Americas and Oceania Collections blog

3 posts from October 2021

27 October 2021

The Day of the Dead Celebration. A safe space to share the stories and memories of our lost ones

Death is one of the most difficult topics to accept and understand as humans, maybe knowing how other communities and societies deal with this will give us a new understanding of the many ways we can see loss and even our own death.

It is important to be able to talk and think about this topic especially with the Covid-19 crisis and the sudden loss of family members, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. We should be able to have the chance to think a bit more about death and what it means to us.

This is why I wanted to share with you my experience with the present concept of death in my life. I am from Milpa Alta, a small Nahua village located in the southeast of Mexico City and like many Mexicans, every November 1st and 2nd we get ready for the Micailhuitl known as the Day of the Dead.

The celebration could sound creepy and the whole idea of having a celebration and being festive about death may not let you appreciate the healing effect that this event has on the people who grieve and how this helps the members of a community to deal with the loss of a loved one.

Imagine a safe space where you can talk about this difficult subject with others, a place where everyone relates with your feelings, a place that is even going to push your creativity to build an altar decorated with flowers, sugar skulls, papel picado (perforated tissue paper), candles, and food.

The Day of the Dead celebration is that kind of safe and creative space where memories, grief and the chance to connect and share with your community become real. This celebration provides a healthy, festive, and therapeutic space to cope with the pain and suffering.

The British Library holds collections from many parts of the world written in different languages providing the readers the chance to enjoy the diversity of the world we live in. So, in addition, it is not surprising that I found a couple of books in these collections from my hometown.

I choose three of these publications that are particularly important and this is because the books were written in the native Nahuatl language and because they had the memories of a Nahua woman from my village named Luz Jiménez, a remarkable storyteller who is also known as the most painted woman in Mexico.

She was depicted in countless works by some of the most renowned artists working in Mexico in the first half of the 20th century such as Diego Rivera, Jean Charlot, Tina Modotti, Fernando Leal and Edward Weston.

Her collaboration with anthropologists and linguists made possible the publication of her texts as literary and historical works that she authored and translated, but she was always billed as an informant who in her lifetime never got recognition as an author.

Jiménez’s memories of the times of the Mexican Revolution were published in a bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish edition as De Porfirio Díaz a Zapata: memoria náhuatl de Milpa Alta, 1968 (BL shelfmark: X.709/29934).


Title page of the bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish edition of Luz Jiménez. De Porfirio Díaz a Zapata: memoria náhuatl de Milpa Alta, 1968 (BL shelfmark: X.709/29934)
Title page of the bilingual Nahuatl-Spanish edition of Luz Jiménez. De Porfirio Díaz a Zapata: memoria náhuatl de Milpa Alta, 1968 (BL shelfmark: X.709/29934)


In 1972, a bilingual Nahuatl-English edition was published as Life and Death in Milpa Alta. A Nahuatl Chronicle of Díaz and Zapata edited by Fernando Horcasitas, from the Nahuatl recollections of Doña Luz Jiménez (BL shelfmark 74/26082). The following description of the Day of the Dead in Milpa Alta comes from this edition. 


Title page of the bilingual edition Life and Death in Milpa Alta. A Nahuatl Chronicle of Díaz and Zapata, edited by Fernando Horcasitas
Title page of the bilingual edition Life and Death in Milpa Alta. A Nahuatl Chronicle of Díaz and Zapata, edited by Fernando Horcasitas


During the night between November 1 and 2, the head of the household of Milpa Alta is proud of his ofrenda a table set up with stews, candles, bread, liquor, glasses of water, candles, and cigarettes for the Faithful Departed. All night the members of the family accompany the "little dead ones," the beloved ancestors who have come to spend this one night of the year among the living. (Horcasitas, 1972:75)


Jimenez’s stories appear, again in a Nahuatl-Spanish edition, as Los cuentos en Náhuatl de Doña Luz Jiménez, 1979, collected by Fernando Horcasitas and Sarah O. Ford (BL shelfmark X.950/12883).


Front cover of the Nahuatl-Spanish edition Los cuentos en Náhuatl de Doña Luz Jiménez, 1979, collected by Fernando Horcasitas and Sarah O. Ford (BL shelfmark X.950/12883)
Front cover of the Nahuatl-Spanish edition Los cuentos en Náhuatl de Doña Luz Jiménez, 1979, collected by Fernando Horcasitas and Sarah O. Ford (BL shelfmark X.950/12883)


The book contains, among many others, the story of a young man who didn’t believe in the Day of the Dead and how he learned a lesson when he saw the dead coming to his town.

These books were published more than fifty years ago but the events described in them are not very different from the ones I experienced in my own time. Let me tell you how the Day of the Dead is nowadays in Milpa Alta.


