Scholarly Editing

The Annual of the Association for Documentary Editing

2016, Volume 37


Representing the Long History of Early Modern Printed Objects

The Archaeology of a Book

Consider the digital facsimile. Figure 1 shows the not-uncommon display of a not-uncommon book: one of several dozen surviving copies of a confessional manual printed in Mexico City around 1600, many of which have been made available in facsimile through the Primeros Libros collection of sixteenth-century Mexican imprints.[1] The book is displayed in the web browser as though it were resting open in front of us, though those who work with early books know that its physical original would be gently cradled in velvet or foam if read in the archives. To navigate, the reader can flip to a specific page or move sequentially through the text, as though she were going to read it, page by page, from front matter to index. The web interface for the book—like the web interfaces for a scanned document in Google Books or HathiTrust—does not require that the reader engage with the book the way she would with a print edition. But it does encourage users to understand engagement with the book in the subjunctive, as a metaphor for a more material reading.

The book displayed in Figure 1 is a digital facsimile of the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales (Primera parte).[2] This two-volume trilingual book is highly technical and borrows heavily from other texts; despite the fact that more copies of this book survive than do those of any other printed volume from the period, it is readable today only to a select few. For that small audience, the reader-oriented interface of the Primeros Libros website may be a useful environment for textual consumption. For the rest of us, however, engagement with this printed book (or its digital facsimile) happens outside the text and the reading format accessed online. Whether our interest is production history, historical reading practices, aesthetics, or provenance, we must conduct our research along the margins of interfaces like that of the Primeros Libros website.

Figure 1: Screenshot of a book in the Primeros Libros collection, as viewed in a web browser. (ID: pl_blac_047_98)

More fundamentally, even if reading is our primary goal, the reader-oriented environment of the digital surrogate tends to erase the historicity of the document’s construction and use. It has become a popular truth that old books have a history that extends beyond the text on the page: in the words of Jerome McGann, “documents are far from self-transparent. They are riven with the multiple histories of their own making.”[3] These histories embed themselves along the margins of the books, weave their way into the bindings, are burned into the edges of the page. Bibliographers, whose work depends on the exposition of these minute details, often find the digital surrogate insufficient to the task of bibliographical display. “Put briefly,” David McKitterick writes, “the two-dimensional screen cannot illustrate adequately a three-dimensional object.”[4]

When taken literally, McKitterick’s argument may be true: no digital interface can replicate the feel, the weight, the smell of the printed book. But it depends on the fallacious claim that bibliographical research is best conducted in the environment of the reading room. Material engagement with rare books shapes the affective framework through which we form our imaginative view of the past; this can be represented but not replicated online. In contrast, other aspects of the material book, like the marcas de fuego burned into the edges of books in colonial Mexican libraries, are digitally representable signifiers that point directly to a book’s history of use; if they are not present in most digital facsimiles today, that is not because they can’t be. Indeed, some aspects of a historical book, such as damaged or revised pages, are best observed through the processing power enabled by digital representation.[5] In thinking about the representation of historical books in digital facsimile, then, it is worth being attentive both to how our engagement with historical books is framed, and to which material qualities of the historical book are highlighted or disappear within those structures. In offering a careful analysis of these structures of information, this article seeks to clarify the role of the book historian in paving alternative paths for engaging with digital editions.

The first section of this article focuses on the frameworks that shape our engagement with historical books, considering specifically the volumes in the Primeros Libros collection of books printed in the first century of the Spanish colonization of Mexico (1539–1601). It begins by considering how modern structures for framing the historical book, from catalogue entries to web interfaces and library displays, have a deterministic effect on our relationship with the historical book. It argues specifically that these frameworks depend on two historically determined assumptions about the nature of the early colonial book: its coherence as a standalone unit and its originary status as a static object fixed in time at the moment of its production.

Against these frameworks, in the second section, this article describes the specific material qualities of early colonial Mexican books that disrupt these premises. Colophons, catchwords, title pages, woodcuts, and elisions all bring into question the concept of the historical book as an atomic unit, suggesting that books may have functioned as more materially and textually fluid objects in sixteenth-century Mexico. Material transformations from later in a book’s life—rebinding, trimming, branding, and writing marginal notes—all suggest a long history of interpretive engagement with the historical book, bridging the gap between the moment of production and the present day. Collectively, these material qualities suggest the need for a critical reframing of early modern printed books that highlights more directly the multiple, historically determined ways of knowing that they contain; they also point us toward interface design considerations that will enhance scholarly attempts to engage those layered histories.

To address this need, the final section of this article introduces the “Archaeology of a Book” project, a web resource that describes the history of the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales. “Archaeology of a Book” was designed to offer an alternative mode of engaging with facsimiles in the Primeros Libros collection that would explicitly address the challenges of representing a historical book’s malleability and its dynamic history. Though it is neither a critical nor a documentary edition, the “Archaeology of a Book” project models a critical approach to the digital representation of the social history of texts that has implications for many kinds of digital publication. It shares many of the concerns that Jerome McGann described recently in The New Republic of Letters when he called for a New Philology that extends the social history of the book into the digital domain.[6] The radical de-emphasis of the written word in this project, however, is a point of divergence from McGann’s approach. In its place, the “Archaeology of a Book” project centers the virtual collation and collection made possible through digital facsimile projects in order to model a dynamic exploration of the long history of the book.

Section 1: Frameworks for Seeing Historical Documents

A printed book in sixteenth-century Mexico was a very different object from a book—modern or historical—as we see it today, both because of historically specific European ideas about textuality, and because of the specific cultural context of New Spain. In Europe, as Jeffrey Todd Knight describes, the readers and writers of Renaissance books thought of them less as the unique atomic units we expect today than as what he calls “aggregations of text,” a status that makes itself known through both the intertextuality and the material recomposition of books during this period.[7] In New Spain, this difference is reinforced by the fact that early colonial books existed within a system of textual communication that included indigenous objects of knowledge transfer (including pictographic codices and other objects), scribal networks operated by both Castilian and indigenous writers, and printing operations that produced a variety of document types.[8] The printed book in Mexico was thus neither the first nor the primary means of textual communication: it arrived in Mexico City as a latecomer on the scene, decades after the introduction of alphabetic writing, centuries after the development of pictographic communication, and alongside a broad array of nontextual objects of communication. Furthermore, given that most printed books from this period were produced by mendicant friars as tools in the conversion of indigenous peoples, these objects had a particular rhetorical function that is not easily apparent today.

