In 1920, two representatives of The University of Texas at Austin, attending a presidential inauguration in Mexico City, were transfixed by the sight of the first edition of Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (True History of the Conquest of New Spain, Madrid, 1632). There, in a bookstore window, was the eyewitness account by a Spanish conquistador of the early Spanish adventures in Mexico. That single purchase led to their discovery of the availability of the unique private library of the recently deceased Mexican bibliophile, lawyer, and historian, Genaro García. Within months, UT Austin purchased the García library and its 25,000 volumes of books and periodicals relating to Mexico, the Americas, the West Indies, and Spain as well as manuscripts, photographs and other visual materials, which became the nucleus of the Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection.
The Benson Collection now contains over 800,000 books, periodicals, and pamphlets as well as numerous historical and literary manuscripts, photographs, maps, microforms, broadsides, sound and video recordings, drawings, posters, and electronic media. The Benson Collection serves the students and faculty of UT Austin as well as the national and international research community, which ranks it among the premier institutions of its kind in the world. Researchers from the United States and abroad have been attracted to this remarkable resource for nearly eight decades, coming to consult materials accumulated from all parts of the world, in many languages, dating from the fifteenth century to the present.
The Benson Collection’s rapid rise to prominence is largely due to its first two librarians, Carlos E. Castañeda and Nettie Lee Benson. Dr. Castañeda laid the foundation for a great collection by acquiring important manuscripts and libraries. Following him, Dr. Benson showed great resourcefulness in expanding the breadth and depth of the collection. Upon her retirement in 1975, the Board of Regents named the collection for her.
Peter Mansbendel was hired to carve 3 large baroque cartouches in 1937 representing the Cabeza de Vaca coat-of-arms, Seal of the Francisican order, and the bookplate of Genaro Garcia. These cartouches originally hung in the UT main building (“The Tower”) and were later moved to the building below in the1970’s. The carvings were executed in walnut and are ~32.5″ H and 27″ W.