A photograph showing a detail of a Day of the Dead altar in Mexico, the image shows candles, apples, guavas, oranges, tangerines, bananas, marigold flowers, decorated sugar skulls and colourful perforated tissue paper.
A Day of the Dead Altar in Milpa Alta. Picture by Isela Xospa


Everybody in my home town knows that a big and special Momoxtle or Ofrenda (altar) will be set up for the people who no longer live with us, but especially at the house of a person that recently passed away. Tamales (a traditional corn dish) and homemade bread will be made at the family house and neighbours will come to help with the preparations.

During the days of October 30th and 31st a table will be set up in the main room of the house to be decorated with flowers, candles, fruit, candy, liquor, water, and photographs of the people to whose the offering is dedicated. Some space will be reserved to put the bread and tamales that are going to be made, while the table is being decorated.

The preparation of tamales are usually in the hands of the elder women of the house: this is because they are considered the best cooks and the ones who hold the family recipes. The younger women, men and children will help with la batida (mixing of the dough) and la envoltura (the wrapping and making of tamales).


A photograph showing a detail of the Day of the Dead altar in Mexico, the image shows a close up of the colourful  handmade bread surrounded by orange marigold flowers and velvet flowers, a glass with water is reflecting the colours of the flowers on the left side and the shape of a green orange appears from the bottom.
Detail of a Day of the Dead Altar in Milpa Alta showing the homemade bread. Picture by Isela Xospa


Bread is made on October the 30th and is usually in the hand of the men: this is because they have to deal with the fire and heat of the oven but it is common to see men, women, and children working together in the preparation.

These activities provide a very special space where everybody feels free to talk about the people who have died. They even talk about how much the dead are going to enjoy their favourite tamales and all the drinks, food, and candy they will find in their altars. Here you can hear all kinds of stories and memories of the lost ones, and of course, tears will come out of the eyes of many.

This is a multidimensional event; too many things happen at the same time and miraculously everybody knows what to do. While some are in the kitchen making tamales, others are at the oven cooking the bread, others are decorating the altar and others are cleaning the house and bringing wood sticks to get ready for the velada a fire that every family in the town will set up outside of their houses to illuminate the path for their loved ones to their Ofrenda.

This festivity is related to the milpa cycle: it is the end of the harvest and the cornfields have lots of carrizo, a type of dried cane stick that children and adults collect to make star shape decorations covered with tissue paper and also to make paper balloons or Amatecolotl (the name these paper balloons used to have because they had the shape of an owl, while nowadays they are star-shaped). The balloons guide the loved ones to their homes.

Kids will also carve skeleton faces in chilacayotes, a kind of wild pumpkin squash that grows in the fields, and put a candle inside to decorate and illuminate the path to the Ofrendas.

Another way to guide the dead ones to their altars is to make a line path out of marigold flower petals that goes from the street to the inside of the house where the altar is located, so the dead ones won’t get confused or lost.

The entire town will also go to the cemetery on November the 2nd, where the families will clean the tombs and some will make reparations if they are essential. The shrine will also be decorated with Cempasuchitl (marigold flower), here it is essential to burn candles.

The visit to the cemetery is a moment where the entire community will share with the dead food, drinks, live music, and even street food merchants will join. In some places, this visit to the cemetery will continue all night long and people will wait for their loved ones there instead of waiting for them in the private house altar.

The night of October 31st is when the dead children come to visit their altars, special presents and gifts for them will be put in the Ofrenda. On November 1st, the church bells of the town will start to ring at 3pm announcing that the children are leaving and that the grownups are arriving to town, later at 6pm a fire will be set up outside the house and everybody will spend the night surrounding the fire. The next day, November 2nd, at 3 pm, the church bells will ring again to announce that the dead ones are leaving town.

In this celebration, we welcome our loved ones to their altars, some will have incense burning at the bottom of the table, others will pray to the souls and all of us will have the chance to greet them and tell them that we missed them and maybe talk about how life has been without them around. Then, of course, we will watch with pride our display of love: the food and decorations we made to remember them.

The British Library will host a Day of the Dead celebration with an altar that will be built at the main entrance. We hope this will be a good opportunity to bring the memory of your loved ones, maybe by putting a small photograph in the Ofrenda. Many of us will have the chance to experience this tradition and have the opportunity to grieve and celebrate in a safe and communal environment the lives of the ones that no longer are with us.

Blog post by Isela Xospa.


An open book. In both pages and illustration in two colours, black and orange, depicting a Day of the Dead Altar with a table with food, bread, candles, decorated sugar skulls, flowers and incense burns. Four skeletons are flying around the table smelling the content of the altar.
In miqui yoli. El muerto vivo, 2019. Image by Isela Xospa. Tells the story of Pedro, a dead man who kept himself alive in his tomb saving the food and candles that people left for him in his Day of the Dead Altar. Currently being catalogued by the BL.



