120 años de la Biblioteca del Congreso Nacional de Chile: 1-e

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The Library of the National Congress of Chile: Brief historical background.

Five thousand years ago, with the appearance of writing in Mesopotamia, recorded on clay tablets by the Sumerians, information and knowledge took the form of texts that recorded the political, commercial and social commitments people made with each other and their futures. The first public libraries, in Greece and Rome, inherited the cultural heritage of the Library of Alexandria that, centurias before the birth of Christ, was a lighthouse to the ancient world, that, fueled by the wisdom of those who studied and wrote in that library, illuminated the political, economic and religious dynamics of Western cultures.

Texts were formatted on fired brick, at first, then on papyrus scrofls, and later on parchment in the Middle Ages. These were all technological innovations that had significant impact on libraries that were to become crucibles for the organization of written memory and sources of knowledge to underpin social power and community commitments.

Likewise, by the Twelfth Century, millennial cultures, such as that of China, had given their libraries the task of advising imperial power, on the basis of the recorded wisdom of their forebears.

The invention of print in the mid Fifteenth Century constitutes a huge cultural change, in religion, politics, and commerce. The printed word implied a high degree of commitment between individuals and social power, in a creative dynamic that led to the mass production of texts, the emergence of a critical mass of readers, publishers and printers who would eventually create what we know as “public opinion”, opening the way to challenges of established authority. Libraries responded to these transformations, opening themselves to the emergent readership and organizing information and knowledge for the citizens of an age of expansion and the discovery of new worlds.

Europe of the llustration of the Eighteenth Century generated a rationalist and scientific view of the world that accelerated the spread of books and readers, and of libraries as instruments of this new ethos. Libraries were catalysts for new ways to see the world, furthering trust in progress, reason, culture and education as the means to achieve human well-being. Those ideas spread to the Americas, generating the emancipation movements of the Nineteenth Century, the leaders of which looked to Europe and her ideas, assuming them as their own: democracy, liberty, equality, the rule of law, human and civil rights, all ideas that grew out of the French Revolution and found resonance in the educated communities of the Americas, including Chile.

The Nineteenth Century was key in the configuration of the modern state in Chile. The leading elites, defenders of the republican ideals of the llustration, were inspired by books brought from Europe and became founders of libraries that were to gather together and organize information and knowledge about the world and all its manifestations —scientific, literary, political, economic- among the first of which was the National Library of Chile, founded in 1813 and later that of the University of Chile, in 1842, which inherited the legacy of the University of San Felipe of colonial times. Thus, by the end of the century, a particular community of educated men, determined to make a decisive contribution to their new country, in spite of their diverse political views and the complex situation that prevailed in the country, such as wars with neighboring nations, undertook the task of broadening their perspectives with ideas from other Continents, in order to link their new country to modernity, to the cutting edge of culture, committing themselves to, in a word, govern optimally. To this end, a congressional library was needed to address the issues and needs arising from the nation’s development and the respective debate in Congress, to conserve the political memory of the country, and to nurture thought about what Chile should become. That Library is now the Library of the National Congress of Chile.

The Library of the National Congress of Chile: 120 years of history

Qur Institution carne into being as the Library of the House of Representatives in 1882, thanks to the initiative of the Representative from Petorca, Mr. Pedro Montt Montt, who later became President of Chile (1906-1910). The Chamber Gazette of June 12, 1883 indicates that “the present budget includes the amount of 1,500 pesos for the development of the Library of the Chamber”, to be ernployed by Mr. Montt to acquire books in Europe for the Library. The Library of Congress was first mentioned as such in the lst Extraordinary Session of the Senate, on November l4th 1883, which indicates measures to “foster the Líbrary of Congress”

The Library was inítially installed on the second floor of the Congress Building in Santiago. This buílding was the seat of the Legislative Power until 1973, having been built between 1858 and 1876 in the political hub of the Chilean capital. Mr. Pedro Montt, (1849-1910), had received a careful and exacting education frorn renowned teachers, at the Instituto Nacional and his own father, who was also President of the Republic, (1851-1861), Mr. Manuel Montt Torres.

With such a background, Mr. Pedro Montt could do no less. He obtained his law degree in 1870 and was elected as substitute Representative in 1870 and as full Representative in 1879. Mr. Pedro Montt was no foreigner to the world of libraries; in those years his brother Luis, a renowned bibliophile, was the owner of an important library and thus Pedro carne to value the importance of books as bearers of visions for the future. Years later, Mr. Luis Montt would become Director of the National Library.

However, in 1879, Chilean politics would be overshadowed by the Pacific Ocean War, fought between Chile and allied Peru and Bolivia. The bloody confrontation would last until 1884, with the triumph of Chilean arms. So, in 1883, when Representative Pedro Montt was traveling in Europe searching for bibliographic works, the echoes of battles of war in the Peruvian Andes were still being heard.

