Nettie Lee Benson, historian, teacher, and librarian, the fourth of ten children of Jasper William and Vora Ann (Reddell) Benson, was born in Arcadia, Galveston County, Texas, on January 15, 1905. The family moved in 1908 to Sinton, where her father established a vegetable-shipping business. Nettie Lee graduated from Sinton High School in 1922 as valedictorian. A voracious reader, she studied Spanish, played competitive tennis, and participated in numerous school and church activities. She was a lifelong member of the Sinton Presbyterian Church (her parents were founding members); in later years she was a benefactor of the Presbyterian Children's Home and Service Agency.
Miss Benson's involvement with Mexico and with teaching began early in her life. She considered a course by Professor Charles W. Hackett on Spanish North America that she took in 1925 at the University of Texas her prime motivation for studying Mexico. Shortly after taking the course, she moved to Monterrey, Nuevo León, and taught from 1925 to 1927 at the Instituto Inglés-Español, a school run by the Methodist Church. She earned a bachelor's degree with honors at UT in 1929, and began graduate work the following year. She left in 1931 to teach fifth grade in Hartley and returned to Sinton the next year to care for an ailing mother and to teach Spanish and English at Ingleside High School. For the next ten years she sponsored field trips to Monterrey for the high school senior class. She was also instrumental in gaining admittance of Hispanic students to the previously all-White high school. By continuing graduate study during the summers, Miss Benson earned a master's degree in 1935 from UT with majors in Latin-American history and government.
She returned to UT on a leave of absence in 1941 to take what she thought would be refresher courses, but stayed to complete her doctorate in 1949. In 1942 she began her lifelong association with the library that now bears her name, the Latin American Collection. Miss Benson quickly became an authority on Latin-American library acquisitions and bibliography. She began an aggressive acquisition program for the library that included trips to Mexico, South America, and the Caribbean, and developed an innovative acquisition methodology adapted to conditions in the Latin-American book-publishing trade. From a respectable 30,000 volumes in 1942, the Latin American Collection grew to 305,000 volumes by 1975, the year of her retirement. The Nettie Lee Benson Latin American Collection became one of the most comprehensive and distinguished Latin-American libraries in the world. Miss Benson's expertise was recognized by her library colleagues when she was chosen as the representative for the Latin American Cooperative Acquisitions Project, a consortium of major United States research libraries, for which she collected books in South America and Central America from 1960 to 1962.
At UT her teaching career took a new direction. In 1962 she began to teach Mexican and Latin-American history for the history department, and in 1964 she initiated with Ford Foundation funding a Latin-American library-studies program in the Graduate School of Library Science. She retired from teaching in the library school in 1975, but continued her popular graduate seminars in Mexican history until 1989. One of her first history seminars resulted in a classic book of essays written by her students, Mexico and the Spanish Córtes, 1820–1834, published by the University of Texas Press in 1966 and reprinted in Spanish by the Mexican congress in 1985. Miss Benson directed numerous master's and doctoral theses over her twenty-six years of teaching.
Complementing her library and teaching activities, she presented countless papers and published many articles and books on nineteenth-century Mexican history and on the holdings of the Latin American Collection. A Spanish translation of her doctoral dissertation, The Provincial Deputation in Mexico: Precursor of the Mexican Federal State, was published in Mexico in 1952 and again in 1980. Augmented by additional research on the topic, an expanded English version of the dissertation was published by the University of Texas Press in 1992. An essay, "Texas as Viewed from Mexico, 1820–1834," appeared in the January, 1987, issue of the Southwestern Historical Quarterly, which was dedicated to her.
Nettie Lee Benson was an active member of many professional historical, archival, and library organizations. She was a founding member of the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials in 1956 and of the Latin American Studies Association in 1966. She held a number of offices in several organizations, serving as president of the Seminar (1970–71) and as chairperson (1970) of the Bolton Prize Committee of the Conference on Latin American History. She was elected to the editorial board of the Hispanic American Historical Review (1974–79). In 1992 she was elected an honorary life member of the Texas State Historical Association. The highest recognition of her achievements was the renaming in 1975 of the Latin American Collection in her honor by the University of Texas Board of Regents shortly after her retirement. At this time, she began the endowment of the Nettie Lee Benson Library Fund for the purchase of rare materials for the Benson Collection. Miss Benson was also president of the Fourth International Conference of United States and Mexican Historians (1973) and a recipient of the Order of the Aztec Eagle (1979), the highest official decoration given to non-Mexicans by Mexico. She received honors from the Southwestern Council on Latin American Studies (1968–69), the UT-Austin Institute of Latin American Studies (1973), the Casa de Cultura Americana (1974), the Conference on Latin American History (1976), the Seminar on the Acquisition of Latin American Library Materials (1977), the Texas House of Representatives (1977), the UT-Austin Ex-Students' Association (1981), the UT-Austin Graduate School (1984), the office of the UT president (1986), and the UT College of Liberal Arts (1990). She died of natural causes at age eighty-eight in Austin on June 23, 1993.