It is not surprising, then, that early colonial books would fail to fit neatly into the categories and frameworks through which we describe books today. Yet surprise often characterizes the response that bibliographers have toward these historical documents. As the nineteenth-century Mexican bibliographer Joaquín García Icazbalceta remarked, with some consternation, of the Advertencias, “Seis o más ejemplares de las Advertencias he visto, y casi todos presentan diferencias entre si.”[9] Francisco Guerra made a similar—if more dramatic—comment with regard to the Opera medicinalia, in quibus quam plurima extant scitu medico necessaria, a medical text printed in Mexico City in 1570, when he wrote “es un libro que entre los bibliófilos ha sido temido como una plaga.”[10] These responses suggest broader anxieties over the tension between the malleability of the sixteenth-century book and the rigidity of modern bibliographical frameworks. It is because we expect historical books to conform to modern standards that their failure to do so produces such astonishment.

At the same time, by attempting to resituate the historical book in the moment of its production, we run the risk of artificially imposing originary status onto dynamic textual objects. By originary status I refer to the tendency to treat a historical book as an original text and as a point of entry into the moment of its production, rather than as a dynamic and constantly changing textual object. Even as catalogue entries impose twentieth-century categories onto sixteenth-century objects, they also tend to fix historical books in the time and place of their production. Later transformations—like the green and gold binding that Joaquín García Icazbalceta used on two exemplars of the Advertencias—disappear.

This section asks the question, how do bibliographical frameworks impose textual coherence and originary status onto historical books? To answer it, I turn to catalogue entries and digital interfaces for the early colonial book. Digital interfaces like the website for the Primeros Libros collection recreate the structure of a library or special collection in ways that emphasize certain kinds of textual difference (rareness, originality, fragility). At the same time, they depend on catalogue entries and descriptive metadata designed primarily for today’s libraries to organize their collections of modern printed books. As this section will show, inconsistencies in the data represented by this universal structure of information are indicative of historical transitions in the ontology of the book.


At a recent event on sixteenth-century printed books at Biblioteca Lafragua in Puebla, Mexico, attendees lined up to observe one of the treasures from the Lafragua’s collection: an original edition of the Opera medicinalia, in quibus quam plurima extant scitu medico necessaria by Francisco Bravo.[11] Printed in 1570 in Mexico City by Pedro Ocharte, the Opera medicinalia was the first medical text printed in New Spain. Following a panel presentation detailing the history of the book, during the time usually reserved for questions, the audience was invited to observe firsthand one of only three surviving copies of the historical text. In a ritual that one attendee described as akin to a wake or a royal reception, scholars walked in a slow-moving line past the book, opened to a select page and held secure in its glass case. Each visitor was given a moment to observe the book, then moved on.

The event was held immediately following the annual partner meeting of the Primeros Libros de las Américas consortium, of which the Biblioteca Lafragua is a founding member. The consortium is a group of scholars and librarians from across Spain and the Americas dedicated to producing digital facsimiles of every surviving copy of the so-called American incunables—books printed before 1601 in the Americas. Concurrent with the two-day symposium, held at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, a new body of texts was released on the Primeros Libros website, including a digital facsimile of Lafragua’s copy of the Opera medicinalia. Even as the audience traveled to Puebla to commune with the original volume, users anywhere in the world were able for the first time to flip virtually through the pages of the book, zoom in on difficult-to-see images, and examine this book alongside hundreds of other volumes in the Primeros Libros digital collection.

Though it might be easy to see this moment as the ironic juxtaposition of two ways of engaging with a book, I would suggest that these two moments represent the continuation of a single way of thinking about historical documents. In the glass-encased copy of the Opera medicinalia, we see a book that has been stripped almost completely of its value as a textual object (no reading allowed). It signifies, instead, through the aesthetic of its presentation. The glass frame reminds us that the book is valuable because it is rare (one of three surviving copies), original (the first medical text printed in the Americas), and fragile (protected by glass). Though we know that medical knowledge was recorded and communicated by other means long before the arrival of the Spaniards in Tenochtitlan, and though we know that at least some of the information in the Opera medicinalia is the near-duplication of medical information already printed elsewhere, the combination of place, technology, and content allows this book to signify a certain kind of historical origin. The fragility of the book itself reinforces the idea that reading this book would bring us back to the beginning of Mexican intellectual history.

To read the book, however, we’ll have to turn to the digital facsimile—another book preserved under glass. The Primeros Libros website, where the book is hosted, opens with a splash page that visualizes a nineteenth-century library: sixteenth-century Mexican books rebound and shelved according to nineteenth-century conventions. This historical shift relocates the books in the context not of the moment of their production, but rather of the moment when the bibliographical work of Joaquín García Icazbalceta and others first described the category of the Mexican incunabula and its importance in recording the origins of Mexican historiography. The website’s affective framework, in other words, is one that reinforces the originary status of the early colonial printed books.

Upon entering the website, the user is reoriented toward a more twentieth-century way of accessing documents. Browsing is enabled according to the categories commonly used for cataloguing (by owning institution, language, year, printer, author, keyword). Upon selecting a book, the user is led to a descriptive catalogue entry; a link in the description then opens an e-book display, as shown in Figure 1. The primary effect of this structure is to mimic precisely the sequence of decisions that a library user would go through in accessing a book from the library stacks. At the same time, this modernizing apparatus functions as another layer of protection for the document itself: like the glass case, its very replicability reinforces the vulnerability of the original form.

