Aula Máxima es la biblioteca y también lugar de recreo del espíritu.   - José Vasconcelos




Inside the Mexicali Public Library
If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges?
Storytellers and promotion of reading
Cybrarian ruminations
Heartfelt thanks

The Road to Mexicali
Hop aboard the PLUS Bus to the Ninth Cross-Border Library Forum!

How to slip through the border with ease
The Greyhound drops you off in front of the international gate, leaving you a short walk into a nation with a long history (next time you're on the reference desk and have a spare moment, look up the sites of the first university and the first printing press in the Western Hemisphere).

Mexicali's the southern half of a border duo; its northern twin, in California, is called Calexico. They were made for each other. Border crossing, for work, shopping, even for a quick snack, is part of the routine here. Getting into Mexicali is relatively simple: you press a button wired to a traffic light, and if it flashes green, you're on your way. I don't know what happens to you if it's red.

On your way out, back to the U.S., you'll have to answer some questions. "What's your occupation?", a suspicious guard asked one FORO participant.

"I'm a librarian," came the reply. The guard waved him through instantly.

Free trade
International cooperation, that's what the FORO is about--built on the noble recognition that knowledge and ideas are free to ignore arbitrary national borders. The program addressed such exciting topics of information exchange as international interlibrary loan and--something on almost everyone's mind--the application of new technologies. It was indeed a gathering animated by the faith that colleagues can reach across political lines to help each other spread the light that emanates from an open book--and, less metaphorically, but ever more vitally, from a Web-wired computer screen.

The FORO also included site visits and classes, along with a number of presentations and roundtable discussions. Although public librarians were a small--but spirited--minority, I was fortunate to have the chance to take part in activities I think you'll enjoy reading about--including a post-FORO adventure with federal Library Inspectors patrolling desert outposts. And no, I'm not kidding.

Back to Top

Libraries of a different century
The relative scarcity of public librarians among Canadian and U.S. FORO participants, while not surprising--after all, few public libraries can afford to pass out plane tickets and per diem vouchers as universities do--was, for me, the conference's sole shortcoming. The academic-library orientation was also evident in the program. Of the three ancillary events I chose to attend, which were the only public library items on offer, two were canceled for lack of interest.

(Mind you, I did meet munificent campus librarians, and I salute them: for example, Dr. Frank Bruno of the University of California at San Diego's Imperial Valley Campus in Calexico, who opens a magnificent facility to the community, with Internet access more liberally available than at the town's public library; and Lic. Ana María Orozco of CETYS Tijuana, a pioneering Baja California librarian whose entire collection is available to the public for checkout, and who even runs children's programs--in the library of a private prep school and university!)

One problem with this imbalance at the FORO is that it can distort an outsider's view of Mexico's library situation. It's all very well to discuss databases and online cataloging--there are some well-funded campus libraries in Mexico. But it's important to recognize that public libraries there operate with the tools of a different decade. Indeed, soon enough, of a different century.

Back toTop

Inside Mexicali's central library
A FORO field trip that did come off as scheduled was the visit to Mexicali's central public library. The big bus from the conference site held only five of us, and that included don César Celaya---who, as a staffer at the central, had to make the trip, to get back to work.

Just a block or two west of the grand white facade of the old state capitol--now the rectory of the state university--is the public library. Director Gerardo Sánchez greeted our small group in the foyer, whose wall is covered with a brilliantly realized naturalist/realist mural depicting the historic struggles of the region's people. Significant it is that Mexicali natives proudly call themselves cachanillas, for an indigenous shrub that thrives in harsh conditions and puts down deep roots in the desert sand.

The mural's central image, Gerardo pointed out, is that of book-carrying youngsters ascending a staircase that leads to an imposing stone alphabet. With that notion in mind we entered the library proper--an expansive space that accommodates a classroom, offices, a well-equipped children's room, an auditorium, forty thousand books, and a couple hundred people. Open every day, from 8:00 a.m. on weekdays ("mostly so old guys can come in and read the paper"), the library last year celebrated its 25th anniversary.

