I had no idea when I started photographing libraries in 1994 that I had stumbled upon a perfect way to travel the world, help us understand what we were seeing, and develop a way to advocate for the common good. Little did I know that studying dusty old books could be so exciting. And that libraries are, indeed, very noisy places filled with exciting and often raucous arguments between writers sometimes stretching back to our distant past. Or where the social issues of a given time get played out such as segregation in the past or book banning in our present. No matter how our current crisis of censorship and libraries gets resolved, libraries have proved to be an essential part of any healthy society. As Bill Moyers wrote in his introduction for my 2014 book The Public Library: A Photographic Essay “when a library is open, no matter its size or shape, democracy is open too.”

We went to Mexico to use libraries to try to learn some essential truths about this fascinating and complicated place. Because of its much older history, libraries in Mexico seemed to share more with their European counterparts than with American libraries. Of the libraries that we visited; one important function was to safeguard the deep inheritance from Mexican history. Ancient books and manuscripts were everywhere and highly valued by many libraries. As in Europe, protecting this history was paramount and access for the public was less important.

Another significant and unique aspect of Mexican libraries was to feature the work of the famous 20th century Mexican muralists. Everywhere we traveled we saw stunning examples of the work of Diego Rivera, Juan O’Gorman, Orozco, Siqueiros., Morado, etc. Besides the startling visuals of these artists, the political message was often socialist or communist with idealized images of Stalin or Mao and stridently anti-capitalist messages. History today often views Stalin and Mao as genocidal mass-murders. But these often-angry polemical artistic masterpieces fit well into the cacophony of ideas that makes for a healthy library. 

Another common theme we discovered in Mexican libraries was the commons itself. Certain private libraries in Oaxaca or San Miguel de Allende had great community outreach with a dizzying array of classes, workshops, studios, bookstores, etc. that made the libraries a source of community pride. We saw how these libraries worked hard to remain necessary and relevant to their communities. Funding for public libraries has been a struggle partly because of Mexico’s low productivity rate and low rate of people paying taxes. Since the revolution, education has always been important but vast income inequality makes it hard for the poor to access the resources that the wealthy take for granted. Libraries are only a part of this problem.

On this last trip of the larger Mexican Library Road trip, we were accompanied by our son Walker and his girlfriend Rosa. Both speak Spanish and Rosa is from Mexico. As with our last trip to Oaxaca and Puebla with Rosa’s mother and sister, we were well taken care of on this part of our journey. We headed west to the Spanish colonial town of Morelia. This beautifully preserved city is a well-deserved UNESCO World Heritage site with elegant 16th and 17th century stone buildings with baroque facades and graceful archways. Lots of foreigners come to learn Spanish or Mexican cooking but, up to now, relatively few come as tourists.

The Biblioteca Pública de la Universidad Michoacana in Morelia is housed in an extraordinary 17th former church. The treasurers from the archive spoke to the long history of this place. A statue of Cervantes in a dark corner next to a 1950s mural was unsettling and beautiful. The highlight of our visit came when Rosa discovered a book written by her long-ago great, great grandfather who was historically important in the development of Mexican law.

Our next stop was the small adobe-and-cobblestone town of Pátzcuaro. Built in 1576, the Augustine Convent of Pátzcurao originally consisted of a church and cloister. Today, it is the Gertrudis Bocanegra Public Library, adorned with a mural painted in the 1940s by Irish Mexican artist Juan O’Gorman, and is now an important cultural center of Pátzcuaro. The astonishing mural depicts the indigenous Purépecha cosmogony, their way of life, the bloody Spanish conquest, and life after the conquest. Bocanegra was a martyred hero of the Mexican War of Independence in the early 1800s and we saw her image throughout the town. 

On our way to Guadalajara, we stopped at the impressive Tzintzuntzan Archeological site. It consists of five semicircular reconstructed temples which are all that remain of the once-mighty, ancient Purépecha empire. No one was here which helped intensify our feeling of mystery and wonder.

Our next stop was the Octavio Paz Iberoamerican Library in the large city of Guadalajara. It is housed in a building originally built in 1591 as a Jesuit school. In 1792, it became the first site of the University of Guadalajara. It was dedicated as the Octavio Paz Library in 1991 during the first Iberoamerican Summit meeting and includes distinctive murals by Mexican artist Siqueiros. The library collection largely comprises works by Latin American and Spanish scholars and is a celebration of Spanish language literature, writing, and culture.

We were given the greatest possible welcome at the Juan José Arreola Library at the University of Guadalajara because we were accompanied by Rosa. Her father had worked in the Mexican government and helped direct money to fund the library. And the library has named a section of law books after her great great grandfather. The wonderful reception started with a large gathering of staff and the director where Rosa served as our much-needed translator. We were then given a guided tour of every section of this large library by enthusiastic librarians and archivists. We were taken to see the newspaper library, the map library and even a library for the blind. As we were leaving, we saw a sobering exhibit of animal sculptures made from weapons taken by the police from the Mexican cartels which are an ongoing problem in this part of the country. After one of our best meals in Mexico at an innovative, corn-based restaurant called Xokol, we came back to the library in the evening to photograph the fabulous exterior.

