Primary and Secondary Sources for the Study of Central American History

Prepared by Guillermo Náñez Falcón
Director, Latin American Library
December 2001

The Latin American Library is the premier repository in the United States for the study of nineteenth- and twentieth-century Central America. While the colonial holdings do not include extensive collections of manuscripts, such as there are for Mexico, the post-Independence period is strongly supported by rich and varied primary and secondary materials. The primary sources include several groups of manuscripts and political ephemera. The microfilm collections from the British Foreign office include nineteenth-century consular reports from Central America. Additionally there are hundreds of reels of microfilm of the U.S. State Department that cover the period from the 1820s to 1959. Other primary sources are government documents, which include annual ministry reports, official journals, statistical reports, censuses, and law compilations. There are also extensive holdings of newspapers in hard copy and on microfilm, scholarly and popular journals, bank reports and other corporate publications, political pamphlets, and religious tracts.

The Central American collection has been systematically developed over more than fifty years. In the early 1950s, under the Farmington Plan, university libraries in the United States divided up collection responsibilities for Latin America. Tulane elected to be the repository for Central America. Also, in the 1950s, the Library received a Carnegie grant for the purchase of bibliographic materials. Professor William J. Griffith of the History Department, a Central American specialist, spent several summers in Central America systematically buying important collections of monographs, pamphlets, newspaper and serial sets, government documents, and political and religious flyers. These became the core of the Central American collection. Subsequently the Library has built upon it with the allocation of a sizeable portion of the acquisitions budget every year, so that the collection has grown in scope and depth.

Presently, the Library is part of an ARL-sponsored cooperative acquisitions agreement signed by thirty-two libraries in the U.S. and Canada, to divide, once again, the bibliographic universe of Latin America. Logically, Tulane assumed responsibility for Central America, with special emphasis on the countries of Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. As part of the agreemnet, each participant reallocated seven percent of its monographs budget to the target area. The Center for Latin American Studies, from its Title VI funds, also added money for fulfillment of the agreement. At present, the Guatemala and Belize holdings are recognized as the best in the United States, and the Library of Congress uses the Tulane collection as a yardstick to evaluate its own for these two countries.

In addition to collections of primary research materials, the Library has maintained its holdings of secondary sources at the highest level. Through a contract with a jobber in the U.S., the Library automatically receives most academic and trade-press works on Central America published in this country. The Library also has agreements with Central American vendors to provide wide coverage of current imprints from university and commercial presses, government offices, and other sources. For the four target countries, the Library also continues to develop the retrospective collection of older imprints. The Library, ini cooperation with institutions in Central America, has compiled country-by-country and area-wide bibliographies of English-language books and journal articles on Central America published since 1990. The bibiography is updated annually, currently to 1998, and is available to Tulane affiliates online.

Primary Sources on Central America

Government Publications

An "Author" search of a country in the online system gives a listing of publications of government ministries, congress, and other offices that might be publishing "official" reports. Many of the reports appear annually. The Library's "serial" card file, which is divided by country can help in identifying periodical government publications. The Library also has chronological compilations of laws and decrees, as well as compilations of laws on specific subjects. For example, to find compilations on civil law use a "Subject" search with the command "Civil law--[country]"; for agricultural laws, a "Subject" search "Agricultural laws and legislation--[country]." Laws and decrees also appear in the various "bletines oficiales" or "oficial" (as opposed to daily or popular) newspapers.

Daily Newspapers

The Library has extensive collections of newspapers on microfilm and in hard copy. Check the newspaper card file in the lobby, which is divided by country. The cards give holding and location of newspapers, and some publishing history. There is also a listing of newspapers owned, but not complete holdings information, on the LAL home page. Ask assistance in the LAL office to use newspapers, as the staff must retrieve issues from a storage area. Cards with the notation "MIC" are on microfilm and are found in the Microforms Department in the basement of the building. Write down the MIC reel or collection number to give to the attendants in Microforms. The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) repository in Chicago also has extensive colletions of newspapers, which are available through Interlibrary Loan. Complete holdings information on CRL newspapers is found on the CRL home page from a link in the LAL home page ("Newspapers"/"Center for Research Libraries"). The LAL home page also has a link to newspaper holdings in libraries in the Southeast region, som of which may be borrowed through Interlibrary Loan.


Servicio de Recortes Seleccionados. (LAL F1421.S47)
Inforpress Centroamericana (LAL F1421.I54)
Central America Report (LAL F1421.C45)

Commercial or Business Periodicals

These can include bank reports, trade journals, publications of the chambers of commerce, etc. Check the LAL serials card file for titles. Generally, these publications are classified under "HC", "HD", "HF", and "HG".

Other Periodicals

Check the serials card file in the LAL lobby. These could be literary or cultural journals, journals on genealogy, archaeology, architecture, etc.

Travel Accounts

LAL has hundreds of travel books that date from the 18th century to the 20th, in English, German, French, Spanish, and other languages. The older accounts are in the LAL Rare Books collection and are available only during service hours. To identify travel accounts use the "Subject" search command "[country or Central America]--description and travel".

