Inside the Mexicali Public Library
The Road to Mexicali
If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges?
Storytellers and promotion of reading
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.
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
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.
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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
(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.
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.
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.
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.
Other contrasts to typical U.S. libraries bear mentioning.
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
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).
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
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."
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.
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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
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
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.
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
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
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
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."
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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
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
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."
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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?
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.
all that free?
Think about it.
What good is free gas
if you have no car?
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
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
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© 1999 Bruce Jensen, who welcomes your comments
To share your thoughts about this
article or any other in PLUS, send email to email@example.com.
| Inside the Mexicali Public Library| If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges?
| Storytellers and promotion of reading| Cybrarian ruminations| PLUS
THE PLUS Bus
Inside the Mexicali Public Library
If you're the Library Inspectors, where are your badges?
Storytellers and promotion of reading
Read all about next year's 10th FORO, in Albuquerque, NM!
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.
Ana María Orozco
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