One of my favorite cities in Mexico was the former mining town of Guanajuato. It is another extraordinary UNESCO World Heritage city which was founded by the Spanish in 1559. I was stunned by its geography and blown away by its vibrant culture. The city’s main roads twist around the hillsides and plunge into long dank subterranean tunnels that were formerly rivers and mining tunnels. Walking around the city was like living in a 3D MC Escher drawing. It is a colorful and lively place with surprises around every corner and a youthful energy provided by live musical performances everywhere. We even came upon a Lucha libre theater group doing an improv performance accompanied by a rock band in costume playing to a rapturous audience. In another place we came upon three live mariachi bands all playing at the same time. I kept muttering over and over to myself “this is crazy!” and loving every minute of it. It all had a fascinating edge and I noticed that the crowd was almost all Mexican and not foreigners.

The Armando Olivares Library is part of the University of Guanajuato. It contains some of the most valuable treasures of bibliographic archives in the country. One doesn’t need to be a specialized researcher to access the archive, just have the restlessness for knowledge. We were given a remarkable tour by a gifted librarian/professor. What I thought would be a short visit fortunately stretched out over several hours as we asked every question we could think of about local and Mexican history. The depth of the collection and the interesting architecture made this one of the biggest surprises of the trip.

The rest of our time in Guanajuato was way too short as we tried to soak up all this incredible, exciting, and beautiful place. No doubt, we will be back.

On our way to our next stop, we visited the place where Miguel Hidalgo proclaimed Mexican Independence in 1810. It was a deep dive into Mexican history, and I was fascinated by Hidalgo’s book collection. I realized that I didn’t know much about this history but visiting some of the sites where the history had happened made me want to know more about this endlessly fascinating subject.

The Public Library of San Miguel de Allende is a non-profit organization that has been in existence for 65 years. It is an incredible place that provides educational and cultural activities in a community center that includes a lending library, bookstore, skills training, painting and ceramics studios, etc. in a safe environment for a multi-generational and multi-cultural community. On the day we visited, it was a beehive of activity, and I admired the incredible energy of the overworked staff and volunteers.

The beautiful city of San Miguel de Allende is one of Mexico’s biggest tourist attractions and includes a large population of Americans who either live full time in the town or have winter homes here. The town is also a UNESCO World Heritage site despite receiving huge numbers of visitors. Although they were both Spanish colonial mining towns, the contrast between here and Guanajuato is large. I preferred the edgy charm of Guanajuato but came to really like San Miguel as well. We had an incredible dinner with old friends of Ellen who have permanently settled here after leaving Colorado. As we were leaving the next day, I photographed the municipal public library which was closed on Sunday.

On our way to our next stop, we visited the fascinating and mysterious Archeological Site of Tula.  It was the Mesoamerican capital of the Toltec Empire, but little is known about it. When we arrived, lighting bolts were hitting the distant peaks with a storm heading our way. We reluctantly kept our visit short and made a quick dash for our car before the rain began. All the ancient sites that we visited on this trip brought more questions than answers. Hopefully, this deep dive into ancient and more recent Mexican history will continue in our future.

The last city on our Mexican Library Road Trip was the rapidly growing city of Querétaro. It is one of the fastest growing cities in the northern hemisphere thanks to a booming aerospace and technologies industry.  It has an old colonial center which may someday be made more attractive for the tourist industry. Querétaro does possess some striking examples of urban sprawl and bad traffic. We couldn’t help talking about JB Jackson and other urban theorists. and wondered what they would say about what we were seeing. After seeing so many towns from Mexico’s past, it was startling to see in Querétaro a possible future. It wasn’t pretty, but the optimism and faith in the future here was positive even as we wondered about the environmental consequences of a boom town exploding across an arid landscape. Unfortunately, we have seen plenty of examples of this dilemma before in the American West.

As we were leaving Querétaro the next morning, we discovered a library on the edge of town that is housed in a line of old railroad cars and in an old train station. It was really struggling and the private funding for its only computers and Wi-Fi setup had dried up. Because of the finicky nature of private funding and lack of government support, this poor part of a suddenly prosperous region will probably remain poor until something changes. Here was where hope can die on the raggedy edge of the sparkling boom town of Querétaro.

We arrived back in Mexico City inspired but very tired from our month-long journey. But we had one more library to visit. The Mapoteca is a map library that is maintained by the Cartography Department of the Federal Government. The archive contains a valuable technical collection including more than 5,000 files and field notebooks dating from 1860 to 1970 relating to topography, astronomy, geodesics, etc. Because of our passion for geography, we were like kids in a candy store as we dashed from one exciting discovery to the next. The enthusiastic staff gave us a remarkably well-curated presentation of the treasurers of this unique place.

We could not have done this trip without the support of Rosa and her remarkable family – Paulina and Ana. They fed us, housed us, and were our traveling companions during different parts of this trip. We are forever indebted to them for their generosity, kindness, and wisdom. Abrazos!