The newest addition is a computer, courtesy of the federal government's program to connect several hundred larger public libraries to the Internet. Though currently out of service, the machine presents an image of modernity, strikingly juxtaposed with the wooden case of the card catalogue a few steps away.

The Wall of Shame
Other contrasts to typical U.S. libraries bear mentioning.

Barcodes are not on the books nor the library cards. Although Mexican supermarkets and convenience store chains have long been scanning pesos into profits, such technology remains far out of reach of the public libraries.

Registering for a library card is relatively onerous, requiring two patron-supplied photos and a responsible co-signer. Patrons who borrow from more than one branch must hold cards in each.

Once you have your card, you're allowed up to three items, painstakingly checked out using a date stamp and a pen, and you can keep them for one week. Not enough time? Renewals are allowed, but if you don't bother you're allowed only three strikes before your borrowing privileges are suspended temporarily (and, in some libraries, your photo is posted on a wall of shame).

Your money's no good here
No fines are charged, nor is there a cash register at the circulation desk. No bags or used books or cute stationery sets are for sale--this strictly-enforced policy is designed to reinforce the understanding that all public library services are offered freely to everyone. Hence no money changes hands in the library.

There is essentially no acquisition budget. Local governments may help out with publications of regional interest, but the bulk of any library's collection is composed of twice-yearly shipments of items selected in Mexico City--one size fits all--by the federal Library Bureau (actually called the Dirección General de Bibliotecas, or DGB).

As for staff training, it is coordinated nationally by the DGB which regularly conducts classes and inservice sessions. Although none of the Mexicali Public Library's staff holds a librarianship degree, their admirable level of professionalism and mastery is very much in evidence.

A community focal point
The Mexicali Public Library works hard to maintain its role as a cultural center. Its classes, workshops, and other offerings are frequent, and range from chess clubs to literary discussions to book repair instruction. During our tour, a couple dozen children and parents were in the auditorium enjoying a recent Disney film at the weekly Cine Club presentation, while upstairs a group of all ages worked with glue and clamps in the "book hospital."

Other aspects of the library's operation reflect practices familiar to many of its U.S. counterparts. Outreach, for example, includes a twice-monthly storytime presentation in the middle of Mexicali's busy Cachanilla shopping mall, using a P.A. system and a number of attractive, low-budget props; scheduled library tours by school groups; and weekly visits by one staff member to neighborhoods without libraries (there are only six branches in the city of 850,000).

I was, frankly, entranced and even moved by what I saw at the library, astonished by its marvelous accomplishments on such a thin budget. I didn't notice that my tour group had already left when I got caught up in a display of historical photos, explained for me by don César and his colleague don Pancho Alvarado. Finally I had to be shooed out of the library. But I would be back.

Back to Top

On duty with the G-men
The Mexicali Public Library tour was captivating---almost literally, as I got separated from the group and lingered inside until the bus driver was itching to pop the clutch and go---because the staff members and director generously indulged my interest in their work. Lic. Socorro Sánchez, the regional director, a few days later invited me to tag along on an official site visit by agents of the DGB, Mexico's federal library bureau.

I met Armando Fuentes and his quiet sidekick Saíd Hernández in the morning; we piled into Socorro's fire-engine-red VW Beetle and set out for little Ciudad Morelos, an hour to the east.

Nice work if you can get it
Along the way, Armando described some of the hundreds of libraries he has seen in his five years of making diagnostic visits, such as the one in Jiquilpan, Michoacán that is decorated with breathtaking woodwork, and murals by José Clemente Orozco--a jewel of a facility. Bright-eyed Armando confirmed that he fell in love with his job from the beginning, and it had since taken him from the deep south to the far north.

Not a bad gig. Federally centralized library control, rigid as it may be, has some virtue if it creates dream jobs like Armando's.

The library under scrutiny this morning was a small municipal branch, Biblioteca Niños Heroes. The facade makes a striking first impression: red brick construction, stately columns on the porch. The dozen-year old building has much of the air of a classic Carnegie library.