The display for the Primeros Libros website is not unique: it mimics other book readers like Google Books, HathiTrust, or even Kindle, all designed for indiscriminate use across production periods. There is no differentiation between the sixteenth-century textual object and one produced today. The result is a book that is viewed according to a unique textual mythology, and read from an ahistorical perspective


Because library catalogues are utilitarian and ubiquitous, it is easy to overlook the important role they play in framing textual consumption. Most scholarly interest in library catalogues is based on practical objectives: improving interoperability, discoverability, and information retrieval. Nevertheless, some researchers have made a case for closer attention to the catalogue by questioning the epistemological implications of catalogues as classification systems. Jens-Erik Mai, for example, argues that all library classification systems are harmful because each applies a single interpretive framework to information that is diverse and often incompatible, writing “One challenge for information professionals [. . .] is to provide access tools that minimize the harm done by classifications.”[12] Rather than evaluating the harm done (or good enacted) by catalogue entries, my purpose here is to understand the interpretive work that these structures perform in shaping our engagement with the colonial book.

Figure 2, which shows entries for the Advertencias taken from online catalogues for institutions in the United States, Mexico, Chile, and Spain, illustrates the structures of information that shape access to both printed volumes and digital facsimiles. The entries in Figure 2 have been selected from a larger data set at random for brevity, and the table collapses multiple attributes into a single category—an attempt to manage the extensive incompatibilities across catalogues for this document. A brief survey of this table makes clear that, while the presence of competing international metadata standards makes compatibility across political and linguistic boundaries challenging, seemingly fundamental categories like author, title, place, and date are inconsistent even within a single country.

Figure 2: Select Catalogue Entries for Original Exemplars of the Advertencias

[Click on image to enlarge] Figure 2: Select Catalogue Entries for Original Exemplars of the Advertencias

What this reveals, as metadata specialists have long known, is that the categories through which we orient ourselves to even the most straightforward entities are difficult to pin down. Even with the help of controlled vocabularies, and despite the fact that most entries are drawn directly from the title page of the book (shown in Figure 3), not a single element was replicated perfectly across all catalogues.[13] The introduction of human error multiplies these variations, which serves as an opportunity to reflect on the important, difficult, and undervalued labor of cataloguers. But the errors in this catalogue are not random; they point to underlying uncertainties about the nature of the historical book.

Figure 3: Three known title pages for the Advertencias. The images on the left and right are from exemplars held by the Benson Latin American Collection. The image in the center is from an exemplar held by the Biblioteca Palafoxiana. All images from the Primeros Libros collection. (IDs: pl_blac_047_7; pl_plfx_011_3; pl_blac_048_7)

This is apparent, for example, in the spelling variations of the many “titles” for the Advertencias. In some cases, historical orthography (compvesta, Ioan) has been replaced with a modern equivalent (compuesta, Juan); in other cases, modern orthography (Advertencias) has been replaced with a historical variant not present in the book (Aduertencias). Capitalization and punctuation reveal similar inconsistencies: while the decorative capitalization of the title page is never kept intact in the catalogue entry, several Mexican libraries have introduced capitalizations that conform to the Anglophone standard (capitalizing Confessores), while many North American libraries maintain the standard Mexican form (capitalizing only the first word in the title). Despite their simplicity, these orthographic differences mark an underlying uncertainty about the standards to which the text should conform. According to whose parameters do we demarcate the author, title, and place of publication for a historical document? What kind of interpretive work happens when we produce catalogue entries for historical documents? The implication here is that catalogue entries don’t merely describe the documents they represent; they also contain ways of understanding the document that go beyond the metadata structure.

A still more fundamental incompatibility between historical books and modern cataloguing practices is obscured by these inconsistencies. The familiar categories of catalogue entries—author, title, place, publisher—combine to describe a single, unique textual entity: a book. As Knight observes, however, “books have not always existed in discrete, self-enclosed units. In the early handpress era, the printed work was relatively malleable and experimental—a thing to actively shape, expand, and resituate as one desired.”[14] The malleability of the historical book is embedded in the documents as they come down to us, and shows itself in the insufficiencies of catalogue entries. For example, though almost all catalogues name the author of the Advertencias as “Juan Bautista, fray, 1555–approximately 1613,” as suggested by the Library of Congress Name Authority File, several include a separate or third “author” entry to account for the other individuals involved in the production of the book, including Melch[i]or Ocharte, the printer credited on the title page, and L. Figueroa Ocharte, the printer credited in the colophon.[15] In other cases, entries include additional titles to represent the binding of multiple books in one skin.[16] As in the case of the orthographic variation, in these examples catalogue categories reveal the malleability of the historical book relative to the terms we use to describe it.

This malleability is even more pronounced when we consider the interpretive changes that books tend to undergo over the long history of their use. As books move between religious libraries, private collections, public libraries, and international archives, they play strikingly different roles in the public imagination. This social dimension of the historical book is often recorded through the catalogue element of “provenance” or “notes” or even “author”—if it is recorded at all. As the Figure 2 shows, catalogues only occasionally provide ownership dates, and are never explicit about gaps in the known provenance of the book. Furthermore, though catalogues will sometimes alert the user to the presence of ownership marks on the body of the book, they only occasionally describe more significant transformations, such as rebinding, trimming, or editing the document. In omitting this information, like the glass case for the Opera medicinalia, they impose a static condition on the book that I have been referring to as “originary.” As the subsequent sections will show, however, alternate frameworks for understanding the historical textual object can allow us to recenter the dynamism of the book over time.

Section 2: Reframing the Early Colonial Book

In the prior section, I suggested that interfaces and catalogue entries reinforce structures of information that tend to erase the historical significance of early colonial books by replicating modern book forms. In this section, I propose an alternative model for analyzing the parameters of the historical book based on two axes: malleability and historicity. In this context, the term malleability is contrasted with the coherence of a modern printed book as an atomic unit. It refers to the ways that the boundaries of colonial books blur and shift throughout their production, and is determined by the processes that bring a book into being during the (sometimes long) period of its development as a textual object, from composition to printing and binding. This can include the borrowing of earlier texts; acts of coauthorship, transcription, and translation; the production of front matter and errata; and the censorship processes. Historicity, in this context, is contrasted with the ahistorical or originary status embedded in modern frameworks for historical books. It refers to the long, dynamic social history that colonial books underwent as they moved across libraries, cities, and nations according to political, social, and market forces. It is traced through marks of provenance, and it is understood in terms of the discursive field that a document occupies and the affective sphere through which it is read. Turning to the Advertencias and the Opera medicinalia as case studies, I consider how these two axes allow for a more dynamic understanding of historical books than the modern frameworks through which they are commonly accessed and read.