Isela Xospa is an illustrator, indigenous language activist and publisher from Milpa Alta, in the Nahua region in southeast Mexico City. She manages Ediciones XospaTronik, an independent publishing project promoting the revitalisation of the Nahuatl language. She works with publishing illustrated children’s books in indigenous languages, and finding ways to make these publications accessible. She is currently a British Library Chevening Fellow working on Latin American Indigenous Languages in early printed books.














26 October 2021

US Fine Presses: a new guide to the Library's holdings

We are delighted to let you know that the Eccles Centre has just published a new Americas-focused bibliographic guide: US Fine Presses Established after 1945: A Guide to the British Library's Holdings (just scroll down a little to find it!)

This guide grew out of a conversation in late 2019 with then-Head of the Centre, Phil Hatfield, who had recently pledged financial support towards the cataloguing of a backlog of US fine press publications. A large number of these works – produced on old-fashioned hand-presses by contemporary printers – had been acquired by our curatorial colleagues in the previous 15 years. Phil rightly noted that without some kind of check-list or guide, it would be almost impossible for Library Readers, now or in the future, to appreciate the depth and richness of these holdings.

A colourful, stretched-out concertina style book, with images of faces and text throughout.
Borderbus. [Poem by Juan Filipe Herrera; prints by Felicia Rice.] Santa Cruz, CA: Moving Parts Press, 2019. British Library shelfmark: RF.2019.b.144

Initially, the guide was just going to list the works that were then being catalogued. This suited me perfectly since at that point I honestly didn’t understand the time, money and effort that my colleagues had devoted to obtaining these items! Thankfully, as I immersed myself in this world, my appreciation grew – both for the beauty, originality and boundary-pushing nature of the items themselves, and for the imagination and skill of their printers. And as my appreciation increased, so too did the scope of this project. After discovering P.A.H. Brown’s Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library (London, 1976) it seemed sensible to push our own guide’s start date back to 1965.1 And as it became apparent that several post-war presses had been omitted from Brown, so we pushed that date back even further, to 1945.

An image of an orange/brown toned mountain thrown into sharp relief by a starry blue sky. The image is signed by its artist: Daniel Goldstein.
Kenneth Rexroth, Between Two Wars: Selected Poems Written Prior to the Second World War. Illustrations by Daniel Goldstein. Athens, OH: Labyrinth Editions; San Francisco, CA: Iris Press, 1982. British Library shelfmark: Cup.408.rr.9

The first step in tracking down these presses was to search the Library’s catalogue. Covid-19 related Library closures, combined with often-minimal cataloguing data, made it difficult to verify many of the items’ fine press credentials in person. Thankfully, however, online access to rare bookseller and auction websites made it possible, slowly but surely, to determine whether an item was hand-printed and whether a press had been founded after World War II.

An open book. On the left hand page a black and white lithograph appears to depict shards of glass flying towards the reader; on the right is a poem by Diane Ackerman.
About Sylvia. Poems by Diane Ackerman; lithographs by Enid Mark. Wallingford, PA: ELM Press, 1996. British Library shelfmark: Cup.512.d.9

In total, items by more than 180 such presses were found in the Library’s collection. More than 160 of these presses started after 1965 and – incredibly – more than 90 were established between 1965-1980. This fifteen-year period truly was a golden era for hand-press printing in the United States – a cultural phenomenon which seems entirely in-tune with that counter-cultural moment. Crucially, too, this was the point at which graduates from the recently established university book arts programmes began founding fine presses of their own.

A double-page blue and white print depicting the sea, mountains and a wooden boat on its side.
Tom Killion, The Coast of California: Point Reyes to Point Sur. Santa Cruz & Mill Valley, CA: The Quail Press, 1979. British Library shelfmark: C.180.k.1

Researching the emergence and development of these presses was absolutely fascinating. Time and again it showed me the profound impact that great teachers can have not only on individuals, but on an entire creative landscape. For this reason, in addition to listing the names of these presses and some of their works, the guide offers a short ‘biography’ of each of press, including, where possible: the name of the press’s founder(s); the founder’s training and/or education and mentor; how long the press was in operation; how it developed over time; any speciality in subject matter or genre; any change in location; the type of equipment used; and whether it made its own paper. After this ‘biography’, the full details of up to ten works are listed for every press. And at the end of the guide there is a geographic index to the presses, arranged by US state.

An open book. On the left hand page a swirling black and white image appears to depict cigarette smoke; on the right hand side is a black and white image of Charlie Parker, with his name written underneath.
Trading Eights: The Faces of Jazz. Essay by Ted Gioia; engravings by James G. Todd, Jr.; poem by Dana Gioia. California: Mixolydian Editions, 2016. British Library shelfmark: RF.2016.b.69

I hope this guide will prove useful to all those working in this field. And for those who are not, I hope it will offer an insight into a lesser-known aspect of the Library’s Americas holdings.

