Dedicated to collecting, cataloguing and preserving bibliographic works produced in Spanish territory, over the past 300 years the National Library of Spain has become one of the pillars of our cultural patrimony and an international cultural reference. In 2017 The Writer’s Academy of the publishing house Penguin Random House included it in the ranking of the 25 best libraries in the world along with other great institutions of knowledge such as the US Library of Congress, The National Library of France and The British Library.

Most people know that the National Library is located in the famous central street of Madrid, Paseo de Recoletos, but what a lot of people don’t know is that it wasn’t always there, over more than a century passed before women were allowed in the library and that video games now form part of its extensive collection.


1. From the Royal Library of the King to the National Library of the Government


What we know today as the National Library began in 1711 when the King Philip V, the first king of the Borbón dynasty approved the plan to create a library that would renew historical scholarship and disseminate the roots of the country and the Spanish monarchy. The first collection was made up of over 6,000 books which the new king brought from France along with maps, manuscripts and classical music scores.

It was called the Royal Public Library and it opened to the public in 1712 on 1 March, even though it was not until 1716 when Philip V signed the Royal Foundational Decree, which clarified the public nature of the library and established the fundamental bases of its operation.

More than a century later in 1836 the Royal Library was renamed the National Library, ceasing to be property of the Crown – librarians were considered servants of the Crown -to become part of the Government.


2. The first female scholar was granted access in 1837

Despite it being a public institution and open to students, it was not until 1837, that the first female scholar was granted access to the library, more than 120 years after its creation. The first woman who was allowed to use the library with the consent of Queen María Cristina was Antonia Gutiérrez Bueno.

Daughter of a wealthy family, Antonia Gutiérrez, was committed to female education and when she was 55 she petitioned the National Library to document her continuation with Historical and Biographical Dictionary of Famous Women which she published in 1835 under a male pseudonym. The Director of the National Library forwarded the request to the Ministry which governed the institution, indicating that despite the fact that the regulations of the institution prohibited women from using the library, he proposed that a small room on the ground floor, which could fit no more than 4 or 5 people, which if it was bigger would require spending more money on tables and installations, could be used for their exclusive use.

The Regent Queen María Cristina far from prohibiting women from the library or spending more money on installations, solved the problem by allowing “the entrance to the ground floor room should be open to all women who wished to use the library, not only Antonia Gutiérrez” she also added that “in the event that the number of women who wish to use the room exceeds 5 or 6, more money may be spent, stating that the expenditure is indispensable.”

Today however things have changed where the majority of people working in the library are women: from the Director, to the President and the majority of librarians.


3. Online publications, the latest to join the BNE’s catalogue


Since its early beginnings, thanks to the royal privilege in 1716, precedent of the current legal deposit, printers had to deposit a copy of the books printed in Spain, which has served to bolster the library’s funds, in addition to buying, exchange and donations.

It is currently estimated that more than 35 million items are in the custody of the BNE, including not only books but also magazines, maps, engravings, drawings, music scores and brochures among others.

With the expansion of internet, an enormous part of the documentary patrimony is no longer held in its physical format but increasingly more so on internet. In 2011 the legal deposit adapted to this new reality of contemplating publications online and a new way of preserving documentation. From this the Archives of the Spanish website was created that automatically collected the most up-to-date information in regard to culture, history and Spanish society, which today reaches a total of 460Tb of archived information. The BNE has preserved more than 120,000 digital publications.

At the beginning of February, the BNE announced that, as part of the Spain’s cultural heritage video games that had always been a part of the library’s legal deposit deserved special attention to guarantee their preservation for future generations. The first step was to locate the video games that were already in the library’s archives to determine which ones should be collected in their physical, to complete the collection.


4. The library had many different addresses until it moved to Recoletos


The BNE has not always been in its current location, on Madrid’s Paseo de Recoletos. After approval by Philip V in 1711, construction began on the Royal Library in the stretch that linked Madrid’s Real Alcázar with the Encarnación convent.

During the nineteenth century the Library changed its location several times: first in 1809, when, during the reign of Joseph Bonaparte, it was moved to the convent of the Trinitarios Calzados on Calle de Atocha. In 1819 it changed again, this time to the palace where the Council of the Royal Admiralty held its meetings, due to the claims made by the Trinitarios Calzados after the return of Ferdinand VII. And, in 1826, it moved to the old house of the Marquis of Alcañices, in the current street of Arrieta, where it remained until the end of the century.

It was not until 1876 when Queen Isabel II laid the first stone of the Palace of Archives, Libraries and Museums, located in the Paseo de Recoletos, and designed by Francisco Jareño Alarcón. Due to economic problems, construction advanced very slowly and changes were made to the initial project, until in 1892 they were completed and in March 1896 the National Library was opened to the public in its new and current premises.

Today the BNE has a new branch in Alcalá de Henares, which comprises of six towers and one of these contains a digital deposit that processes around 2,000,000 documents. The Alcalá branch has more than 250 kilometres of bookshelves. The deposit is constantly growing and to be able to store all this information, they are contemplating building a seventh tower.


5. A Strong digital presence


Its role as a guardian institution of Spanish bibliographical treasures has not prevented it from adapting to new times, however. Its presence on social media and the provision of digital content has given the BNE a significant presence on the Internet. Its website has received almost 7 million visits over the last year, and some 10 million documents have been downloaded. On social media it has more than a half a million followers, who receive information not only on its permanent collection, but also on its extensive programme of cultural activities.

The digitisation of the BNE’s collections, which began in 2008, has in fact led to a profound transformation in the way the institution relates to its users, allowing digital access to more than 220,000 works. The BNE is also present on the main international digital content platforms: Europeana, in the European sphere; the World Digital Library launched by UNESCO; and The Digital Library of Ibero-American Heritage.