After the initial dazzle wears off, you notice the front remains unfinished, with planned adornments entirely missing. Socorro tells me, furthermore, that the large official identification sign up there is way out of date.

Inside, the inspectors prowl the bare concrete floor, sizing up the place, getting oriented. A handsome mural on one wall, a few posters here and there, a children's room with large cardboard Disney characters suspended over miniature chairs and tables bearing thirty years of scars and stains.

Armando, so courteous in the car, now becomes sternly authoritarian as he instructs the librarians to bring him their statistics for the past month and year, and sits down with them for what will be a lengthy formal interview.

Meanwhile, Saíd snaps pictures, moves mysteriously from room to room, checks encyclopedia volumes to verify they're duly stamped on page 25 with the government seal. He's meticulous, this DGB agent; the way he's sniffing around brings to mind Spanish's equivalent of 'bookworm'--ratón de la biblioteca, that is, 'library mouse.'

In my own sniffing, I can't help but notice that the small collection teems with multiple copies of scores of titles--not based on popularity, either, as a look inside the cover confirms that most haven't circulated in years, if at all.

Library limbo
I timidly interrupt Saíd's shelf reading to ask him about this. "Excuse me, licenciado, but I have a question..." His reply is disappointingly evasive. I persist.

"But isn't there a way for this library, say, to exchange its duplicates with another library that might lack those titles?" Yes, he said, thumbing toward page 25 of another encyclopedia, that can be done. I didn't bother to mention the layers of desert dust on the volumes in question, surmising that in this case the fact that it could be done was as satisfactory as actually doing it.

Later I raised this issue with a working librarian who spoke more frankly. "I ask myself the same thing! Most of these books'll never leave the shelf. We had to weed through the collection recently and box up a pile of them for storage, just to make room."

"In the U.S.," I put in brightly, "we regularly sell books pulled from the collection. It's a way to raise money for the library." Ayy, güey, cómo chingas; it's not as if nobody in Mexico's ever thought of that. The hitch is that regulations forbid libraries from selling books, and even of disposing of them without official approval.

"I've got plenty I'd just like to recycle and put them out of their misery!" the librarian told me. "Ancient textbooks and that sort of thing. But that would mean trouble." So the books, their useful life long over, occupy a kind of library limbo, neither read nor removed from the shelves.

The public/academic library resource gap--or, somebody call a plumber
The inspection of the Niños Heroes Library went on and on. Socorro and I walked over to the high school library, where a student who had been trained in a Mexicali Public Library workshop was busy repairing books. Right beside his glue, hacksaw blades, and wooden clamps tightened with wingnuts were three Internet-linked computers. And on all the books in the one-room library were barcodes. No database has been set up yet, but it is a start, and the high school students will certainly be involved in the modernization of the library.

Socorro and I looked at PLUS for a while and then strolled back to the Niños Heroes Library. I asked to use the bathroom, did so, and then discovered that the building has no running water.

Electricity, at least, is pumped into the library through a thick orange extension cord that's plugged in at a school across the street. The fluorescent ceiling lights were installed within the last year--long overdue, observed Socorro, but progress nonetheless.

Niños Heroes Library, as a municipal facility, depends on the city government for funding. On the way back we dropped in on another such branch: the smaller, brighter, and altogether more cheery Benito Juárez Library. It adjoins the town hall, where officials have been comparatively generous with their neighbor.

On the return trip to Mexicali, agent Armando described the limitations of some other libraries he has seen: He watched patrons reading by candlelight in Durango; in Tabasco, he saw books lined up on rustic plank-and-branch constructions because nobody bothered to provide any shelves. "But, what never fails to impress me," Armando said, his incandescent eyes lighting up again, "is that the people come!" Armando's love for public libraries is genuine. Charmed as I was by this dedicated inspector, I learned that not everyone in the trenches is as sanguine.

"Yeah, it's wonderful that the patrons come," a bibliotecario of long experience commented when I related some of Armando's stories, "it truly is. But it's also a little depressing. They shouldn't have to put up with conditions like that. People deserve better." Pause.