A dark and brooding image of Edgar Allan Poe. His black hair looks unkempt and he wears a high-neck collar and a dark jacket or coat.
Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven. Etchings and wood engravings by Alan James Robinson. Easthampton, MA: Cheloniidae Press, 1980. British Library shelfmark: C.136.g.42

Jean Petrovic


  1. Philip A.H. Brown, Modern British and American Private Presses (1850-1965): [catalogue of the] holdings of the British Library. London: British Museum Publications Ltd for the Library, 1976. Shelfmark: Open Access Rare Books and Music 094.4016 ENG; General Reference Collection 2708.aa.36; Document Supply 78/9820. 

14 October 2021

Americas and Oceania e-Resources: An Introduction

In light of the recent unprecedented demand for digital materials, we’ve decided to run a year-long series of monthly blogposts highlighting the extraordinarily rich Americas and Oceania-focused e-resources that are held at the British Library. Although most of these e-resources need to be consulted in-person in the Library’s Reading Rooms, some are accessible remotely to Reader’s Pass holders and we are hopeful that this number will continue to rise.

In terms of content, e-resources fall into two broad categories: full-text and bibliographic. The former will give you all or most of a particular item, be that a book, journal article, map, letter, playbill, diary, logbook, newspaper article, photo or minutes of a meeting. The latter will simply provide you with citations which you then need follow up elsewhere - in the Library’s Main Catalogue, for example, or a catalogue at another institution.

Psalmes II
Fig. 1: The Whole Booke of Psalmes, 1640. This was the first book to be published in the American colonies. It can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Over the coming year, these blogs will cover both types of e-resources (full-text and bibliographic) and will clearly flag the kind of access they offer (in-person or remote). Some will focus on particular subjects: for example, US politics, Oceania, or literature of the Americas. Others will focus on certain types of material. Next month, for example, we will look at newspapers, including historic newspapers from the Caribbean, Latin America and the US,  American Indian newspapers, communist newspapers and service newspapers of World War II; many of these are accessible remotely.

All of the Americas and Oceania e-resources can be found in the Library’s Main Catalogue.

However, if you don’t have any titles or you want to get a sense of what the Library holds, please browse the holdings by subject. Currently, there are 130+ e-resources listed under History, for example, many of which have Americas and Oceania content. And more than 110 are listed under American Studies, a selection of which includes: America in World War Two; American Civil Liberties Union Papers; Black Freedom Struggle in the 20th Century; Entertainment Industry Magazine Archive, 1880-2015; First World War Portal; Global Commodities: Trade, Exploration and Cultural Exchange; History Vault: African American Police League Records, 1961-1988; History Vault: Struggle for Women’s Rights, 1880-1990; The Nixon Years; North American Indian Thought and Culture; Slavery & Antislavery: A Transnational Archive; Trade Catalogues and the American Home; and Virginia Company Archives.

Anne bradstreet II
Fig. 2: Several Poems Compiled with Great Variety and Learning...(1678). This anonymous and posthumously published volume of poetry by Anne Bradstreet was the first work by a woman to be published in the American colonies. It can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Finally, I’ll just say a few words about one of my personal favourites: Early American Imprints: Series I: Evans, 1639-1800.  Based on the 14-volume work by US bibliographer Charles Evans, this incredible database provides the full-text of almost every book, pamphlet and periodical published on American soil in the 17th and 18th centuries.And once you have a Reader’s Pass, you can access it whenever and wherever you wish! Among its many treasures are The Whole Booke of Psalmes (1640) – the first work published in the American colonies (Fig 1, above). Anne Bradstreet’s self-revised and posthumously published Several Poems Completed with Great Variety of Wit and Learning (1678) – the first book by a woman to be published in North America (Fig.2, above). And An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects Which Have Appeared in the World…(1784) by Hannah Adams – the first woman in the United States to make her living as a writer (Fig. 3, below).

Hannah adams
Fig. 3: Hannah Adams, An Alphabetical Compendium of the Various Sects...(1784). Adams was the first American woman to make her living as a writer and this was her first book; it can be found in the full-text, remote access e-resource 'Early American Imprints, 1639-1800.'

Happy browsing!

Next month we will look at the Library's huge range of Americas-focused e-newspapers. 

(And if you would like to learn more about the British Library's holdings of works by early American women writers, please take a look at 'For Myself, For My Children, For Money': A Bibliography of Early American Women's Writings at the British Library on the the Eccles Centre's website.)


Charles Evans, American Bibliography: A Chronological Dictionary of all Books, Pamphlets and Periodical Publications Printed in the United States of America ... 14 vols. British Library shelfmark: Open Access Humanities 1 HRL 015.73