Pedro Montt was not on a diplomatic visit to France and other European countries. In fact, he was learning about the deficiencies and weaknesses of our own Parliament and discovering sources for legislative action and thought, for positiva law, and all the intellectual, academic, historical and cultural resources available in the libraries of contemporary power centers. He was discovering the identities of those countries, their mernories, and their creative roots for the future, which nurtured and would sustain public figures and legislators, as well as the institutions to which they belonged, rnaking them ever better. Representative Montt, with a keen and innovative spirit, caught the true sense of European modernity; in her libraries knowledge and nf ormation was available to sustain the rigor, growth and security of First World countries.

ln the following year, 1884, with peace attained in the battlefields, part of the books carefully obtained by Mr. Montt in Europe, were alrnost lost when the steamship Cordillera capsized in the Straight of Magellan. Fortunately, both passengers and cargo were rescued without difficulty.

1885 was an important year for the Library of Congress since, besides receiving the books recently purchased, even more books were acquired from the book dealer, Mr. Pedone Lauriel of Paris. Representative Montt also proposed that the budget include a salary for a librarian. Two days later, and again thanks to the initiative of Mr. Montt, the House of Representatives achíeved the exchange of Gazettes with Parliarnents of other countries, thus adding publications frorn Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Spain and the United Kingdorn. On 24 July 1885, the librarian initiated his activities. He was a lawyer, Mr. Manuel Lecaros Reyes, who would become the first de facto Library Director, since at the time the post did not exist. The second Director of the Library of Congress was the Law student, Mr. Arturo Alessandri Palma. Mr. Alessandri was Chief Librarian between 1890 and 1893. A Civil War between the Executive and Legislative Powers occurred in 1891; the President of the Republic José Manuel Balmaceda Fernández (1886-1891), was defeated. During this conflict, Chief Librarian Alessandri sided with the Legislative Power.

Four years later Mr. Alessandri would begin his political career as Representative for Curicó, the agricultural center of Chile; he would become President of Chile, first between 1920 and 1925, and again between 1932—1938. Thus, during the first ten years of the Library of Congress, two men who would later become Presidents of the Republic gave impulse to the creation of the Library, one of them were its second Director, and created its first collections of books and foreign publications.

Mr. Adolfo Labatut Bordes took over as Chief Librarian from Mr. Alessandri, and held that post between 1893 and 1931. On 18 May 1895, Mr. Labatut saw the Library consumed by an enormous fire that destroyed most of the Library’s holdings. With perseverance and unrelenting hard work, Mr. Labatut patiently took up the task of rebuilding the collections. The Library of Congress has a unique story of surviving wars, sunken ships, fires and earthquakes in its 120 years of history.

Mr. Labatut was also the first Chief Librarian to introduce a classification scheme and define the Library’s fundamental mission in his 1921 Annual Report: “It is necessary to bear in mind that this is a Library oriented mainly to legislative studies and, generally, studies in the social sciences”.

Mr. Labatut was succeeded by M. Jorge Ugarte Vial who was born in Buenos Aires, Argentina, on July 27, 1903, his father being a diplomat at the time. He researched his law thesis in the Library of the National Congress on the subject “El Comodato”. At the same time, he acted as advisor to the Committee for the Reformation of Social Laws, which was to create the first Code of Labor Law in Chile, in 1931.

In 1931, the country suffered an important social and financial crisis; then President Carlos Ibáñez del Campo was highly unpopular. These political convulsions, however, did not affect the recently appointed Chief Librarian. Upon taking the post, he noted that the bibliographic materials were not rigorously classified and established a catalogue to correct this situation. This task consumed five years, during which the Library modernized its user services, reducing the time required to retrieve a bock and respond to requests. Mr. Ugarte introduced the Universal Decimal Classification, which covers all fields of knowledge.

In 1937, Mr. Ugarte undertook the creation of several dictionary-catalogues on cards, different from those developed in other libraries, as a way to make retrieval easier and thus facilitating the work of parhiamentarians. Sorne of these catalogues have disappeared while others remain useful even today, having been automated, as follows:

a) Catalogue of Chilean law

b) Catalogue of foreign law

c) Catalogue of the contents of the Annals of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs

d) Catahogue of Parliarnentary Work, referenced to the Gazettes, recording the work of Parliamentarians by date

e) Catalogue of the History of the Law, also referenced to the Gazettes, providing information on each bill’s passage through Congress and the attendant whether it originated out of Parliamentary or Presidential initiative. The first issue was published in three volumes, in 1950, with the title “History and lndex to the Laws”

f) Catalogue of print media articles

g) Catalogue of the sentences of the Courts of Justíce, which is still being published by the Editorial Jurídica de Chile as “General Repertory of Chilean Legislation and Jurisprudence”. For years, this work has been one of the most important sources of information for lawyers in the country.