On our flight home, I was fortunate to sit next to a man from Mexico who was flying back to his home in the Bay Area. He explained how he had emigrated to the US, worked hard for many years in the medical industry in Palo Alto and eventually bought a home in Modesto. After we landed in San Francisco he added “America is the place where dreams can still come true.” As we deplaned, I was still choked up by the wisdom of this quiet, soft-spoken Mexican man.

I took my last photo of the trip of Ellen entering US Customs under a huge sign stating, “Welcome to the United States of America.” In the distance there appeared to be a huge crowd cheering her on. As Walker later said about this photo “this is Ellen making it to the finish line and winning the race.”  There’s no place like home.

In the next few weeks, I will be sending out one more blog post of the greatest hits of images from my Nikon from the trip. Until then…

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The culture of Mexico is astonishing – deep, rich, and complicated. The past is present here and the complex blending of cultures over a long period of time have created something unique. We were able to experience this place during this week through a kaleidoscopic range of libraries. But one of the other ways we experienced Mexican culture was through its world-class cuisine. I realized that Mexican food in the US is a pale imitation of what we have eaten here. Mexican libraries and Mexican food were our guides as we took a deep dive into a place we barely know.

Our human guides for the week were Walker’s girlfriend’s mother Paulina and Paulina’s other daughter Ana. We were so lucky to have such smart, talented, and extremely well-informed woman to travel with us on our journey to Oaxaca and Puebla.

Before we left Mexico City, we spent our last day packing, doing laundry, getting organized, and seeing the sights of our hipster neighborhood.

I drove the seven hours to Oaxaca and got a quick lesson on navigating Mexica roads. Getting out of Mexico City was a nightmare, but once we hit the open road we were dazzled by volcanoes, pine forests, and an openness we didn’t experience while we were back in CDMX. I never understood the attraction of Oaxaca but once we arrived, I became an instant convert. At a large gathering in a little park, we came upon a huge group of children listening to a young boy dressed up in traditional attire belting out songs. Nearby, was a small bookmobile that drew in the kids attracted by the music. Smart way of getting young people to read. It was sponsored by a group called Libros Para Pueblos that purchase and distribute children’s books to more than 60 communities throughout the state of Oaxaca.

Oaxaca is known for its great textiles and art and were amazed by what we saw all around us. We even stumbled upon a small children’s library that was full of playful kids. The local market was delightful and here for first time I encountered the variety of mole this area is famous for throughout the world. That night at dinner, I indulged my passion for mole by having the mole sampler plate. I also tried the local insect sampler plate. Delicious!

The archeological site Monte Alban towers about the Valley of Oaxaca and traces its roots back to 500 BCE. It lasted 1,300 years but was abandoned long before the Spanish arrived in the 1520s. It is one of Mexico’s most culturally rich archeological sites, with the remains of temples, palaces, tall, stepped platforms, and observatory and a ball court where the losers had their hearts cut out. We were blowen away but the beauty of the place and thankful by the relatively nice weather and lack of the tour bus circus that is common to sites like this.

Oaxaca is a complex but intensely attractive city whose majestic churches and refined plazas have deservedly earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The gorgeous Templo de Santa Domingo is the most splendid of Oaxaca’s churches with a finely carved baroque exterior and an interior with intricately carved relief gilt designs swirling around a profusion of painted figures.

Our Air B&B in Oaxaca was centrally located, tiny, with the toilet located in the shower. But it was a perfect place to come home to at the end of a long day.

We needed that comfort as we attempted to do five libraries in one day. In the US, we don’t do much to observe International Workers Day of May 1st. But in Mexico on May 1st, everything is closed so I had to jam all our Oaxacan libraries into May 2nd. Several libraries stood out including the Burgoa Library. It contains an important collection that was almost destroyed but has now been rescued and is housed in old convent. In 2018 it was recognized as a Memory of the World of Mexico by UNESCO. The Juan de Córdova Research Library is in a beautifully redone 16th Century convent, now a community center and library. It contains a deep collection on Oaxacan anthropology and history. The most unusual library was the Oaxacan Lending Library. It is a non-profit, membership library that contains a community and events center. It was started, in part, by American ex-pats and helped by the US Embassy.

Our long day was capped off by an exquisite dinner on a roof-top restaurant called the Casa Oaxaca. I had one of my best meals in Mexico here. I enjoyed, of course, the chicken mole, a must when dining in Oaxaca.

The second big destination on our week-long trip was to the old city of Puebla. Founded by Spanish settlers in 1531 it quickly grew into a conservative Catholic religious center with over 70 churches in the historic center alone. It also flourished as a center for pottery, glass, and textiles. We arrived from our long drive from Oaxaca and headed straight for the Lafragua Library. It contains the largest and most diverse ancient collection in the State of Puebla and is one of the most important in Mexico. It is beautifully located in an ancient former Jesuit building that holds two 16th century codices: the Sierra-Texupan codex and the Yanhuitlán codex. We arrived just a large group of students were being shown some of the treasures of the archive. Their enthusiasm and cell phone photos of the ancient priceless artifacts was a delight. Our librarian-guide was also brilliant and insightful as we took on a private tour of a great place.

The streets of Puebla were also fascinating, especially for its architecture and restaurants.

