many projects that are currently turning books into bits.

In the first half of the XVIII century, Juan José de Eguiara y Eguren, a university professor and wise “new Spaniard,” began drafting a work which he called simply Bibliotheca mexicana.  Its purpose — nothing too modest — was to create “a history of those erudite men born in Boreal America, or elsewhere, who, either by virtue of their domicile or by their studies, have been rooted in this land, and have bequeathed to it some written thing in any language whatsoever.”  In this he was reacting against the affirmations of the dean of Alicante, a certain Manuel Martí, who had denied — like many European intellectuals of the time — the capacity of New World inhabitants to dedicate themselves to scholarship.

Eguiara’s was the first systematic effort to identify, unite, and preserve the memory of the people of New Spain together with their works: a strategy against oblivion and contempt that turned out to be too much for one man alone, and that ended in a truncated effort.  The manuscript, which is still preserved, does not even reach the middle of the alphabet — it stops at the letter J — and of that portion, the only part to see its way to the press (and with hardly more luck in our day) was that covering the references from A to C.

Of course, there were others who followed with this project: Mariano Beristáin, Joaquín García Icazbalceta, Vicente de Paul Andrade, José Toribio Medina.  But they too failed to arrive at completion.  The problem was not only the enormity of their objective, but also their constant returns to the beginning.  Each of one them began the enterprise with a new methodology, new goals, and new personal intentions, which made the history of the Bibliotheca mexicana an inexorable return to the point of departure.

It is difficult not to think of the destiny of these efforts as we discuss the idea of a Mexican Digital Library.  On the one hand, following in the spirit of Eguiara, technology opens the door to the construction of a great library of Mexican authors and their works; but on the other hand, we too are confronted with the task of doing so without repeating history, of imagining a collective work that might be able to reach conclusion.

In this article I will discuss in detail a few considerations that should be entertained in the conceiving of a Mexican Digital Library.  These include settling on solid methodological principles for work and collaboration by which a foundation for the potential library may be built.  Although a few antecedents already exist — including even one that carries the name “Mexican Digital Library” — we are still very far from being able to initiate a conversation in terms similar to those used by Robert Darnton in the text published in this issue of La Gaceta, in which he examines the viability of the United States’ National Digital Library project.  In Mexico we find ourselves at an earlier stage, where we should reflect on questions that are much more general, such as the goal and meaning of the library, the who and the how to undertake it, the spirit and the form of creating it, the methodology and the technology that should serve as its toolset.

To begin, it seems to me that we must make a few things perfectly clear: a National Digital Library is not an individual enterprise, and not even an enterprise of an individual institution.  It is a cultural project that is only conceivable in national terms, and which may come to constitute the epicenter of our cultural efforts of the coming decades.  One imagines that such a project — which is not reducible to a collection just of books, but also of many other cultural products — might require around it the uniting of a large number of institutions both large and small, of both public and private enterprises, belonging to all possible realms of culture and of technology.  And this implicates the development of work based on collaboration, the details of which I would like to explore.

Context and History
Since before the popularization of the Internet in the nineties, the digitization and indexing of all existing books were one of the declared aspirations of cyberculture.  As far back as distant 1971, at a time in which very few people thought that computers might possibly work even to preserve books, Project Gutenberg already had as its goal the use of computers to store, recover, and search the entire contents of a library.

It’s true that, at the beginning, the project was not conceived as a library, and the discussion about which books, and in which editions, should form part of the project was not a very relevant topic.  But the birth, in 1985, of efforts like the Perseus Project, which grew around a very rigorous collection of classics texts, made it evident that the relevance and the value of collections had to be one of the central concerns in the creation of digital libraries.

The discussion changed abruptly in 2004, when Google launched Google Print, which later would be transformed into Google Books.  The entrance of an enormous, private, Internet corporation into the world of digitization completely changed the implications of constructing a digital library.  From the beginning, questions arose as to what could be the interest of the company in undertaking the digitization of millions of books.  The mere possibility that this was a commercial project — as it partially is now — caused many to see it as a threat.

In fact, Google has digitized and made accessible an enormous quantity of books by means of a technology and a system that are proprietary to it.  This constitutes an appropriation of the digital image of millions of books which were, in the beginning, the property of publicly accessible libraries — a fact that has already been the occasion for a variety of claims on the part of both authors and publishers related to the serious problems of ownership and rights that are implicated.  Beyond the problems that this appropriation represents is the question of what, exactly, is Google Books.  We are not talking here about an actual library, since that is not its goal.  Its structure, logic, and architecture at times correspond more with those of a bookstore.  Moreover, there is the problem of the collection itself, and the culture that it represents, since we are talking about its placement in a position of cultural dominance on the Internet, given the importance and visibility that the Google book service has.

