Thursday, March 25, 2021

Nettie Lee Benson on the Development of Special Collections

Nettie Lee Benson

Library Special Collections are fundamental to preserving historical materials and providing resources for students, professors, and independent scholars.   But how were such collections formed and how do they continue to thrive?  I have encountered no better concise explanation than one given by Nettie Lee Benson (1905-1993), librarian and later director of the Latin American collection at the University of Texas from 1942-1975.  The revelatory essay came to my attention recently after the purchase of an offprint from the University of Texas Library Chronicle of Benson’s “The Making of the Latin American Collection” (1962).
            Her essay pertained to a state institution but is generally applicable to any library special collection.  The thoughtfulness of her answer brings together often compartmentalized ideas and forms them into a wider vista—a deceptively simple task.  Being able to grasp both the big picture and the details within is a decidedly uncommon talent.
            Benson’s outstanding career as a librarian, teacher, and scholar is outlined well in the resources linked below.  Benson natural curiosity combined with her historical bent guided her along an unlikely career path in a field dominated at the time by men.  From her small-town Texas roots she became an acknowledged expert in her field and rose to the directorship of a major library.   
            Benson writes in her essay, “The Making of the Latin American Collection” (1962), “For over forty years the University of Texas has been building various special collections in its library system.  Fittingly, one of these has been a Latin American Collection, today considered by Latin Americanists and scholars throughout the world as one of the three finest.  Recently I was asked who was responsible for building this particular library, and especially if there had been many large donations to it.  My rather thoughtless reply was that there had been a few.  But the question and the reply stayed with me and set me thinking of who have been and continue to be responsible for the distinguished Latin American Collection at the University of Texas.  Are they few in number or are they many?  They are numberless—and, in their individual ways, equally important.
            “The building of a superior collection of books, periodicals, manuscripts, and other research materials is dependent for its success on every person who contributes to it in any way, whether the contribution is made knowingly or unknowingly, and there are many who have contributed unknowingly to the development of this collection.  First among these are the taxpayers of the state of Texas, from the smallest one to the largest.  Too often when an account is written about the development of some institution or library, tribute is paid primarily to the few who are fortunate enough to be directing it at that moment and not to the thousands who are really responsible.  Without the taxpayers, nothing could have been done.  It is their money which supports the University, and it was their money that made possible the purchase of ten or more private libraries which now form a part of the Latin American Collection at the University of Texas. . . Each one [of the private collectors] labored long and lovingly to build a fine collection in his field of interest.  And numberless are the donors who played their part in building each of these outstanding private libraries. . . These people were largely scholars, bibliographers, and publishers; but the copyists who spent hours in the Archive of the Indies in Seville, or in the national archives and other great libraries of Spain, England, France, Mexico, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and other countries carefully transcribing valuable documents, also contributed.
            “Fine collections cannot be easily built without the acquisition of choice private libraries.  Neither can they be developed without the assistance of the bookseller.  Such libraries can form the nucleus around which an excellent collection may be built, but it is impossible to develop an exceptional one solely through the acquisition of private collections.  The bookmen are indispensable contributors to the tasks.  True, that it is their business, as some would say; but even though it is to their advantage to find and sell the material, few bookmen are in the business just for the money they get out of it.  They play a greater role in preserving books and making them available than most people realize.  All great libraries are indebted to tireless and largely unselfish work of the bookmen and their employees. . . It is to them the librarians must go to obtain additional books and sets needed to round out a collection and keep it abreast of the times.  Without great bookmen great libraries would be impossible.
            “Taxpayers, fine private libraries, bookmen—they are all significant contributors to the building of the Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, but not the only ones.  There are those who give books to the collection in large donations. . . others give a few books at a time, or only a single book.  All are equally welcome and contribute to the completeness of the collection.  To thank all such friends would be impossible, for we do not always know from whom the books come.  These donors are legion.  Not a day passes that the collection does not receive gifts. . .     
            “Frequently, visitors to the Collection, especially those from Latin American countries, send us books and other materials upon their return home.  University professors have been generous to us . . . as was the gift of several thousand volumes from the Hispanic Foundation of America and the funds from the General Education Board and the Carnegie Foundation.
            “Just as valuable has been the contribution of knowledge by professors, students, users, and interested visitors.  Many professors have been tireless in checking the collection’s holdings against bibliographies, book review sections of periodicals, and book catalogues so that they might urge the acquisition of needed items.  Students regularly suggest books and periodicals that should be added, as do other users of the collection.  Frequently visitors from foreign countries suggest titles that they find are not in the collection.  The assistance is indispensable to the realization of the objectives of building a superior library. 
            “It was this form of assistance which started the Collection.  Late in 1920, Professor Charles W. Hackett was walking down a street in Mexico City with H. J. Luther Stark, a member of the Board of Regents of the University of Texas, when they saw a copy of the first edition of Bernal Diaz del Castillo’s True History of the Conquest of Mexico in the window of a bookstore.  Dr. Hackett commented that there was a book which should be in the library of the University of Texas.  Mr. Stark purchased the volume, and in the process learned from the book dealer about the library of Genaro Garcia which was for sale.  Through the efforts of these two men combined with those of Dr. E. C. Barker, Dr. H. Y. Benedict, Mr. J. E. Goodwin (University Librarian), President Robert E. Vinson, Miss Mary Blake (the book dealer), the Garcia family, Mr. E. W. Winkler (who put in many hours in Mexico evaluating the material), the members of the Board of Regents, and finally the support of the taxpayers, the Genaro Garcia library was purchased.  It was that acquisition which caused Mr. W. F. Buckley to give his collection of material on the Mexican Revolution and caused Major Littlefield to invest the larger part of his estate in the University library. . .
