In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Printing and the Book

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Bibliographies
  • Printed Finding Guides and Catalogues
  • Digitized Finding Guides and Catalogues
  • Printers and the Printing Press
  • Transatlantic Book Trade
  • The Broader Atlantic World
  • Libraries
  • The Lives of Books
  • Censorship and the Inquisition
  • The Emergent Press and Dailies
  • Dissemination of Ideas
  • Education, Humanism, and Missionaries
  • The Culture of Print

Latin American Studies Printing and the Book
Martin Austin Nesvig
  • LAST REVIEWED: 05 May 2017
  • LAST MODIFIED: 28 October 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766581-0047


The development of the print culture and the printing press in Latin America date to the very earliest European expeditions of the 1490s. The pre-Hispanic cultures had no alphabetic script, though the Mayans and the Mexica both had pictographic writing systems, with the Mayan system being considerably more advanced. In any case, with the emergence of Latin America post-1492 came two principal trends, if one may call them that, in terms of the history of the book and the printing press. First, European (primarily Spanish, though also Flemish, Italian, Portuguese, French, and English) sailors, conquistadors, missionaries, travelers, merchants, and functionaries began to bring European books into Latin America as soon as the transatlantic passage was opened and the Spanish crown began to establish colonial rule in the Americas. Second, printing presses were established in Mexico City in 1539 and in Lima in 1585, followed later by presses in cities like Puebla. In many parts of Latin America, such as Caracas, Havana, Buenos Aires, and Santiago de Chile, printing presses were not established until later in the 17th and 18th centuries. The result of this timeline is that the overwhelming majority of output of American imprints came from Mexico and Peru. The scholarship on this topic parallels this trajectory. This bibliography is intended as a starting place to situate the sprawling scholarship into discrete categories, which can be expanded and developed over time. For now this bibliography is limited to Latin America in the Spanish world during the colonial period. Certainly a great deal more could be done in terms of a comprehensive bibliography, even of the secondary literature. Some unpublished bibliographies of secondary literature which take a broader view—including material on early modern Spain—run to close to one thousand entries. For the sake of being suggestive rather than completely comprehensive, this article’s scope is limited for the present to this temporal and geographic reach.

General Overviews

The overviews cited here tend to offer broad discussions of how the history of the book has been handled. In the case of Calvo 2003 the author provides a wide-ranging examination of the various approaches to the history of the book in Spanish America. She shows that these studies have been dominated by analysis of Mexico and Peru because it was in those places where the earliest actual printing presses were developed. Because such a high concentration of Spanish American imprints come from Mexico and Peru, the scholarship as a whole tends to steer toward those regions, since they also offer the greatest density of material. She also shows that in many ways a historiography of the book in Spanish America developed prior to and parallel to a school of analysis, largely based in France and associated, loosely, with the Annales. The earlier Spanish American scholarship was more bibliographic and shied away from the questions about “print culture” that the French school examines. By the end of the 20th century, concerns about examining the physical production of books and which titles came from presses had been synthesized with other concerns about the cultural, economic, and political history of the book. Historians of the book in Spanish America are now examining issues such as the diffusion of ideas, the reception of books, the ways books were read and by whom, the ways that libraries were formed and what they contained, and the ways the print industry operated in a broad transatlanic political economy. Other studies listed in this section offer broad discussions of related topics from a historical, not historiographic, perspective. Some are focused on the long-term contours of the book industry, while others showcase the early emergence of a methodology that relies on using specific bookkeeping records, like bills of lading, to trace the market of the transatlantic book trade, as is the case with Torre Revello 1940. Fernández del Castillo 1914 offers an overview of the emergence of print in Mexico but primarily serves as a collection of transcribed documents dealing with regulation of the print industry in 16th-century Mexico. Good English-language surveys are found in Johnson 1988 and Woodbridge and Thompson 1976, as well as in Spanish by Martínez 1986.

  • Calvo, Hortensia. “The Politics of Print: The Historiography of the Book in Early Spanish America.” Book History 6 (2003): 277–305.

    DOI: 10.1353/bh.2004.0003

    Comprehensive historiographic essay on the history of the book. Traces development of an autochthonous Latin American history of the book, traditionally focused on the “civilizing role” of Spanish thought on the Americas contrasted with criticisms of Spanish imperial rule as stifling free thought. Examines emergence of works dealing with culture of print and transatlantic book trade.

  • Fernández del Castillo, Francisco, ed. Libros y libreros en el siglo XVI. Mexico City: Archivo General de la Nación, 1914.

    Both a general survey of the emergence of printers and books in Mexico and a compilation of archival documents in transcription. Traces the arrival of the printing press in Mexico in 1539 and the emergence of the diocesan and later national inquisitions in Mexico from the 1530s through the 1590s. Documents include the trials of noted printers and the censorship trials of Maturino Gilberti’s books in Purépecha. Has been criticized for some errors in transcription.

  • Johnson, Julie Greer. The Book in the Americas: The Role of Books and Printing in the Development of Culture and Society in Colonial Latin America. Providence, RI: John Carter Brown Library, 1988.

    Richly illustrated overview of the ways the print industry emerged in Latin America, with a focus on the social context of that development, in line with the then-emerging trend toward considering more social concerns along with the previous emphases on bibliographic production.

  • Martínez, José Luis. El libro en Hispanoamérica: Origen y desarrollo. Madrid: Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez, Ediciones Pirámide, 1986.

    Broad survey of the introduction of books in Latin America. Less focus on the bibliographic than studies by García Icazbalceta, Medina, and others. A good Spanish-language introduction to the topic.

  • Torre Revello, José. El libro, la imprenta, y el periodismo en América durante la dominación española. Buenos Aires, Argentina: Talleres s.a. Casa Jacobo Peuser, ltda., 1940.

    One of the first discussions of the printing industry, the transatlantic book trade, and the shipment of books from Spain to the Americas. Also, along with Irving Leonard, Torre Revello is one of the scholars who influenced the field by examining everyday documentation (like bills of lading, sales, and Inquisition documents) to examine the inner workings of the book trade in Atlantic context.

  • Woodbridge, Hensley C., and Lawrence S. Thompson. Printing in Colonial Spanish America. Troy, NY: Whitson, 1976.

    A broad survey of the world of printing. An excellent primer, especially for those looking for an English-language overview in a field dominated by Spanish-language production. Has some tendencies toward a Black Legend interpretation of Spanish history, so should be used with caution.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.