For European countries, but especially for France, Google Books represented a cultural threat that demanded to be countered with the construction of a large national digital library. For this reason, the National Library of France, with Gallica, its own digital library, boosted a project called Europeana, an access portal to the European digital libraries that was to serve as a means to create digital collection of European cultural patrimony.  Along these same lines is a project, initiated by UN and the United States Library of Congress, called the World Digital Library, with a model more museographical than bibliographical, which is growing in parallel.

It is in this context of defining rigorous bibliographical and academic requirements, as well as in response to the need to preserve and make available our national patrimony in the face of possible appropriation by private enterprise, that we must discuss the construction of a Mexican National Library.

Advances and Problems
The projects that have begun in Mexico up to this point have been disparate in their quality, rigor, and relevance.  They have developed in an isolated manner, without seeking to bring together the political or strategic decisions that might, at some moment, have converged. There are many examples.  There are government projects, such as the Biblioteca Digital Mexicana [Mexican Digital Library], supported by Conaculta [the National Council for Culture and Arts], the Carso Group, the General National Archives, and INAH [the National Institute of Anthropology and History], which is following the specifications of the World Digital Library; or the Biblioteca Digital del Bicentenario [Digital Library of the Bicentennial], a collection of PDFs created for the centenary of the Revolution.  There are also university projects such as the Biblioteca Digital del Pensamiento Novohispano [Digital Library of Novohispanic Thought], sponsored by the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of UNAM or the Biblioteca Virtual de la Novela Corta [Virtual Library of the Short Novel] sponsored by the Philological Research Institute also of UNAM; likewise the large-scale special collections scanning projects undertaken by the University of Nuevo León, or that of the General Direction of Libraries of UNAM, which is not yet public, or that of the personal libraries of José Luis Martínez undertaken again by Conaculta.

Without going into details, the lack of coordination, the absence of a shared vision and a shared methodology, and above all the lack of an open conversation about how to organize a Mexican Digital Library, have limited the efforts, dispersed the resources, and impeded the confluence of projects for the creation of a unified library.

Against the Curse of Eguiara
A Mexican Digital Library cannot be the result of an individual effort, but only a collaboration among innumerable institutions.  The size of the effort, the necessity that this be undertaken with strict academic rigor, makes it necessary to establish a working methodology that might facilitate the joint work of distinct digitization and research groups, but that also might lay the foundations to make this library not only a bibliographical reference tool, but rather research center for humanities computing in the strictest sense.

What I am proposing here is that creating a Mexican Digital Library cannot but depart from the work of a network of distinct institutions and groups that have already begun, or will soon begin, projects in the digitization of our cultural patrimony.  This implies the creation of a consortium, or of an independent entity formed by participating institutions, whose sole function is to establish policies and work standards orientated toward collaboration.  The central concern is not necessarily so much the unification of these projects, as the possibility of integrating them in terms of their adoption of common policies for aggregation, use of metadata, indexing, etc.  In other words, to make them converge in a common platform, without this implying that they have to renounce their specific purposes for research, documentation, etc.  In some cases, certainly, this will require the abandoning of certain technologies such as PDF, given the difficulties they pose for indexing, as well as the fact of their relying on a platform that is the owned by a company, which in turn compromises the ownership of the digitized objects.  In other cases, this will mean only following a few common work standards that will make integration possible.

It would be expedient, of course, for these standards to be based on open technologies, ones that will not jeopardize the project with policies of software providers or of other enterprises, and as a consequence for them to adhere to a policy of open access, for both the technology and the content, not only because we are speaking of the patrimony of all Mexicans — a topic on which many institutions have so far maintained ambiguous positions, if not one of openly appropriating patrimony — but rather because open technologies and open content permit the free creation of new collections, or of new tools for the use of information contained in the library; and both of these objectives are extremely important to increase the value of the library, and to place it within a global project of digitizing the humanities.

A library of this type ought to be the sum of all the efforts, great and small, of all the digitization groups dispersed across the country.  It will therefore have to be a horizontal, decentralized project whose objectives must be defined by the very dynamics of these groups, and by the common needs of access and information use. Defined by the common task of making the patrimony of Mexico accessible, and enriching knowledge of it, and by the express interest not only of moving objects of our patrimony into the digital realm, but rather of developing knowledge by means of this act.  Only in this way, it seems to me, will we be saved from the curse of Eguiara.

Ernesto Priani Saisó, professor in the Faculty of Philosophy and Letters of UNAM, is a scholar, practitioner, and promoter of the digital humanities.  Between 2003 and 2008 he was in charge of the Revista Digital Universtaria; he also leads the Biblioteca Digital de Pensamiento Novohispano