The malleability of an early colonial book relative to the rigid frameworks in which it is commonly placed can be understood by digging down into the categories of authorship, printer, and title—three categories that collectively shape the boundaries of the modern book. In the case of the Advertencias and the Opera medicinalia, this excavation will indicate how the names associated with these entries diverge, converge, bifurcate, and meld, suggesting a fluid form of textuality that crosses the boundaries of binding, paper, and text.[17]

The Franciscan friar known as Juan Bautista, director of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, Mexico, was certainly the composer of the Advertencias. His status as “author” in the catalogue entries for the book applies to him what we might call a modern author function: it allows us to understand the book as his intellectual property, and to attribute its composition primarily to his genius. Yet as we saw in the prior section, this author function collapses in the colonial context. The orthographic uncertainty of the author’s name (Juan Bautista? Ioan Baptista?) reveals an underlying doubt about the identity of this man and his position as a historical subject. The presence of multiple names under the category of author—including that of the printer and former owners—suggests that in the case of a historical book, the author function may be shared by multiple individuals.

Further examination of the composition of the Advertencias supports this argument. As was common in the early modern period, large sections of the Advertencias are copied from other books or manuscripts. In one famous example, Bautista lifts a long passage directly from the appendix to the fifth book of Bernardino de Sahagún’s Historia general, which had been circulating in manuscript form in New Spain during the period that the Advertencias was composed. Other citations, as Verónica Murillo Gallegos has shown, refer to documents that do not seem to correspond to any surviving manuscripts: they now serve as the only evidence we have of these historical texts.[18] Indeed, Murillo argues that the significance of the Advertencias today rests in the way it brings together for the first time the circulating manuscripts of the new generation of Mexican creoles. As a composition, then, it functions more as a window into textual circulation among a group of associated thinkers than as a unique and isolated textual object, a status which is not reflected on the title page or in the catalogue entries for the book.

Authorship in the Advertencias is further expanded by the fact that the Franciscan friars commonly worked with indigenous scribes, informants, or translators to produce their texts, especially when writing in indigenous languages. In his 1606 Sermonario, Bautista directly credits eight students from Tlatelolco who served as assistants.[19] In place of a modern author, then, in this colonial context we may find what Kathryn Burns, referring to Peruvian notaries, describes as a “blended, composite agency” underlying the text.[20] While we don’t know the precise role that indigenous writers had in composing the Advertencias, to lose sight of this composite authorship is effectively to erase the intellectual contribution of indigenous participants, and to flatten the heterogeneous intellectual atmosphere of the Colegio de la Santa Cruz where the book was produced. The stakes of rethinking colonial composition are higher than they may appear: authorship in this context is directly associated with the historiography of indigenous intellectual labor.

Social and political changes during the long period of textual composition can also shape the dynamic category of authorship in a colonial text, as is the case for the Opera medicinalia. As described by José Gaspar Rodolfo Cortés Riveroll, a scholar and translator of the Opera medicinalia, the text is divided into four books with an epistle in the middle. The first two books, dedicated to the viceroy of New Spain, were likely written while the author was in Spain. The subsequent two books, dedicated to the president of the Real Audiencia de México, were likely written in Mexico. Even this division, however, is overly simple: Cortés Riveroll observes that in the twelfth chapter of the second book, for example, the language changes enough to suggest either a significant passage of time or a new writer.[21] These additions, Cortés Riveroll argues, were added later “para darles contexto local.”[22] A long and multinational composition process, combined with the possible introduction of a second author, is significant enough to produce textual disunity or a kind of discursive malleability. At the same time, it is a reminder that the composition of a historical book can extend across the length of the composer’s lifetime—and beyond the process of print production and binding.

Textual production in the early colonial period, like production today, is often thought of as separate from but complementary to the process of composition. The printing press is supposed to provide fixity, in the words of Elizabeth Eisenstein, to an otherwise malleable textual object. Yet as we consider the categories of printer and printing, it becomes clear that in these cases production introduces new occasions for textual and material malleability, once again broadening the boundaries of the textual object. As the previous section illustrated, textual production is described in catalogue entries through the figure of the printer, who can appear variably under the entry for author or publisher/editorial, or in the note. This variability reveals uncertainty regarding the role of the printer in shaping the textual object, as well as a more fundamental uncertainty about the printer himself.

Though the title pages shown in Figure 3 inform us that Melchor Ocharte printed both volumes of the Advertencias in 1600, the colophon on the final page of the Segunda parte credits his half brother Luis Ocharte Figueroa with printing the book; this colophon is dated 1601. (Juan Pascoe has convincingly argued for a third possibility, that the book was printed by the uncredited Cornelio Adrián César).[23] This is indicative of the long and unstable printing process, which may have been drawn out over more than one year and involved more than one printer, as veiled comments in Bautista’s dedication suggest. It also draws attention to the complex scene of production in early colonial Mexico, where religious leaders like Bautista, creole printers like Ocharte, and European immigrants like Adrián César vied for control over communication technologies. As in the case of the author, the printer attribution on the title page obscures a multifaceted process that involved numerous individuals and stages of production.

The confusion of the printer attribution in the catalogue entries also reveals some uncertainty regarding the role of the printer in shaping the final book. It was during the printing process that aesthetic coherence across books was established through shared typefaces, layouts, orthographies, and, more notably, shared images. The woodcut used in the title page of the Opera medicinalia, for example, was also used in the Diálogos of Cervantes de Salazar (printed in Mexico, 1554) as well as in an edition of the Vulgata printed in Lyon by Balthazar Arnoullet in 1545.[24] Despite the anxiety that this reuse of images has caused bibliographers of the Opera medicinalia, of course, it is a well-documented characteristic of printing in the early modern period. It suggests that in this context, the boundaries of printed books may expand to include other documents with shared images, as well as those with shared texts.

