While exploring the streets of Puebla's historic downtown, take some time to visit the oldest public library in the Americas. The Biblioteca Palafoxiana (Palafoxian Library) besides being an important historical and cultural treasure, is also an important repository of learning. The collection comprises over 40,000 books, the majority of them dating from before Mexico's independence, including many incunabula. The beautifully restored library is extraordinary in that the collection is conserved in its original location along with the original bookshelves.
The Biblioteca Palafoxiana's namesake, Juan Palafox y Mendoza, was bishop of Puebla from 1640 to 1655, and served as viceroy of New Spain. In 1646 he donated 5000 books from his private collection to the seminary of the Colegio de San Juan. He made the donation with the stipulation that the books be available to any literate person, and not just academics, thus establishing the first public library of the Americas. In 1773, Bishop Francisco Fabian y Fuero commissioned bookshelves made of finely carved cedar, ayacahuite pine, and coloyote wood to house the library's growing collection. An additional tier of shelving was added in the 1800s.
The former Colegio de San Juan is now home to Puebla's Casa de la Cultura cultural center, but the Biblioteca Palafoxiana remains in its original location on the second floor. It occupies a long vaulted hall with a splendid altarpiece from the mid 14th century gracing the far end. The altarpiece is covered with gold leaf, and the center is dominated by a painting of the Madonna of Trapani by Sicilian master Nino Pisano. The library has been recognized for its antiquity, originality and artistic value: in 1981, the Mexican government declared it a historic monument and in 2005, UNESCO added it to the Memory of the World list. A digital catalog of the library's collection was released in 2010.