National Census

LAL has published census reports from Central America from the 19th and 20th centuries. Use the "Subject" search command "[country]--census". The records appear in chronological order. The LAL home page has a link to census holdings ("Census Materials"). Most censuses are classified under "HA", which is a section that LAL has moved in the closed stacks. Inquire in the LAL office.

Diplomatic Collections on Microfilm and in Hardcover

A. Consular Reports

LAL has purchased extensive collections of consular and diplomatic correspondence from the U.S. State Department and from the British Foreign Office. See Microfilm Publications of the U.S. State Department Diplomatic Records Relating to Latin America: A Bibliography of the Holdings of the Tulane University Library ( Z 1609.R4 N53 LAL-REF) and the "Microform Sets" link in the LAL home page. The consular correspondence dates back to the early period of Independence. Since 1990, when the Bibliography was compiled, LAL has purchased other films sets, including the Confidential U.S. State Department Files for El Salvador, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Panama for 1945-1959, and several other series. For the British files, do an "Author" search for "Great Britain Foreign Office". The collection includes sets of consular correspondence from Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Mosquito Coast. The microfilms are in the Microforms Department in the basement of the library.

B. British Documents on Foreign Affairs: Reports and Papers from the Foreign Office Confidential Print Files

This collection is in print in the general stacks: 1845-1919, 9 volumes, JX 632.B747 1991; 1914-1939, 20 volumes, JX 632.B766 1989; 1940-1945, 11 volumes, JZ 632.B764 1998; 1946-1950, 8 volumes, JZ 633.6 L29 B75 2000.

C. Other Microfilm Collections

Important acquisitions are the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA) Archive on Latin Americana microfilm for the Central American region and for the countries of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama; the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A.: Board of Foreign Missions. Correspondence and Reports for the Guatemala mission, 1882-1911; the Princeton University Libraries Latin American Microfilm Collection for Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduas, and Panama.

Printed Correspondence

A volume of letters of an individual may be found in a bibliography, or do a "Subject" search under "[country]--history--sources.

Printed Collections of Public Documents

Do a LC Subject Heading Search in the Libraries Catalog:

Often the titles of the work may begin Recopilación de....

Manuscript Collections

LAL houses a number of collections of original 19th- and 20th-century manuscripts. The public manuscripts card catalogue has references to names, places, events, and subjects. There is also a date file with collections and documents organized by period. The larger collections have finding guides that are in the LAL office. The LAL home page includes a list of the major collections with links to the electronic finding guides. Some of the Central American collections are the following:

  • Adalid y Gamero, Manuel de, Papers. Papers of the Honduran composer.
  • Barrios, Gerardo, Letters, 1859-1860. Consists primarily of personal letters written by this president of El Salvador to his friend Carlos Antonio Meany, detailing various topics such as personal and family concerns, internal affairs in El Salvador, and international relations with the different countries of Central America.
  • Belize Meteorological Date and Statistical Material.
  • Claxton, Robert Howard, Collection on Central America, 1965-1992. Clippings, newspapers, and other printed materials relating principally to Guatemala, as well as El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Belize. Includes correspondence to Claxton from conservative Guatemalan José Manuel Montúfar and others.
  • Danlí, Honduras, Papers. Municipal and judicial papers from the town of Danlí.
  • Díaz, Adolfo, Papers. Díaz was three-time president of Nicaragua.
  • Diesseldorff, Erwin P., Collection. Correspondence and financial papers of German-born coffee planter, businessman, and archaeologist in Guatemala.
  • Fayssoux, Callender I., Collection of William Walker Papers.
  • Low, Dr. Robert E., Medical Mission Papers. Medical records and photographs of missions to rural Guatemala led by Dr. Low in the 1990s.
  • Morazán, Francisco, Papers, 1830-1842. Includes personal, political, and business papers of the President of the Republic of Central America.
  • Partido Guatemalteco del Trabajo Papers.
  • Squier, Ephraim George, Papers, 1835-1872, includes correspondence, clippings, documents, and manuscripts of this journalist-diplomat relating to his travels in Central America and Peru. Included are valuable historic photographs and stereographs of Honduras and Peru.
  • Zavala Solís, Joaquín, Collection. Copy letterbooks of Nicaraguan President.

Non-Traditional Primary Sources

A. Maps

LAL has a collection of about 3,400 maps that date from the 17th century to the present. Many of these are from Central America. The in-house Map Database is on the LAL home page.

B. Photographs

LAL has a photographic archive of more than 35,000 images that date from hte 1850s (Honduras) to the present. About 10,000 of these photographs are of Central America. In the LAL lobby is a dictionary card file of the collection with references to places, people, buildings, and subjects. The collections appear on the LAL home page with some images included as examples.

C. Printed Ephemera

Central American Printed Ephemera Collection (CAPE) and the Contemporary Central American Printed Ephemera Collection (CCAPE) are unique groupings of pamphlets, political flyers, and other ephemeral items. CAPE contains some 550 pieces that date from the late 18the century to the 1930s. Most are from the mid-19th century. There is a link to a chronological shelf list of the collection in the LAL home page ("Manuscript Collections"), but individual documents are included in the manuscripts card catalogue. CCAPE has material documenting recent political events in Central America with the same kind of finding aids.