Just as some aspects of the production process replicate material across books, other parts of the process introduce significant distinctions between multiple exemplars of what modern readers would think of as the same book. Excisions, revisions, and other postproduction modifications (such as the removal of three leaves from the Advertencias, for example) are unevenly replicated across exemplars and are of dubious origin: was it the author who produced the excision? The printer? The Inquisition? The reader? In the case of the Advertencias, a more obvious inconsistency is found in the presence and order of front matter associated with the book. It was this inconsistency that caused García Icazbalceta to comment despairingly on the differences between the exemplars. Some exemplars are missing elements, including licenses, while others include an additional set of indulgences dated 1603. Some exemplars, furthermore, seem to have indulgences of different lengths. The extensive documentation that makes up the front matter is uniquely characteristic of the context of New Spain in the late sixteenth century, where both imported and locally printed books went through a complex regulation process. The haphazard survival of the front matter is thus a symbol—if not a direct representation—of the gap between rules and practice in the circulation of texts in New Spain.

At the same time, the front matter marks the fluid boundaries between the exemplars that make up the Advertencias. According to the title pages, the Advertencias is a single book made up of two separately bound volumes (Primera parte and Segunda parte). Yet binding practices suggest otherwise: in a number of cases, the Primera parte was bound with Bautista’s earlier Confessionario, a process of compilation that replicates the composition process described earlier, and suggests some flexibility even toward the bound volume as a unit of measure for textual objects. Comparison of the front matter among these exemplars shows that some of the licenses are duplicated between the two books. Binding and compilation thus further multiply the variant shapes that a book as a textual unit might hold, even as they give form to the otherwise fluid structures of intertextual reproduction.


By examining the composition and production of early colonial Mexican books, we can better understand their malleability as textual objects. These books do not ossify, however, at the moment that they are bound into a coherent unit. Instead, the historical book has a long and dynamic history as it moves from the site of its production, through multiple libraries, regions, and historical moments, to arrive at the present day.[25] This movement, often referred to in terms of provenance—a book’s history of ownership—can leave a material mark on exemplars, playing an interpretive role in shaping the book as a signifying object. Like Bonnie Mak, whose study of digitization projects emphasizes the long interpretive history of the medieval manuscript, I find the metaphor of the palimpsest, with its complex history of records and erasures, useful in representing the multiple layers of meaning embedded in a single exemplar.[26] Unlike the static palimpsest, in this section I propose that historical books can be better understood as dynamic material objects that carry with them the multiple, often diverging contexts of their meaning and use.

By examining library catalogues and other sources, I have located more than seventy exemplars associated with the Advertencias (including the Primera parte, Segunda parte, and exemplars co-bound with the Confessionario). The case of just one of these exemplars, a copy of the Primera parte currently held by the Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavigero at the Universidad Iberoamericana in Mexico City, illustrates how changing historical contexts carry with them shifting interpretive contexts as the books move through distinct discursive spheres and historical moments. Changes in ownership are influenced by the complex interaction among different dimensions of the book: as a source of information, as a cultural heritage item, and as a collectible artifact. They are often triggered by large-scale changes in political and economic power within Mexico or internationally.

The exemplar at the Iberoamericana emblematizes this dynamic. Bound together with Bautista’s earlier Confessionario, the volume stands out for the many ownership marks that have been made over the years of its circulation, from the brand on the edge of the book to multiple handwritten notations and bookplates in the interior. Collectively, these marks show the long trajectory of the exemplar, which in this case parallels closely the dominant narrative about Mexico’s cultural heritage.

Figure 4: Bottom edge of a copy of the Advertencias from the Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavigero. Image from the Catálogo Colectivo de Marcas de Fuego website. (ID: BFXC-16039)

Brands made with iron or ink on the edges of books, like the one shown in Figure 4, were used by religious orders during the colonial period to mark ownership of a book. Careful work on the taxonomy of these marcas by scholars involved with the Catálogo Colectivo de Marcas de Fuego project makes it possible for us to identify, in many cases, the library that held a given copy of the Advertencias, and in some cases to date the acquisition of that copy. Individually, a marca can give us a hint about who may have had access to a given exemplar. Collectively, the marcas offer a partial view of the movement of the Advertencias during the period, allowing us to understand its role in the intellectual culture of the religious orders. They also suggest a culture of book loaning in which marking ownership helped libraries retain possession of these valuable commodities while alerting users to the cultural capital of the owning institution. In this case, unfortunately, the marca has not been identified, though the catalogue entry speculates that it may be affiliated with the Convento de Santiago Tlatelolco, located near the Colegio de la Santa Cruz, where the Advertencias was printed.[27]

The reference to the convent at Tlatelolco allows us reconstruct part of the discursive context that framed the Advertencias at this time. Though this work is speculative, we know enough to say with some certainty that this library would have held at least one copy of the Advertencias—taken, perhaps, from the defunct library at the Colegio sometime in the mid-seventeenth century. As the introduction to Michael Mathes’s important study of that original library describes, the library and the school that it supported was a “verdadero semillero” (a true seedbed) for intellectual and cultural development.[28] At this time the Advertencias would have been held alongside volumes of Plutarch and Virgil, printed American texts like the Arte de la lengua mexicana y castellana by Alonso de Molina, and the manuscripts of Sahagún and others. By the end of the seventeenth century, however, the school was in ruins, the manuscripts had been sent abroad for safekeeping (where they would be all but forgotten for over a century), and the library, now located at the Convento de Santiago Tlatelolco, served a narrower form of intellectual service. Though we have little assurance that this exemplar underwent this precise trajectory, it is likely that at least one copy of the Advertencias did.

Additional ownership marks allow us to continue tracing the history of this particular exemplar. As in many other cases, evidence here suggests that this exemplar first began to circulate at the politically unstable end of the eighteenth century. A note on the title page of the Confessionario dated 1797—some thirty years before military troops occupied the convent and used the books as mattresses[29] —attributes the volume to a “B[achille]r. Juan Antonio Moreno de Abalos.” A later note on the pastedown suggests that it was acquired along with another volume by a book dealer in 1803. In 1833, it was likely sold to the British and Foreign Bible Society. By this point, it would have shed its utilitarian purpose as a resource for Spanish missionaries working among indigenous populations in New Spain. Instead, it was now associated with an institution established in 1804 to translate and distribute vernacular bibles to missionaries and growing Christian communities around the world.

