Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain

A French aristocrat who succeeded to the Spanish throne, Philip was eager to demonstrate his support of institutions that fostered Spanish culture. By founding the Royal Library of Spain, he helped to revive the Spanish Golden Age that thrived under the Habsburgs. The Royal Library, controlled by the Crown, became the government-run National Library of Spain in 1836.

Summary of Event

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Habsburg Dynasty Habsburg Empire ruled Spain. Of Austrian origin, the dynasty’s last monarch was Charles II, who died without an heir in 1700. He appointed Philip, the duke of Anjou and the grandson of King Louis XIV of France, to be his successor. A French aristocrat from the powerful Bourbon Dynasty, Philip reigned as Philip V. Threatening the balance of power in Europe, his accession prompted the start of the War of the Spanish Succession in 1701, a conflict that continued until 1714. [kw]Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain (1712)
[kw]Spain, Philip V Founds the Royal Library of (1712)
[kw]Library of Spain, Philip V Founds the Royal (1712)
[kw]Royal Library of Spain, Philip V Founds the (1712)
[kw]Founds the Royal Library of Spain, Philip V (1712)
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[g]Spain;1712: Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain[0340]
[c]Cultural and intellectual history;1712: Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain[0340]
[c]Education;1712: Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain[0340]
[c]Organizations and institutions;1712: Philip V Founds the Royal Library of Spain[0340]
Philip V
Robinet, Pierre
Daubenton, Guillaume
Macanaz, Melchor Rafael de

Because he was a foreign-born monarch, Philip V wanted to ensure support for his reign by demonstrating his solidarity with Spanish culture and character. Therefore, he encouraged the foundation of institutions of learning that were to be based on the French models that had enriched French culture. The National Library of France, one such model, began as a royal library in the fifteenth century, becoming a deposit library for newly published books in the sixteenth century. France had opened its first public library, the Mazarine Library, in 1643. The legal scholar and royal official Melchor Rafael de Macanaz, who supported the Bourbon monarchy and the assertion of royal authority, emphasized the establishment of Spanish cultural institutions to revive Spain as a nation.

Although initially designated a royal library, the institution that Philip inaugurated stipulated that its collections were to be accessible to the general public. Planned in 1711, the Biblioteca Real (the Royal Library) began operations in 1712, comprising various types of collections. The king contributed approximately six thousand books he had brought from France, and his mother, Princess Marie Anne of Bavaria, donated more than two thousand books and manuscripts, making much of the original collection, books as well as archival material, multilingual. Additionally, Philip donated a collection of medallions, coins, and other items that gave the library holdings similar to those of a museum.

To manage the library, the king appointed his Jesuit confessor, Father Pierre Robinet, a French theologian, to head the institution. (Robinet earlier had been a seminary rector and diplomatic adviser.) The library was located near the palace at Alcazar. The collections occupied a portion of that building, and the facilities for the public were installed in a historic cloister nearby. The district was actually rather raucous, an area of theaters, gaming houses, and diversion parlors. The library was open on weekdays, with hours in the morning and again in the afternoon. It had a budget based not on the king’s purse but on luxury taxes. Within a few years the library’s personnel included several librarians and other staff, including a guard.

Less than half the budget was allotted for acquisitions, but this did not affect the library’s ability to increase its holdings. In 1716, Philip singularly enhanced the capacity of the library to grow by making it a mandatory depository library: The institution was to receive one copy not only of each commercially published book but also of government publications. Philip V also required that booksellers remit to the library their vendor lists. A tradition of Spanish national bibliography comes from these lists. The reliability with which these regulations were followed and enforced varied. The inclusion of government documents and public records, however, enhanced the archival nature of the collections. The depository policy also enhanced the Spanish-language nature of the holdings. The collections grew with additional donations from the monarch and his officials, and through confiscations. Spain’s many domestic and international conflicts during the eighteenth century especially favored the latter source of collection building.

In 1715, Robinet had to leave Spain because he had to defend Macanaz against the Spanish Inquisition. Robinet later returned to France and his duties as a seminary rector, and enhanced his institution’s library. His successor, both as royal confessor and as head of the royal library, was another French Jesuit, Father Guillaume Daubenton. A philosopher and seminary administrator, Daubenton took up his royal posts in 1716, returning from a trip to Rome. Daubenton divided his library duties with a Madrid parish priest, and the two augmented the library staff and carried out the king’s new depository policies. Daubenton continued his library work until his death in 1723.


Although not a particularly forceful or decisive ruler, King Philip V did have a significant impact on intellectual and cultural development in Spain. His idea for a royal library came with ideas for other cultural enhancements. He authorized the founding in 1713 of the Real Academia Española (the Spanish Royal Academy), Royal Academy, Spain which is dedicated to preserving and propagating the Spanish language. The academy’s Diccionario de la lengua España
Diccionario de la lengua España (Royal Academy, Spain) (1714; dictionary of the Spanish language) published its twenty-second edition in 2001. In 1738, Philip authorized the establishment of the Real Academia de la Historia (the Spanish Royal Academy of History). Royal Academy of History, Spain Among this academy’s principal objectives is compiling a critical dictionary of Spanish history, the Diccionario histórico-crítico de España, Diccionario histórico-crítico de España (Royal Academy of History, Spain) which applies an analytical perspective to past events, freeing Spain’s history from myth and fable. Both of the academies developed significant libraries as well.

The Royal Library of Spain, with its original “royal” designation, should not be confused with two other “royal” libraries: the library at El Escorial El Escorial library
Escorial, El, library and the library at Madrid’s royal palace, which were private and for royal use only. El Escorial library, established by King Philip II, is among the world’s most beautiful and sumptuous. Philip V’s institution grew from much more modest circumstances.

The Royal Library of Spain, through its literature, ephemera, and scholarship, substantively contributed to Philip’s efforts to revive the Spanish Golden Age Spanish Golden Age of the seventeenth century. However, Spain’s economic and political decay during the eighteenth century accelerated. Decades of destabilizing conflict followed, from the time of the Napoleonic invasion at the beginning of the nineteenth century to the Civil War (1936-1939) and to the regime of Francisco Franco (1939-1975). The library has, however, remained a keystone for Spanish culture throughout the world, having been established as a national library, La Biblioteca Nacional de España, in 1836.

Further Reading

  • Girón, Alicia. “The Biblioteca Nacional of Spain.” Alexandria 6, no. 2 (1994): 91-103. Girón examines the history of the national library, describing the nature and origin of the initial holdings donated by King Philip V.
  • Kamen, Henry. Golden Age Spain. 2d ed. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004. Kamen traces the rise and fall of Spanish cultural development from the late fourteenth to the mid-eighteenth century.
  • __________. Philip V of Spain: The King Who Reigned Twice. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. Kamen reviews Philip V’s life and reign, including the cultural objectives and policies influenced by his French background.
  • Laubier, Guillaume de, and Jacques Bosser. The Most Beautiful Libraries in the World. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2003. An illustrated tour of the historic libraries of Europe and the United States, including El Escorial in Spain.
  • Lynch, John. Bourbon Spain, 1700-1808. New York: Basil Blackwell, 1989. Lynch, a noted specialist on Spanish history, chronicles the reigns of the Spanish Bourbons, including Philip V.
  • McCrank, Lawrence J. “National Library of Spain.” International Dictionary of Library Histories. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001. Places the founding of the library and its early years in the context of the institution’s overall history.
  • Mayol, Carme, and Angels Massisimo. “Libraries and Librarianship in Spain.” IFLA Journal 19, no. 2 (1993): 131-146. An overview of the professional development of librarianship and the general development of libraries in Spain, published in the journal of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions.

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