2020 JCB Medal Acceptance Speech

a photo of Maria Isabel Grañén Porrúa

Dr. Granen's speech is reproduced here as just the text, but a PDF of the beautiful book she printed is also available below.

The John Carter Brown Library: An Inspiration

In my imagination, the JCB was a Mount Olympus, a dwelling place for the most wonderous book treasures in the Americas. In 1992 I applied for a research grant for my thesis on 16th-century Mexican engravings and the application was accepted. I ready to face a dream that was already a reality. Upon entering the library, I felt an illumination force, as if the spirit of the gods descended on the green lamps on the consultation tables. I breathed in the dust of the books and smelled the ink and paper, that addictive aroma that book lovers often recognize. I gently touched, caressed even, the pages of the first books printed in the Americas. They were my first companions in the strangely named city of Providence.

I received friendly treatment from the director, I got to know the library personnel, as well as the organization processes of the collections. As the days went by, I understood that the library was not a temple on Olympus, it was a living paradise: I was able to see how they put on exhibitions, received researchers, organized book presentations, conferences, and even concerts. I was surprised by the number of grants they awarded to promote research and how there was a council with generous members who gave donations to maintain the library and increase its funding. My stay was preparing me for a mission that destiny had prepared for me.

After two fruitful months I returned to Mexico, and was invited by maestro Francisco Toledo to organize an exhibition of rare books of the Benito Juárez Autonomous University of Oaxaca. When I arrived, I found myself before one of the most important libraries in Mexico that had been in completely abandoned. More than twenty five thousand titles in a dismal disorder, I began to opened the books and to my surprise, there were incunabula, first prints from Mexico and Guatemala, books from the most important workshops in Europe, a manuscript by Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas, works by Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, wonderful engravings, maps by Abraham Ortelio, and many other treasures that my eyes couldn’t believe. I worked on the exhibition and, in the opening, the rector of the university asked me to organize the collection. That was crazy, I had studied art history, I was not a librarian or a Latinist. But it didn’t matter, I wanted to save a library for Mexico and make it a living paradise, like the JCB.

Thanks to the generosity of many people, we work on two fronts: both cataloging and restoring the books. At the same time, I defended my doctoral dissertation in Seville and the JCB awarded me a second scholarship in 1994. I returned to Providence, and I was the first to arrive at the JCB early in the morning. I admired the gardens, its trees, the wooden houses and some squirrels that walked like me on the university campus. Soon, I began to have friends, I met other scholarship holders, college students, and professors. I was happy there, but my heart was thinking about the old books in Oaxaca. In the journal I kept at the time, I found these words:

“I dream that the Oaxaca library works with the same efficiency as the libraries here in Brown. Everyone is amazed at my new task, they say that I have discovered a library, but I believe that I have discovered myself through it”.

Upon my return, we finished the project to catalog the Oaxacan library, now called Biblioteca fray Francisco de Burgoa and, with the support of several people and institutions, we move it to the monastery of Santo Domingo, the most emblematic monument of the city. It should be said that we install a restoration workshop, an exhibition hall, and the researchers’ room is transformed into a space for conferences, congresses, and concerts, and every year we receive thousands of visitors.

This was the beginning of a long story, the first stone of a professional life, founded on an immense love for memory, heritage and, especially, for my community. Together with Alfredo Harp Helú, the sun shone brightly and, with Stella González Cicero, we created the civil association Apoyo al Desarrollo de Archivos y Bibliotecas de México (ADABI).

In 20 years, with a team of professionals, we have recover more than six hundred and sixty archives, 83 photographic collections and have inventoried 58 old libraries with approximately two hundred thousand books, as well as produced eight hundred publications on historical sources. From the most important public and private collections in Mexico to remote municipalities, ADABI works to save the memory of Mexico. It was for this reason that UNESCO awarded us in Korea the Jikji Prize, the most important recognition for the memory of the world.

I never forgot the J.C.B. I always kept in touch with its directors and we have planed to make some projects together, because Mesoamerican culture is still alive, we proposed to find ways for speakers of indigenous languages to have greater access to the collections. The JCB council traveled to Oaxaca and we lived some memorable days enjoying some projects of the Alfredo Harp Helú Foundation, which I preside. These include hundreds of educational, sports, cultural and environmental protection projects.

Today the JCB inaugurates a new entrance for the community, but I know that its doors have always been open, the library shares not only its collections with us, but its knowledge and values. I am pleased that its accessibility is expanding even more, just as the contacts between our countries are also increasingly opening up. May we get to know one another better and learn together. I am convinced that this the way to the future we want –we need– to build.

I am grateful to the JCB for providing me with so many opportunities that enrich my vision of the world, and today I am particularly grateful to the Board of Governors who voted to recognize me with the 2020 JCB medal, a distinction that fills me with pride. It inspires me to think that a trivial incident can be a shining moment capable of deeply illuminating the vision of life. And has been precisely the meaning of my passage through the doors of the JCB.

María Isabel Grañén Porrúa

May 19, 2023

View the book of Dr. Grañén's speech