This period of circulation and subsequent acquisition abroad is just one of many cases in which documents once held by Mexican religious orders entered the global books and antiquities marketplace during the political disruptions of the late colonial period, the Mexican wars of independence, and subsequent turmoil. In his Breve historia del libro en Mexico, Ernesto de la Torre Villar describes this period as the beginning of the cultural decline of Mexico and of the loss of its bibliographic patrimony.[30] Others have described the movement of books out of Mexico during this period as an “exodus,” similarly bemoaning Mexico’s loss.[31] From a different perspective, the Bible Society acquisition points to a new life for the Advertencias as it shifts from serving as a record of Spanish conquest to becoming part of a larger history centering on the global spread of religion through European colonization. It also draws attention to the rise of British economic investment in Mexico during the first part of the nineteenth century, embedded materially in this exemplar through the manuscript notation.

This exemplar underwent another important shift when it was acquired by the Mexican businessman and bibliophile Manuel Arango Arias. On his many trips abroad for business, Arango worked to locate and acquire Mexican heritage items and bring them home. In 1996, he donated his collection to the Biblioteca Francisco Xavier Clavigero in Mexico City.[32] Thus this exemplar participated in the broader process of cultural return, whereby heritage items that were taken from their sites of origin under colonial or imperial conditions are brought back to their homelands. We might notice, of course, that this “return” is only partial. The library where the book was first collected no longer exists, the religious orders are largely dismantled, and the rare books collection at the Iberoamericana serves an entirely different public: scholars and bibliophiles with documented institutional affiliations and an interest in early colonial Mexico.

Section 3: Modeling New Approaches to Editing Early Colonial Books

LLILAS Benson Latin American Studies and Collections at the University of Texas at Austin is a founding member of the Primeros Libros project, dedicated to producing freely available facsimile editions (and, soon, transcriptions) of all books printed before 1601 in the Americas. The interface for this project employs traditional cataloguing categories like author, title, date, and printer; it is designed primarily to promote the readability of the books. As an employee of LLILAS Benson in 2014, I became interested in developing another model for approaching these digital objects. Working with Kent Norsworthy, then LLILAS Benson’s digital scholarship coordinator, I developed a digital project for exploring one book in that collection—the Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales—that would be based on the two dimensions of malleability and historicity described above. This project was designed specifically to decenter the textual content of the book—still freely available on the Primeros Libros website—in favor of object and context. At the same time, the project offered an alternative to traditional models for communicating book history.

For the Archaeology of a Book project, as it came to be called, we chose to use the Scalar platform, a “free, open source authoring and publishing platform that’s designed to make it easy for authors to write long-form, born-digital scholarship online.”[33] We were attracted to Scalar because its mission, as articulated by Tara McPherson, aligned with our own: “to formulate new ways of working with digitized archival materials within the humanities and to continue to model emerging genres of digital scholarly publishing.”[34] Scalar was ideal because it allowed us to experiment with new structures for scholarly publishing without first developing extensive programming skills or finding funding for a development team—a priority when modeling a platform that we hoped would be widely applicable to students and faculty across institutions.

Two particular features of Scalar make it particularly well suited to our project. First, its organizational structure is based on paths and networks, rather than the linear model of a traditional printed book. This suited our interest in reframing our approach to textual objects using a multidimensional model. Second, it is designed to interface smoothly with preexisting digital facsimile collections, archives, and media databases, a feature that enables us to display textual or material contexts that crossed collections. The Archaeology of a Book project, which continues to evolve, is currently available online; in what remains of this article, I will describe some of the principles and technologies that we used to produce this project, and how it has allowed us to see new possibilities for describing digital facsimiles.

Figure 5: Two visualizations showing the organizational structure of
                        Archaeology of a Book. “Visualization,” Archaeology of a Book, Scalar,
                        accessed December 31, 2015,

[Click on image to enlarge] Figure 5: Two visualizations showing the organizational structure of Archaeology of a Book. “Visualization,” Archaeology of a Book, Scalar, accessed December 31, 2015,

The Archaeology of a Book project was designed around a series of branching paths, as shown in the visualizations in Figure 5. Each path is oriented around a different dimension of book analysis: the introduction focuses on composition and reception; the production path focuses on printing and binding; the collection and acquisition paths focus on provenance; and the concluding path focuses on digitization. Though these paths differ slightly from the organizational schema described earlier in this article, they follow the same basic principles in emphasizing the malleability of the historical book and the long and changing history of its use. While they can be read linearly to produce an essay-like reading experience, the images in Figure 5 show that there are a number of ways to orient to the content of the project. This organizational flexibility allows us to step outside the rigid or hierarchical categories of the traditional catalogue.

Figure 6: Facsimiles of pages from the Advertencias (left, from
                        Primeros Libros) and the Florentine Codex (right, from the World Digital
                        Library) show how Bautista borrowed text from his predecessor. (IDs:
                        pl_blac_047_00234; 10616 [1/31])

[Click on image to enlarge] Figure 6: Facsimiles of pages from the Advertencias (left, from Primeros Libros) and the Florentine Codex (right, from the World Digital Library) show how Bautista borrowed text from his predecessor. (IDs: pl_blac_047_00234; 10616 [1/31])

As described in this article, the malleability associated with the composition and production of early colonial Mexican books was reflected in the sharing of texts and images across documents and in the variation within and between copies of a single book. Using the Primeros Libros collection and the Scalar interface, we were able to highlight both of these features. One unique quality of the Primeros Libros project is that it brings together for the first time a set of contemporaneous but geographically distant exemplars. This feature was extended by Scalar’s unique association with online databases like the Internet Archive, which allowed us to make visual associations between largely disparate documents. In a section dedicated to the process of composition, for example, we were able to bring together a facsimile image of a page from Bernardino de Sahagún’s Florentine Codex with the identical page as it appears printed in the Advertencias (Figure 6). It is unlikely that these texts have been together (even virtually) since Sahagún’s manuscript left Mexico sometime in the seventeenth century. In fact, a closer examination shows that Bautista has revised the original, describing a causal relationship between the flower Omixuchitl and an associated illness that remains implicit in Sahagún’s manuscript. The Scalar interface makes it easy for the user to visualize these pages side by side, or to move between the project and complete facsimiles hosted by the World Digital Library and the Primeros Libros project. Ultimately, pages like this portray the expanding definition of early modern authorship that a traditional organizational schema might elide.