Our second library was one of the most historic in Mexico. Founded in 1646, the Biblioteca Palafoxiana was the first public library in the Americas. For this, it has been listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register. It houses thousands of rare books on its gorgeous shelves, including one of the earliest New World dictionaries and the 1493 Nuremburg Chronicle, with more than 2000 engravings. I was deeply moved by being in presence of such history and beauty. But after the excitement of the students at the Lafaugua, the Palafoxiana felt like a beautiful fossil, rather than a living library.  Something to behold, rather than to be used.

Coming back into Mexico City was to re-enter a global city rather than the smaller, slower-paced towns we had just been visiting. We also reunited with Walker and Rosa at Paulina’s house. Paulina even provided a facial and pedicure for Ellen and all the world-weary travelers assembled under her roof. The pedicure felt great! Walker and I then went for a power walk in various neighborhoods such as Roma and Coyacan. I even spotted a small, plain branch library named after the Mexican writer Carlos Fuentes.

On our final day in Mexico City before our next trip, we got up very early and drove to one of the city’s most dangerous neighborhood of Iztapala. Here was a library in a jet airliner in a dangerous, druggy area that was put there to counter the crime and hopelessness. Iztapalapa remains afflicted by high levels of economic deprivation, and a significant number of its residents lack access to clean drinking water. Iztapalapa has one of the highest rates of violent crime in Mexico City and combatting homicides and drug trafficking remain a major issue for local authorities. A sign in front of the jet airliner/library read “Careful! Machismo Kills Always!” referred to the high level of violence against women. The library was a stunning example of when libraries can be a positive force for social change.

We ended our long day by visiting the Central Library of UNAM, the largest and most prestigious public university in Mexico. I had run into a bureaucratic dead-end in trying to get permission to photograph this library, so we decided to just show up, take our chances, and just photograph the stunning exterior. Coincidentally, we happen to show up on graduation day where the grounds around the library was filled with recent graduates and happy families. My photographs captured some of that unique joy of graduation and the wonderful closeness of Mexican families. The huge unique mural covering the outside is considered an iconic masterpiece and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Next week is our last road trip within our Mexico Library Road Trip when we head west to Guadalajara and other cities and towns. Stay tuned…


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We spent an exhilarating and exhausting week hustling ourselves all over Mexico City photographing libraries. For some bizarre reason, the ride share company Uber decided to terminate our app this week without any explanation. We had committed some unspeakable crime against their corporate sensibilities, and we are now perhaps banned for life. Probably this came about because we never used their app back home in San Francisco, and we didn’t fit the profile of a profitable customer. So, we switched over to a Chinese app called Didi Drive.

The sensual experiences of Mexico City can be a little overwhelming. The sights, tastes, smells, and sounds seemed to be intensified. We also had a little difficulty breathing because of the higher elevation and bad air pollution. This was amplified by insanely gridlocked traffic and the rule by the Mexican government that all taxis had to leave their windows opened all the time because of Covid. While sitting in the heat in our Didi ride-share while the traffic was stopped with the car exhaust pouring through the windows, the question did occur “is this worth it”? But once we arrived at all these marvelous libraries the answer was “Of course”!

The food here is some of the best in the world. One librarian explained some of the reason why both Mexico and Peru have such world-class cuisine. Both cultures are truly a blend of the Indigenous Mexican cultures with the Spanish in Mexico and the Incan culture with the Spanish in Peru producing a unique blend of people and their fascinating food.

Because of the pollution, my sense of smell tended to shut down at times. But I will always remember the exciting smells of the food the flowers, and the intense smells of the city. It is not for the faint of heart, but is a robust expression of a city unlike any place that I have been. After the initial shock, one accepts Mexico City as it is.

The strongest sensual experience from this week in Mexico City was of sound. Every cab driver had his music cranked way up. As we traveled the city, we toured a wide range of music from really bad pop music to Spanish-language hip-hop, to beautiful corridoes. The organ grinders were everywhere on the street playing a type of instrument imported in the 19th century from Germany. We also listened to endless Spanish-language talk shows. At one point, in the cacophony of words, I heard a familiar voice speaking in English about “fighting to save the soul of America”. It turned out to be Joe Biden announcing his next run for re-election. Go Joe! It seemed that every shop we walked by had loud sparkling music booming from inside. At night, when we were trying to sleep, I heard even louder music coming from a nearby café. In my half-dream state just as I was about to pass out, I sometimes heard the voices of what sounded like young people chanting, screaming, and having a really good time. The strangest sound came a truck with a loudspeaker that seemed to be driving all over Mexico City. It was blaring out a recording of a woman offering to buy or sell your stuff. Her voice sounded sad, tired, and persistent and I wondered who she was and what her real life was like.

Like the food, the libraries we visited this week were mostly world-class. We started with one of the best at the world-famous National Library of Anthropology and History. We were shocked and honored to spend an hour with the Director of the entire museum, Balthazar Brito Guadarrama. He had just returned from doing work verifying Aztec codices at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC. His generosity and personality made me feel that our crazy quest for visiting libraries in Mexico was really worth it. The next library was completely different. The library of the Mexican-Jewish Documentation and Research Center housed the records of Jewish immigration into Mexico, mostly in the 20th century. It was housed in an old synagogue and contained a fascinating history which was brought alive by the librarian Charlie. Even though he didn’t speak English and we spoke little Spanish, somehow, we understood each other and felt we had become friends.