In 1945 —by initiative of Mr. Ugarte— senator Arturo Alessandri Palma, former Chief Librarian, presented a motion to create the Editorial Jurídica de Chile (Jurídical Publisher of Chile). In 1947, President Gabriel González Videla promulgated Law N° 8.737 that created that publishing house, the Directors’ Board of which would include by right of law, the Chief Librarian of the Library of the National Congress.

Mr. Ugarte was invited to the United States, in 1948, by the US Department of State, at the suggestion of Dr.Lewis Hanke, Director of the Hispanic Foundation, who, upon learning of the catalogues that Mr.Ugarte had created, informed Dr. Luther Evans, Librarian of the US Library of Congress. In the United States, Mr. Ugarte contacted the Department of Legislative Reference, providing information on the methodology employed in the Chilean catalogues.

In view of the work and techniques developed in the Library of the National Congress of Chile, Dr.Luther Evans, proposed that Mr. Jorge Ugarte be named member of the Committee of International Experts for the planning of the Library for the United Nations, as sole representative for Latin America. Mr. Ugarte undertook this work in Lake Success, New York. Upon his retirement, Mr. Ugarte later testified in a letter sent to Congress, that similar cards as those created by him were being used in the US Library of Congress, as shown in a publication titled “Legislative Reference Service”, published in Washington, in 1950.

Upon returning to Chile, he took the initial steps to create the Press Clippings Section, which was established in 1950.

Over time, Mr. Ugarte created a department named Press Indexing, which processed and indexed information published in the main newspapers and, later, periodicals, providing access by name and subject to that information. However, his greatest achievement was the creation of the legislative catalogue, in numerical and chronological order, with cards that recorded modifications, annulments, cross-references, and general ordering of the entire body of national laws and of the relationships among laws. As a model, he used the National Bulletin as well as the Gazettes of the House and the Senate, together with the identification number and subject matter of all laws and decrees.

Another important achievement of Mr. Ugarte was the Repertory of Chilean Legislation and Jurisprudence, which has been reedited several times and covers most Codes and their complementary laws. The first volume was published in 1953, “On the Civil Code”. The compilers for this edition were Messrs. Ugarte, Antonio Vodanovic, Víctor Loewenwarter and Sergio Insunza.

One of Librarían Ugarte’s favorite projects was the Chilean Encyclopedia, which was to describe all aspects of the country: cultural, historical, biographical, scientific and natural resources. This very ambitious project could not be published because of its elevated cost, its preparation requiring the collaboration of distinguished members of the Chilean intellectual community. When the project was terminated after 22 years of work, in 1971, it contained 120 thousand articles and was more than twenty thousand pages long. The archives, maps, photos and papers gathered for this monumental task are in the Library of National Congress of Chile.

Mr. Ugarte retired in 1969, after a long and rewarding career. He died on February 2001, at the age of 97 years. The Rare and Valuable Book room in the oId Congress Building was named in his honour.

In 1969, Senator Salvador Allende Gossens, was President of the Senate and, as such, President of the Library Committee, the other members of which were the Speaker of the House and the Chief Librarían of the Library of the National Congress. In that capacíty, Senator Allende showed interest in promoting greater integration between the Library, the Parliamentarians and the Legislative Process.

To this end, he created a Special Committee for the Restructuring and Reorganization of the Líbrary of the National Congress, with the participation highly renowned professionals in the fleld of Information and Library sciences. At the same time, a highly respected intellectual and architect, Isidro Suárez Fanjul, was appointed Chief Librarian, tasked to implement the recommendations of the Restructuring Committee.

The recommendations of the Committee covered technical issues and a diagnosis of the library’s current capacifies, staff skills vis-a-vis the tasks required of them, the physical layout including furniture, work stations and optimal conditions for user services. The Committee conceived the Library as a Center of Documented Information and recommended the creation of specific Research groups on matters of high priority in the legislative agenda, in order to coordinate library services more directly with parliamentarians.

M. Suarez’ management was innovative, even though he had to work during a period of crisis and democratic instability, and he managed to transform the prevalent institutional culture within the Library of the Nationa! Congress. His academic upbringing and his experience in a subject field far from legislative and judicial matters gave him an overall view that identified the staff and the Library as coworkers involved in the mission of the Legislative Branch, itself conceived as the engine that promotes and gives shape to the norms that sustain the development of the country.