Sections dedicated to the production of the Advertencias take further advantage of the fact that the Primeros Libros project hosts multiple copies of each book in its collection to identify differences among exemplars. Collation across multiple libraries can be costly and slow, but when the books are brought together as facsimiles, it becomes relatively easy. Use of Cobre, a comparative book reader designed by Texas A&M (and featured in the digital path of Archaeology) made it easy to identify the differences in front matter between exemplars, as shown in Figure 7; by linking to the Cobre reader, we also encourage users to conduct their own document comparisons. Other variations associated with the production of the book, such as excised pages or lines, can be uncovered through the same process of collation and displayed on the Scalar page. Again, the pathways work against the grain of standard cataloguing categories like title or publisher in order to disrupt the sense of the book as an atomic unit.

Figure 7: A comparison of two exemplars of the Advertencias, as seen in the Cobre comparative reader. (ID: “Cobre Reader comparing frontmatter of the Advertencias”)

The multiple textual meanings that a book engages as it circulates across historical contexts are made visible through material signals of provenance like firebrands, marginal notes, and nameplates. Unfortunately, these details are not preserved in the Primeros Libros collection; they were collected, instead, through my own research or through other online projects like the Catálogo Colectivo de Marcas de Fuego. Bringing these details to bear on the facsimiles, however, emphasizes the dynamism of these otherwise static historical documents. It shows how documents from the sixteenth century reappear throughout Mexico’s intellectual history. It also, I hope, emphasizes the importance of preserving these marginal or material details when constructing online facsimile collections.

Provenance marks serve as a point of access that can provide valuable information about the history of ownership for an exemplar. We can expand this context by tracing the discursive sphere in which the book existed, examining the ways that an owner may have refigured the book, the library in which that book was present, and the aesthetic space that the book occupied. As was shown above in the example of the Tlatelolco library, the books in a collection can provide insight into the intellectual community that would have accessed or read the Advertencias: through library catalogues, we can partially reconstruct those collections. With Scalar, it is possible to bring those books back together, a project that I hope to extend in future iterations as I construct a digital “library at Tlatelolco” and a list of Bautista’s collected works.

Figure 8: An interactive Story Map display of the distribution of the Advertencias. Archaeology of a Book, Scalar, accessed December 25, 2015,

In a page on twenty-first century collections, I sought to introduce two additional elements to the narrative of provenance: the dynamic geographical movement of the Advertencias and the affective experience of the architectural contexts in which they are currently held. To achieve this, I used Story Maps, a third-party application for producing interactive maps.[35] This map, shown in Figure 8, visually represents the geographic distribution of exemplars through the world, revealing patterns of distribution or consumption. Linking points on the map to photographs and brief prose narratives illustrates the affective experience of the library, archive, museum, or special collection where the book is held. The goal is to draw attention to the ways that atmosphere and access provide a framework for a reading experience, and to show how local and regional differences play a significant role in our relationship to textual objects. As these historical books are read with decreasing frequency, their role as artifacts embedded in a curated environment comes to the forefront of their social value. Mapping the current distribution of the Advertencias seeks to communicate these diverse affective experiences, while recording the current landscape of the exemplars for future study.

Looking Forward

In this article, I have sought to describe an approach to digital critical editions that engages with the shifting status of books in the early modern period, changes in their status over time, and the material traces that history leaves on the books themselves. Just as I have described the history of the book as dynamic and historical, I sought with Archaeology of a Book to produce a dynamic project that would embody the future of this historical book as well as its past.

For the future of Archaeology of a Book, I look toward new scholarship and new platforms. Using Scalar, a stable and user-friendly interface, allowed us to design a project that can be infinitely expandable, enabling both collaborations and pedagogical opportunities. Scholars working with books from the Primeros Libros collection can add their own pages or pathways to expand the scope of the resource. Teachers may also invite undergraduate and graduate students to add their scholarship to the project.

While this new research may simply replicate the model set forth by the existing project, it could also expand in new dimensions that take advantage of other technologies. Incorporating more dynamic mapping and timeline platforms like Neatline Omeka, for example, would open new ways of understanding the history of the collection. Three-dimensional facsimiles and other forms of data visualization could expand the scope of book history even further, while developing resources for the history of these books as historical records, as living objects, and as valued world heritage documents.

The future of Archaeology of a Book and projects like it is also tied up in the future of scholarly communication. Book history has long been told in book form, a convention that carries its own structures of information delivery and organization. With digital platforms for scholarly writing, it is possible to unbind the history from the book, producing new objects of information delivery that engage the shape of the historical book as well as its content. This poses an opportunity for book historians to engage critically with the structures through which we see historical books as well as with the history of those books themselves.