The next day we visited the Biblioteca Miguel Lerdo de Tejada. In 1970 the library moved to the main nave of the old 18th century San Felipe Neri “El Nuevo” Oratory. In 1982 the Russian Mexican artist Vlady created huge, spectacular murals that dominated the main reading room. Our next stop was the massive City of Books which is a project by Federal government to create libraries of famous Mexican writers and publishers. It is housed in a large one-block area with six new starchitect-designed libraries for the writers along with wonderful reading rooms, libraries for the blind, public libraries, and a bookstore. It was truly an inspiring place!

The next morning was a visit to the huge Vasconcelos Library. It is a large beautiful underutilized urban library plagued by budget cuts which opened in 2008. Surrounded botanical gardens, it contains the skeleton of a large whale that dominates the massive interior space. Next stop was the Library of the Congress of Mexico. The building was originally part of a Poor Clares convent founded in the 16th century. Today it houses Mexico’s records of its legislature since Independence. We then traveled on to the Library of Mexican Gastronomy which is part of the Hendez Foundation. It contained the history of Mexican cooking, mostly in the form of old cookbooks and a small museum.

The National Library of Mexico Reserved Fund is located on the campus of UNAM, the largest and most respected of Mexico’s public universities. It is one of the largest libraries in Mexico and Latin America. As a National Library, it is the preeminent bibliographic repository of Mexico and is subject to legal deposit. In addition to the Special Collections, it includes the National Library of Mexico, National Newspaper Library of Mexico, and the Institute of Bibliographic Research. We were shown a tiny slice of their rare book and manuscript collection by the head librarian Dr. Manuel Rivera. His knowledge of Mexican history was staggering, and I struggled to ask him every question I could think of about this country that he knew so well. His youth and hip appearance went against the stereotype of librarians being old and stuffy. The depth of his knowledge and his enthusiasm for sharing with us made it hard to leave what had become one of the highlights of the trip. We pulled ourselves away and finished the day at the Library of the Revolutions of the Revolutions of Mexico. It is housed in the beautiful neo-classical House of the Two Patios with displays to Revolutionary memory.

Finally, by Friday, we were a little road weary but took another Didi to CEHM – Centro Estoria de Mexico which housed the private book collection of the Mexican businessman Carlos Slim, one of the rich men in the world. We have wanted to be as inclusive as possible with our definition of what is a library and this collection seemed appropriate. No surprise, because of Slim’s wealth it turned out to house some incredible items. The people working here were also doing a great job to preserve and copy the rare books and manuscripts.

We ended the day once again exhausted but happy to have seen such great work. The great puzzle of Mexican libraries was becoming a bit clearer after our frantic week of travel around Mexico City. Next week we visit the beautiful historic cities of Oaxaca and Puebla and photograph some of the most important libraries in the Western Hemisphere. Stay tuned…


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On our free day before the conference, we explored Mexico City with Walker’s girl friend’s mother Paulina. We began by exploring the homes of two very different personalities of 1930s Mexico – Frieda Kahlo and Leon Trotsky. Her parents were Oaxacan-Hungarian and Kahlo was raised here. She later became a celebrity artist and feminist icon. Her husband Diego Rivera was one of the most celebrated artists of his day and in this Casa Azul, they shared a tempestuous relationship in the heady revolutionary, intellectual, artistic world of their time. A few blocks away is the home of Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky who fled here in 1937 after he lost the leadership of the Soviet Union to Josef Stalin. Stalin had him murdered in this house in 1940 and the ghosts of that tempestuous time were seen throughout this compound. Of particular interest to me was Trotsky’s library.

South of here is Anahuacalli which was designed by Diego Rivera to house his collection of pre-Hispanic art. This museum is a temple-like structure made of volcanic stones which also contains one of Rivera’s studios and lots of artistically inspired details.

The ARLIS conference of Art Librarians from throughout North America was a good event made up of mostly fascinating people which we enjoyed meeting. We knew a few people that we had met before but mostly we made new friends and connected with archivists. We may have even sold a few of our American and Global Library albums that we had on display at the conference. We attended several excellent talks and went to some receptions including one in an old 16th century former convent and later the home of Franz Meyer with an amazing private library.  

We walked the historic streets of the Colonia Centro as much as possible where I had the best mole I’ve ever tasted, rested our weary feet at a cathedral built by the conquistadors on top of the main Aztec temple, and marveled at the depth of history and culture in this amazing city. One highlight of our wanderings was visiting the building where the first printing press in the Western Hemisphere was set up in 1539.

One of the highlights for anyone visiting Mexico City is going to the National Museum of Anthropology. This is a world-class museum of Mesoamerica, and we were overwhelmed and blown away by the best display of Native America that we have ever seen. It contained far more than our tired minds could absorb, but fortunately we will return next week to photograph the Museum’s National Library.  As we were leaving, we witnessed an amazing performance by indigenous Totonac people performing their spectacular voladores rite – “flying” from a 20m-high pole.