            “Since 1942 the collection has grown from some forty thousand to over a hundred thousand volumes largely because of its many, many friends.  Who again are these?  The taxpayer, those who built the private libraries and those who helped them to build, the bookseller, the student, the professor, the staff of the collection and of the entire library, the users, the visitors, the donors, either of small or large numbers of books, from every area of Latin America as well as from many places in Europe and the United States, the Board of Regents, the administration of the University of Texas—all these together have made and will continue to make the Latin American Collection.”
            A side note of interest to me as a book hunter was Benson’s challenge in acquiring funding for purchases.  It is not generally known that Benson was able to garner critical support for the Latin American Collection from Texas chancellor Harry Ransom during the boom times in the 1950s-60s when Ransom was building the Humanities Research Center (later the Harry Ransom Center) into one of the world’s great libraries.
            Fortunately, we can let her speak to us directly on the subject via an interview conducted in 1983 by Stanley Ross for The Hispanic American Historical Review.   The full interview is highly recommended.  
            Benson explained, “The Latin American Collection never has had a big budget. It didn't even have a budget when I first became associated with it. One simply had to beg to get a book purchased. At that time funds were distributed to the different departments on the campus, and I had to persuade them to approve purchases. That system was unsatisfactory and, after much insistence, I was finally given a budget of my own in 1942. That year I was budgeted $100.00. That does not sound like a great deal of money, but in those days it was a very useful little sum. At that time you could buy many books out of Latin America for 25 cents a copy. A dollar or two dollars were high prices to pay for books then. Then, too, whenever I found a large set that I felt was very important, I would go to two or three departments and ask each one to contribute a portion of the money to purchase it. I had to get all of those signatures and everything before I could send the purchase order through, but that way I was able to get funding.
            “By 1959 I had managed to get the Latin American budget for purchasing books up to $3,700. We had been trying in various national seminars on Latin American acquisitions to find ways to get better coverage of books out of Latin America. At the meeting in Washington, D.C., in 1959 we discussed that matter at length, but without finding an answer. The head of the acquisition department of the New York Public Library accepted a proposal that I had strongly promoted to turn to a commercial buyer in the United States who would be willing to try to make arrangements with book dealers in Latin America. There were some buyers who were purchasing a few books, but they were not purchasing in a systematic way. After some negotiation, Stechert-Hafner and the New York Public made an agreement whereby Hafner would agree to buy as many copies of every book published in Latin America as various universities indicated they would be interested in later acquiring. When the arrangement was consummated, I learned, much to my surprise, that I was selected to go to Latin America to make all the initial arrangements. At first, when I was asked to undertake the assignment, I declared that I could not leave my position at the University of Texas. But I talked it over with Mr. Moffet, the director of libraries. He said, "Well, it would be worth it to the university for you to do it because you could make purchases for the university." He indicated that I could take the job if I were so inclined. Finally I decided to accept the position; for three years I was in Latin America. Mr. Moffet was not prepared to give me funds to make purchases for our library. Before I left, I went to President Harry Ransom. I told him that the New York Public was going to put in $25,000 a year just for acquisitions and I felt that if they had selected me to do that, then the University of Texas ought to trust me to spend $25,000 for it. He did not give me an immediate reply but promised to think about it. I kept going back to him, and the day before I left, I received a little note, just a scribbled little note. It read: "Buy $25,000 worth of books. H. H. Ransom.”
            “The money [$25,000] was strictly for recent acquisitions, as recent as five years before the purchase. Of course, during my travel I was able to find a number of important collections that were very worthwhile to the university, and Dr. Ransom sometimes, but not always, came through with money for these purchases. This amounted to his putting up money over and above the initial $25,000. Interestingly enough, money creates money, I guess you would say, because though I never had been able to get money from the general libraries-just up to $3,700-after Dr. Ransom gave me $25,000 out of his budget, the next year the library decided to add $25,000 to it. I do not know whether Dr. Ransom had put some pressure on, or what, but he kept on giving me the $25,000 and the library's doubling of that made it possible to buy more than current titles. When Dr. Ransom ceased to be president, the university budget for the Latin American Collection had risen to $100,000 per year. The library maintained that figure and still does. I think that those monies from Dr. Ransom came from the gift funds that he acquired. I do know this: we were able to build a marvelous collection, if I do say so, with much less money than the Ransom Humanities Research Center. If we had had the sums of money the Center has had, it would be incredible the kind of collection we would have-no question about it.”
            Nettie Lee Benson would be pleased that her beloved Latin American Collection named in her honor now contains over 1,000,000 volumes, 19,000 maps, 40,000 periodicals, 100,000 rare books, and 8,000 linear feet of archives and manuscript material.

The LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collection building

Benson Humanities Texas

Benson Biography Handbook of Texas

Benson Interview

Benson Latin American Collection--UT Austin


  1. Kurt, thank you for publishing this. A great woman who with the help of many, as she so clear brings forth, built one hell of a collection for the University and public. A life well lived and a story that needs to be told, and then every few dr adds retold to the next generation.

  2. Ok, my iPad typing autocorrect is way off today- please excuse. A story that needs to be retold every few decades...