His period as Director was brief, only around five years, but he conceived and implemented important practices and initiatives, strengthened collections, compiled new publications and organized work groups around the central task of serving legislators. He also initiated preliminary studies oriented to automating library processes.

The military coup on September 11, 1973, forced the Library to close its doors. A military contingent searched the Library thoroughly, confiscating books and detaining the Chief Librarian, the Head of Finances, the Head of Press Indexing and several other members of the Library staff. They were held at the Nationa! Stadium, which was used as a prison camp. After much deliberation, sorne were liberated after a few days. During the next year, the military government fired a large number of statf, including the Chief Librarian, Mr. Isidro Suarez Fanjul.

In 1974, Mr. Jorge Iván Hübner, a lawyer, former parliamentarian and professor of Law at the University of Chile, was appointed Director of the Library by the Military Junta. A policy of continuity of services was implemented, given the quality of information and documentation in the Library, and specially those available in the Legislative Reference departrnent, which continued providing information work for the Legislative Commissions of the Junta. The collections continued to grow, including both lawrelated publications and literary works.

In 1982, the Library began the first studies to automate legislative information, which became the Law DataBase. Since 1985, this system would provide important information for the task of lawmaking. At the same time, the Library undertook the creation of its bibliographic database by participating in a National Network built on the OCLC model, with its principal node and management initiative, in the National Library.

The automation of the legal database allowed the Library of the National Congress to include information quality control checks, as well as amendments to legal texts, for on-line services.

The Rare and Valuable Book Section collects famous works from Chilean authors, such as first editions, pamphlets, the first edition of the first Chilean newspaper, La Aurora de Chile, (1812), on the basis of donations from historians, parliamentarians and authors who have enriched the Library and provided resources for specialized researchers on different subjects.

With the return of democracy in 1990, the Library of the National Congress entered into a profound cycle of change to respond to the new situation of the country and the world. By the end of the Twentieth Century, information and communication technologies had become part of the everyday lives of citizens and nations, providing more accessible, widely distributed and userfriendly tools for information management. With the task of restoring democracy in hand, Chilean political and social leaders undertook the long road to construct social consensus, after a period of acute polarization. The modernization of the State became imperative.

The modernization process of the Chilean Congress began in 1990, endorsed by the recently elected congressional authorities: Senator Gabriel Valdes Subercaseux, President of the Senate, and Representative José Antonio Viera-Gallo Quesney, Speaker of the House, with funding provided by the World Bank. They initiated a project that gave priority to the Library of the National Congress, in the belief that a truly independent Congress is such only when it has open and independent access to information and knowledge resources, not limited to those controlled by the Executive, and available to Representatives, for the legislative and oversight tasks of the Congress.

Ms. Ximena Feliu Silva was appointed Chief Librarian and was given the task of transforming the Library. She is a professional librarian from the University of Chile and had previously worked at the Library of the National Congress, accumulating considerable professional and academic history in Chile and other countries. She was the first woman to hold the post of Chief Librarian. She was appointed to that post on 1 June, 1990, and was responsible for major improvements in Library services and structures.

The first priority for modernization was to update the Library’s technological infrastructure and train statf for working within this new technological and political framework. The second concern was to formulate a Strategic Plan to renovate and broaden the technological platform and main databases, and, for the first time, to design indicators and staff performance parameters. New products and services were provided, designed in function of matters under discussion in the House and Senate. A new Congressional General Law included the reorganization of the administrative structure of the Library, favoring staff professionalization and providing for specialists in the areas of computer services development and legislative research. The Library was partially transferred to the city of Valparaíso, where Congress sits.

In 1998, new projects were launched, such as a new control system for finance and administration, the automation of the press clippings service, and the Congressional computer network. These formed part of a technological plattorm which includes the Bibliographic System and the Law-text Access System, providing access to information through the Library Web site, one of the first Internet sites of the Chilean public sector. Among the important services provided are access to Research Department papers, the web-based Legislative Assístant, virtual reference services and the Integrated System for Territorial Information.

By the end of 2000, the Library of the National Congress was recognized as an institution that furthers national governance and promotes information and knowledge management, as a relevant actor in the country’s institutional framework.

In April 2003, chief Librarian Ximena Feliú was succeeded by Ms. Soledad Ferreiro Serrano, who possesses formidable knowledge and work experience in Library and Information environments. She is in the process of designing a quantum leap in the services and products provided to Parliamentarians, on the basis of redesigned client relationships and expanded Library relevance for parliamentary work and activities, promoting change from a task-oriented environment to a client-oriented Library culture.


1. Biografías Chile Color. Editorial Antártica 2. Archivo Fotográfico Museo Histórico Nacional 3. Álbum fotográfico de Chile. Editado por José Duque. Valparaíso. 1929. 4 a 6. Archivo BCN