Dinner with new and old Mexican friends was another highlight from this week in Mexico City. But strolling the streets are really the best way to begin to understand this very walkable and remarkable place.

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After months of preparation and research, we finally left San Francisco flying to Mexico City. The plane was mostly filled with excited librarians heading to Mexico’s capitol for a conference of Art Librarians called ARLIS. California was in its glory and after all the rain we saw whole parts of the state covered with brilliantly colored wildflowers. Even from our lofty perch I was surprised by the beauty we saw. As we headed over the San Joaquin Valley, we witnessed something remarkable. Far off in the distance was the full length of the Sierra Nevada living up to their name thickly covered in brilliant white snow. And in the foreground was the re-emerging Tulare Lake which had been drained dry for agriculture years ago. The results of this year’s Biblical rain and snow was stunning to see from our plane of happy librarians.

After a great flight we had a great dinner with Walker’s friend Rosa and her sister Ana and mother Paulina. It was nice to arrive in Mexico among friends.

Part of our first day here was getting ready for the rest of the trip. Permissions to photograph were still coming in. Scheduling had to be set up. Logistics had to be arranged. We finally headed out into the streets in search of libraries and all things Mexican. The Postal Palace Library was our quirky first stop. It was built in 1907 and housed the most remarkable Post Office building that I have ever seen and is dedicated to all things Postal. We then walked by the Library of the Congress of Mexico which I had just received permission to photograph the interior earlier this morning. The building was originally part of a Poor Clares convent founded in the 16th century, but the outside was covered with graffiti today.

We continued down Tacuba Street and was surprised by the large number of bookstores and camera stores on this street. We quickly fell in love with the richness and depth of Mexican culture in this remarkable place. We eventually came upon the Templo Mayor which is vast archeological site in middle of the city. Here the long history of Mexico comes alive. We went through the doors of another remarkable bookstore and had late lunch at a rooftop restaurant overlooking the Aztec ruins and the cathedral literally built by Cortez on top of their civilization.

The historic Zócalo is one of the largest central plazas of any city in the world. We strolled through this space at sunset and was impressed by the large number of local people enjoying themselves with their families in the beautiful light. Walking back to our hotel gave us even more reason to appreciate and want to know more about this remarkable place.


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Library of Congress purchases Global Library project

Ellen Manchester​ and I are happy to announce the recent purchase of 660 images from our Global Library Project by the Library of Congress for their permanent collection. This is in addition to their 2015 purchase of my American Public Library project archive. We will be continuing our Global Library work in Mexico starting this Sunday, April 16th. We will be traveling for over a month from Oaxaca to Guadalajara researching, photographing libraries, and enjoying the fabulous Mexican food. And we will be posting about our trip from the road on Facebook and on this blog “Library Road Trip.” Please join us for the ride.

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PICTURE THISLibrary of Congress Prints & Photos

Book Mountain, Bibliotheek Spijkennese, The Netherlands. Photo by Robert Dawson, ©2016. Used with permission. //

Library Photos by Robert Dawson

April 12, 2023

Posted by: Kristi Finefield

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The following is a guest post by Helena Zinkham, Chief, Prints & Photographs Division.

In celebration of National Library Week (April 23-29, 2023), please take a moment to enjoy a brand new acquisition in the Prints & Photographs Division – “The Global Library Project” by master photographer Robert Dawson. The theme of National Library Week is “There’s More to the Story,” which is the perfect description for Dawson’s work.

Tulare County Free Library, Allensworth, CA. Photo by Robert Dawson, ©1995. Used with permission. //

From 1994 to 2015, Dawson photographed more than 500 public libraries throughout the United States, often traveling more than 11,000 miles at a time on summer road trips with his son Walker Dawson. The images document the wide range of America’s public libraries in locations ranging from big cities to small towns, shopping malls to national parks.

Map librarian, National Library, Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Robert Dawson, ©2016. Used with permission. //

In 2016, Dawson and his family expanded their journey to include libraries worldwide. In Dawson’s own words, “The Global Library Project seeks to document the important role of public libraries throughout the world in engaging and supporting an informed citizenry.”

Kunsthistorisches Institut in Florenz, Florence, Italy. Photo by Robert Dawson, ©2018. Used with permission. //

The Library of Congress has purchased 660 born-digital photographs that show people using libraries and the remarkably varied architecture of libraries in 11 Western and Eastern European countries and Israel.

The Dawsons are currently photographing libraries in Mexico and plan to show more of the story of libraries in Central and South America, Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Oceania.

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SOMETHING NEW FROM SOMETHING OLD: San Francisco Branch Libraries In 1994 and Today

Ellen and I were recently commissioned by the San Francisco History Center to revisit my 1994 photographic survey of all the branch libraries in the City. This was the study that began all our subsequent work on libraries throughout the United States and more recently in other parts of the world. The 1994 work was my first attempt at understanding the architecture of infrastructure and how to photograph it. We are still working on it.