"But"--a shrug and a smile--"we're librarians. We do what we can."

Back to Top

"A young child will listen to an old story"
So agreed three librarians whose joint presentation at the FORO showed their special interest in young people--Eva Morales, who directs the Ensenada Public Library; psychologist Magdalena Duarte of the University of Baja California; and bilingual storyteller Martín Rivera, youth services and outreach librarian from the Tucson Public Library. Though working from different ends of the spectrum--a uniformly programmed and centralized public library structure in Mexico, an every-branch-for-itself paradigm in the U.S.--the presenters arrived at essentially the same conclusion: for many young readers, the best role model for a lifetime of learning is their friendly neighborhood librarian.

In Mexico, the vast majority of bibliotecarios learned through on-the-job apprenticeships. Though many are college-educated, very few studied library science. Morales asserted that this has shaped the popular perception that librarians are trained service workers, not information professionals.

The situation is not likely to change anytime soon; there's no economic incentive for career librarians to wrestle a diploma from one of the six--count 'em, six--Mexican universities offering LIS programs. But what all librarians can do is make evident their own regard for books and for learning. This, suggested Morales, will help early readers understand why reading is worthwhile.

She spoke of the ideal library as a lively, wide-open place, one that kids perceive as a playground where they can draw pictures, play, and interact with texts and friends.

Most Mexican programming comes from the government agency that controls public libraries. In everything from policies to acquisition, there simply isn't the autonomy found in the US, where even affiliated libraries are often free to go their own way, independently of other branches in their system. The Mexican summer reading program is a homogenized nationwide effort; library staffs are specially trained and furnished with guidelines from Mexico City.

So does that make this reading program, which everywhere from Chiapas to Tijuana is called "My Vacation in the Library," a dry and stale business? Not on your life. Local librarians give the program its vitality. In Mexicali's central library, for example, every staff member takes part in field trips and other activities that involve not only scores of children, but many parents as well.

Duarte, after explaining why children's programs sometimes fail to infect kids with the reading bug--lack of engaging materials, improper group sizes, unappealing spaces, inexperienced staff--outlined a principled recipe for creating autonomous readers and lifelong learners. The first ingredients are icebreaker activities that build espirit de corps and a sense of fun in the group, and the cherry on top is the librarian's encouragement of participants to stick around, get a library card, and check out books.

In between, she stressed, is the crucial element of, in the good Mr. Forster's phrase, only connect: regardless of how the reading/storytelling is done (e.g., with kids listening, following along, or even making it all up themselves), the effectiveness of the activity depends on the integration of their lives, their experiences, with the text, and vice versa.

An exchange of opinions, facilitated by gentle open-ended questioning, should, she said, follow every story. Did that story remind you of anything that happens at your house? What is it?" Duarte stressed that such sharing of experiences is what gives meaning and importance to the story program.

Rivera's presentation began with the steady slap of his hands on a skin drum, accompanying his rich voice as he wove English into Spanish, Spanish into rhythm, rhythm into story. His style was hypnotic and entertaining; once he had the audience's attention, Rivera gave us a wealth of suggestions and the essence of his library philosophy.

He mentioned popular, innovative programs such as "Burgers & Books" (an outreach effort that feeds the stomach and the mind), a trilingual storytime (English, Spanish, and American Sign Language), and the TPL's practice of putting books in the waiting rooms of social service agencies.

Rivera endorsed the idea of parent-child cooperation in learning programs, which he has facilitated in such contexts as introductory computer instruction and book discussion groups.

The ideas Rivera hasn't yet been able to implement--I learned at dinner, later in the day--are at least as thrilling. He'd like to outfit a library van with an Internet-linked computer and take it to neighborhoods where computers are scarce. It would be a valuable service as well as attractive bait to bring kids to the library.

Rivera concluded on the same note as his co-presenters: Librarians, he said, must model for young people, and indeed all their patrons, because many lack such an example to follow into a life of learning, reading, and serving. Children from backgrounds underrepresented in the profession are, potentially, the librarians of the future. "We've got to tell them," Rivera said, "that we like our jobs."

