It is, according to UNESCO, the oldest public library in the Americas, tucked away from the street front at a cultural center in the historic heart of this Mexican city. Those who enter the Palafoxiana Library for the first time — seeing the high, vaulted ceiling and gold-framed painting of the Virgin Mary — might think they’ve arrived at a chapel.
Indeed, the library owes its existence to one of Puebla’s early Catholic bishops, Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, who in 1646 donated his private library of 5,000 volumes to a local religious college — with the hope that anyone who knew how to read would have access to them.
In 1773, more than a century after Palafox’s death, the bishop of that era ordered the construction of a majestic library to house the collection. The walls were fitted with two tiers of wooden bookshelves; a third tier was added in the 19th century as donations flowed in from religious leaders and laypeople. There are now more than 45,000 volumes and manuscripts.
The books are organized according to principles of scholastic philosophy which held that the foundation of all knowledge is God and reason is subordinate to faith.
The Biblioteca Palafoxiana owes its name and foundation to Juan de Palafox y Mendoza, bishop of Puebla. He was a lover of books, and is quoted as having said:
He who succeeds without books is in an inconsolable darkness, on a mountain without company, on a path without a crosier, in darkness without a guide.