Recently, San Francisco voters overwhelmingly approved the renewal of funding for the San Francisco Public Library. This ensures that the library’s services and operations will be funded for the next twenty-five years. The Library Preservation Fund was first approved in 1994, the year I started my survey, by over 70 % of San Francisco voters. It allowed SFPL to expand its hours, collections, programming and rebuild or refurbish each of the 26 branch libraries. In addition, the city has built a new library in rapidly expanding Mission Bay. After almost 30 years, we were curious to see what San Francisco got for its generous funding of this essential city department.

San Francisco has received a lot of bad press recently in the national and international media. Some of our problems have been self-inflicted. Unfortunately, parts of our city government are on par with other big American city governments for dysfunction, ineptitude, and sometimes outright corruption. But some of the right-wing media loves to beat up on our famously liberal city to prove that all liberal policies just don’t work. I wanted to do something to counter that drumbeat of depressing stories about our hometown. What San Francisco has done with its public library system is astonishing. Along with building a world-class public park system, our city has placed a lot of importance on improving the shared commons of our unique community. Along with the rest of the country, we are facing enormous problems of income inequality, homelessness, crime, and drug addiction. But the sum of San Francisco is more than that, and this project is our way of fighting the negative stereotypes by showing the positive results of a well-run public library system.   

To further our understanding of our city today, Ellen came up with the idea to travel to each of the public libraries by public transportation. What better way to understand THE PUBLIC than this? We were like excited little kids running after a bus going to the Mission branch library. This was the first branch I photographed in 1994 and it seemed appropriate to start here. We then got on BART for the short, one-stop ride to Glen Park. The old library I originally photographed in 1994 is now, appropriately, the famous Bird and Beckett bookstore and the neighborhood now has a beautiful new library. We then caught the bus that meandered over the hill and back to the library in our own neighborhood of Noe Valley. The restoration of this old Carnegie library was gorgeous.

The next day we caught the bus near our house to the Western Addition. The librarian there told us of the large Chinese and Russian community that uses the library. The book collection reflected that ethnic mix. We walked to our next stop at the Presidio branch library which is also an old Carnegie that has been beautifully restored. The Beat writer Richard Brautigan wrote about this library, and we paid homage to a display of his work. Learning to navigate the San Francisco Muni bus system was made easy by Google Maps on our phones. But learning which were express busses was sometimes a little more challenging. Taking the Geary Blvd bus all the way to western edge of the city was a long haul but worth it. The Richmond branch and the Anza branch were some of the most beautifully restored libraries we had seen so far.

Western Addition branch library, San Francisco, CA
Presidio branch library, San Francisco, CA
Ellen missing the express bus on Geary Blvd.
Richmond branch library, San Francisco, CA

Our third day of marathon public libraries on public transportation was one of the best. Early in the morning, we caught the bus down the hill to the Castro and the Eureka Valley branch library. There was an incredible display throughout the library on “The Cockettes: Acid Drag & Sexual Anarchy.” It reminded me of the crazy, pre-AIDS time when the Castro became the Gay Capitol of the World. The landscaping outside the library, however, spoke to our more sober time. Mission Bay has a new library close to the famous Giants ballpark. It is a beautiful little gem that is enhanced by the nearby Mission Creek walkway park that opened last month. We then hopped on the ”T” Muni line that took us to the Bayview branch library. This library had been almost entirely rebuilt since I was last there in 1994. It was inspirational to see our city build one of the most beautiful libraries in one of the most economically challenged neighborhoods in San Francisco. We continued riding the “T” trolley line to our last library in Visitacion Valley. In 1994, the library was in a rundown storefront. The city has recently built a brand-new library in this rapidly changing part of SF, and it is one of the most beautiful so far. As we took the long trolley ride back home, I reflected on what a positive force the San Francisco public library system is for those of us lucky enough to live here.

Mission Bay branch, San Francisco, CA
Ellen riding the “T” Muni Line with tripod
RD and EM heading to the Bayview on the “T” Muni trolly
Visitacion Valley branch, San Francisco, CA

We photographed 11 branch libraries in three days. We will return to our library odyssey in the next few weeks when we will complete visiting all 27 branch libraries, the Main Library, and even a Bookmobile or two. Stay tuned…


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Upcoming Program: “Dispatches from Ukrainian Libraries”

Ukraine continues to suffer horrible destruction from recent Russian missile attacks. Iryna Biriukova, General Director of the Odesa National Scientific Library wrote on October 10th, “Today the enemy launched more than 80 missiles across Ukraine…The enemy tries to break us, to sow fear among us. But it’s useless, our people cannot be defeated, our will and freedom cannot be broken. Nevertheless, don’t ignore the alarms in the coming days. Take care of yourself. Together we will win.”

To honor the heroism of the Ukrainian people we are producing “Dispatches from Ukrainian Libraries” this Saturday, October 22 at 1:00 PM at San Francisco’s Main Library. We will play audio clips and read texts from Ukrainian librarians on the front line describing their continuing work against all odds. We will give a slide presentation of our own work with Ukrainian libraries during our travels there in 2016. In a nod to Ukraine’s rich and vibrant culture, the presentation will also include performances by the Zoloti Maky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, Ukrainian Choral Group and a professional soloist on the Bandura Ukrainian instrument. Members of the Ukrainian community will also share their perspectives on and stories about the Russian invasion. 