1. Primeros Libros (2014), (accessed December 25, 2015).Go back
2. Juan Bautista, Advertencias para los confessores de los Naturales (Tlatelolco: Melchor Ocharte, 1600).Go back
3. Jerome McGann, A New Republic of Letters (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2014), 45.Go back
4. David McKitterick, Old Books, New Technologies: The Representation, Conservation and Transformation of Books Since 1700 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 4.Go back
5. Sarah Werner articulates the contours of this debate clearly when she writes, “Digital facsimiles appear to be flat, made up of pages without depth or relationship to other pages, part of a sequence that is made up of bits rather than bindings. But this is not because such flatness is inherent to digitization. It is because of the limited ways in which digitization has been put to use for us.” Given the extensive resources necessary to produce truly multidimensional facsimiles, however, these ideal digitization projects may not always be possible, and the critiques of current digital editions are not invalid. Matt Kirschenbaum and Sarah Werner, “Digital Scholarship and Digital Studies: The State of the Discipline,” Book History 17 (2014): 420. Go back
6. McGann, New Republic.Go back
7. Jeffrey Todd Knight, Bound to Read: Compilations, Collections, and the Making of Renaissance Literature (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 8.Go back
8. Germaine Warkentin, “Dead Metaphor or Working Model: ‘The Book’ in Native America,” in Colonial Mediascapes, ed. Matt Cohen and Jeffrey Glover (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014).Go back
9. “I have seen six or more exemplars of the Advertencias, and almost all of them display differences between them” (all trans. mine unless otherwise noted). Joaquín García Icazbalceta, Bibliografía mexicana del siglo XVI.: Primera parte (Mexico: Imprenta de Francisco Diaz de Leon, 1886), 353.Go back
10. “It is a book that among bibliophiles has been feared like the plague.” Francisco Guerra, “La portada de la ‘Opera Medicinalia,’ Mexico, 1570,” Revista de Indias 52.194 (1992): 159.Go back
11. Francisco Bravo, Opera Medicinalia (Mexico: Pedro Ocharte, 1570), For a thorough study of the history of this book, refer to Rodrigo Martínez Baracs, El largo descubrimiento del Opera medicinalia de Francisco Bravo (Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2015).Go back
12. Jens-Erik Mai, “Ethics, Values and Morality in Contemporary Library Classifications,” Knowledge Organization 40, no. 4 (2013): 242.Go back
13. The introduction of bibliographic error is not reserved for early modern books—modern catalogue entries are notoriously difficult. Nor are these inconsistencies reserved for catalogues; even Rosa María Fernández de Zamora’s bibliography of early Mexican printed books, the newest authority in the field, introduces orthographic differences in its transcription of the two primary title pages, reminding us again of the difficulty of maintaining consistency in bibliographic record keeping. Rosa María Fernández de Zamora, Los impresos mexicanos del siglo XVI: Su presencia en el patrimonio cultural del nuevo siglo (Ciudad de Mexico: UNAM, 2009).Go back
14. Knight, Bound to Read, 4.Go back
15. Library of Congress, “Juan Bautista, fray, 1555–approximately 1613,” Library of Congress Name Authority File, May 13, 2015, back
16. Consider, for example, the variations between entries in the “title/título” category. The titles, all taken directly from the title page, nevertheless vary in length from seven words to forty-three. Where, in the case of an early colonial printed book, does the title begin—and where does it end?Go back
17. For the language of excavation—among other things—I am indebted to Bonnie Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization,” Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology 65, no. 8 (2014): 1515–26.Go back
18. Verónica Murillo Gallegos, “Obras de personajes novohispanos en las Advertencias para los confesores de los naturales de fray Juan Bautista de Viseo,” Anuario de Historia de la Iglesia 20 (2011): 362.Go back
19. Mark Christensen, Nahua and Maya Catholicisms (Palo Alto: Stanford University Press, 2013), 33.Go back
20. Kathryn Burns, Into the Archive (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), 39.Go back
21. José Gaspar Rodolfo Cortés Riveroll, “Francisco Bravo y el primer libro de medicina impreso en América,” in Autores de obra médica en la Nueva España: vida y obras, 1552–1618, ed. María Luisa Rodríguez-Sala, Enrique Delgado López, and José Gaspar Rodolfo Cortés Riveroll (México: Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, 2011), 106.Go back
22. “To give them local context.” Cortés Riveroll, “Francisco Bravo,” 95.Go back
23. Juan Pascoe, “Primeros años en la nueva españa septiembre de 1596 hasta octubre de 1598” (unpublished manuscript, 2014).Go back
24. Guerra, “La portada de la ‘Opera Medicinalia,’” 159–63.Go back
25. Nor do all historical books begin with their production, of course—many have long prehistories that all but disappear in the process of binding and cataloguing.Go back
26. Mak, “Archaeology of a Digitization.”Go back
27. The catalogue description reads: “Monograma formada por las iniciales “A”, “C”, “F”, “R”, “U”, “I”, “J”, “S” y una “O” como tilde coronando las anteriores.” (Monogram formed from the initials A, C, F, R, U, I, J, S, and an O like a tilde crowning the previous letters.) Observations remark, “Monograma con las iniciales entrelazadas, las cuales podrían referirse al Convento de Santiago Tlatelolco. —Dado que no se ha localizado un ejemplar que nos permita conocer la identidad del antiguo poseedor, se mantiene como marca no identificada. —No aparece en los catálogos previos.” (Monogram with the initials intertwined, which may refer to the Convent of Santiago Tlatelolco. —Given that an exemplar has not been located which allows us to know the identity of the historical owner, it remains an unidentified mark. —It does not appear in previous catalogues.) “BFXC-16039,” Catálogo colectivo de marcas de fuego, (accessed December 31, 2015).Go back
28. Published in English as The America’s First Academic Library: Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco (1985). Miguel Mathes, Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco: La primera biblioteca académica de las Américas (Mexico: Archivo Histórico Diplomático Mexicano, 1982).Go back
29. Mathes, Santa Cruz de Tlatelolco, 41Go back
30. Ernesto de la Torre Villar, Breve historia del libro en México (Mexico: Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, 1990), 119. Go back
31. Rosa María Fernández de Zamora, “Presencia de los impresos mexicanos del Siglo XVI en las bibliotecas del siglo XXI,” Investigación Bibliotecológica 19, no. 36 (Enero/Junio 2004): 7–26.Go back
32. Catálogo de la Colección Biblioteca Manuel Arango Arias (Mexico: Universidad Iberoamericana, 2000), 13.Go back
33.  Alliance for Networking Visual Culture, “About Scalar,” (accessed December 25, 2015).Go back
34. Tara McPherson, “Designing for Difference,” Differences 25, no. 1 (2014): 183.Go back
35.  Esri, “Story Maps,” (accessed December 25, 2015).Go back