Back to Top

The revolution has not been digitized--yet
What a time we're in to talk of dissolving barriers to information exchange, effectively trampling the borders of thought! For even though our U.S. Border Patrol and INS fiercely inhibit human traffic, ideas, and the electrons that carry them, dance around the globe, footloose and unfettered.

Today a simple computer with a modem hooked to a telephone line can haul in more literature and news and music and art than anyone has ever dreamed of assembling in one place. In the past, such riches had to be warehoused somewhere--distant and out of most people's reach.

It is up to librarians, as always, to help the public find and sort through this information. But disturbing inequities in access lead one to wonder why, for most people, the Internet and its resources remain as unreachable as ever. Haven't the gates of learning truly been thrown wide open, all around the world, once and for all?


Is Internet info
all that free?
Think about it.
What good is free gas
if you have no car?
Case in point: I live in a town of 80,000 people, where a short bicycle ride takes me to a public library with 50 computer terminals connected to the World Wide Web. Two years ago, living in a Mexican city with ten times as many inhabitants, I frequented libraries that use quaint card catalogues and whose librarians had never seen the Web nor used email. High-speed ISDN line? Be serious. The downtown library didn't even have a phone.

The kind of digital free-for-all we take for granted in the U.S. is out of the question in many other places. Charming as it may be to imagine electrons prancing merrily across borders, thumbing their little tiny noses at the Thought Police, we must admit that those electrons don't dance with just anyone. In Mexico, economic truths decide who does the dancing.

Mixed metaphors, straight ahead!
Anyone wishing to surfear the Web in Mexico must gain access through a well-equipped school, or through a work connection with a lenient boss, or perhaps an Internet café or a subscription to a service provider--none of which come cheap in a land where the minimum wage in many areas is less than $10 a day. Yes, the Internet is out of reach. We can scarcely feel comfortable with this type of exclusion.

It's painful to see homeless people and beggars on the streets anywhere; they're obvious victims of economic brutality. Librarians, wedded as we are to the notion that knowledge is the one form of wealth that can be generously shared at no cost to the giver, should feel deeply for the less visible victims of intellectual exclusion.

Librarians everywhere have always struggled to bring more information to more people, and to do so they overcome the challenges of their particular time and place--censorship, perhaps, or lack of funds for acquisition.

Web access effectively multiplies a library's holdings without the need to tear out walls and erect new shelves. All it takes is one phone line, one castoff computer--if a town's well-off citizens can afford the Internet at home, it stands to reason that a few of them could kick in to bring it to their city library. Will these speedsters slow down for hitchhikers on the information highway? Remains to be seen. But rest assured there's a window seat saved for you here on the PLUS Bus.

Back to Top

© 1999 Bruce Jensen, who welcomes your comments

To share your thoughts about this article or any other in PLUS, send email to flaco@sol-plus.net.

| Inside the Mexicali Public Library| If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges? | Storytellers and promotion of reading| Cybrarian ruminations| PLUS Home| FORO Homepage|


Inside the Mexicali Public Library
If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges?
Storytellers and promotion of reading
Cybrarian ruminations
Heartfelt thanks
IX FORO Homepage

Read all about next year's 10th FORO, in Albuquerque, NM!

¡Muchísimas gracias!
Traveling without an expense account requires a certain amount of shameless gall. Without the generosity, hospitality, good sense and good nature of these folks, the FORO wouldn't have taught me nearly as much as it did. I owe you.

Joaqín López
Juan Chávez
Ana María Orozco
Todd Hollister
Armando Robles

Thanks, too, to Edgardo, Armando, Mark, and the other helpful FORO edecanes; Diana Palmer and all my cuates at CMCL; Mexicali's luxurious Hotel Cecil, right downtown at the bus stop, where they only charge seven bucks a night and the bathroom sink drains into a bucket; and most of all and always, Hajime.

Previous Page
What's new
Contact us
Anti-copyright © 2002 www.sol-plus.net. Not-for-profit use encouraged All other rights reserved.