This unique program will offer all of us a rare insight into the character and courage of the embattled Ukrainian people. We hope to see you there!

Recent destruction of Ukrainian library in Chernihiv, Ukraine

Map librarian, National Library, Kyiv, Ukraine


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What a long, strange trip this has been. We spent a month and a half on the road driving across the country, doing a week-long Library Road Trip in Canada’s Maritimes, conducting two presentations of our Library albums in Montreal and Boston, having a wonderful family visit in Vermont, surviving a major car crash in Maine, coming down with Covid in Nova Scotia and spending 10 days back at the Farm recovering, and we weren’t done yet!

Ellen had spent more than a year developing and working with Kenda North and Barbara Houghton to create a four-day conference in Trinidad, CO called Framing Place and Time. It was meant to frame the history of a place (Colorado) and time (the 1970s) through the extraordinary burst of energy and creativity in photography and education that occurred there at that time. The conference was a unique gathering of people that had participated in that history. It was an enormous effort to actively secure the history and create an archive of photographs and taped interviews to be housed in Denver with History Colorado (formerly the Colorado Historical Society).

After the car crash, when Ellen and I came down with Covid, it appeared that a third disaster would occur with Ellen missing the whole conference that she had done so much to conceive and create over the last year. After ten days recovering in Vermont our doctor said we were safe to fly. We then hopped on a plane the next day in Boston, flew straight in Denver, rented a car and drove 3 ½ hours south in a rainstorm at night to Trinidad, CO where the conference had just concluded the opening lecture. When we stumbled through the front door, we were warmly received even though we were still weak and could barely stand. Ellen received the adulation she richly deserved, and it seemed like a miracle that we made it. I kept saying to everyone that I was just happy to be alive.

The conference went very well and exceeded everyone expectations. More than a gathering of 70-year old’s reminiscing about the crazy times in their 20s (although there was some of that), it was a serious effort to write history by the people who lived through an unusual historical time. Participants also included a researcher from the Smithsonian Institution who came to observe the event as did a staff member from the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona.

It was also a chance to renew friendships where some people hadn’t seen each other in over 40 years. It was also a time to make new friends and contacts in this aging photo community. A Zoom gathering connected photographers that couldn’t attend either due to circumstance or because of health Issues.

We also enjoyed the unique community of Trinidad—the home of Mark Johnstone, one of the principal organizers of the event. Nestled against Colorado’s Front Range, its’ unique character fit well with the creative edge of the participants of the conference. It was a place of history going through an historical transformation.

Leaving the conference was emotional for everyone. As some friendships were renewed, others understood this may be the last time they would see each other. Everyone vowed that they would get together again, soon. But everyone understood the limitations of time and age which made securing this history so important. We all felt lucky to be involved in such a significant event.

While driving back to Denver, we had one last hurrah by running into Barbara Houghton and her husband Keith at a sleezy gas station. The Denver airport was a nightmare, but we were such zombies that we just stumbled through the crowds and collapsed into our seats on the plane.  When we arrived, we were ecstatic to be back in San Francisco. After Walker picked us up, we had dinner and some wine and then slept a deep and profound 12-hour sleep that was much needed.

Thus ended the extraordinary 2022 Library Road Trip. I will keep you up to date as our work develops. Until then, we hope to hear from you all. Stay safe…


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Having Covid sucks. There is nothing good about it. The only saving grace is the degree of infection. In our case, both Ellen and I both got a milder form of the virus. Mine was moderate and felt like a bad cold. Ellen’s was milder, without the congestion I had. We were able to get the medicine Paxlovid early which immediately helped. Fortunately, except for the recently released booster, we had taken all four shots and boosters which also helped keep us out of the hospital.

The best thing about our bout with Covid was being able to recover at our cabin in the woods in Vermont which we call the Farm. For eleven days we hunkered down and tried to heal. The biggest event was hearing an apple thump on the ground or spotting a deer far away nervously munching the grass. Phone calls on our landline helped but we didn’t get around much in our isolation. Watching the New England autumn light change over the course of a day was a cheap thrill.

We were both really tired. Occasionally, I would take short walks just to do something different. Later, when we had more energy, we’d take short walks in the Vermont forests marveling at the dappled light and the little wonders of nature like a cluster of mushrooms growing on a dead tree. We both knew we were feeling better when Ellen felt strong enough to give me a haircut.

Mostly, we slept the deep and profound sleep of a dark and quiet place. Often, we would sleep 11 or 12 hours a night. And then take a nap in the afternoon! Being able to sleep this deeply was the best medicine. Also, being forced by Covid isolation to slow down allowed us to watch a cloud float across the sky or enjoy the flickering red light of sunset through a pine tree. This too helped us along to the road to recovery. Coffee, of course, made everything better.

Finally, despite the brain fog, I was able to finish the delightful book by the famous Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov called Grey Bees. It is a novel about a Ukrainian beekeeper caught in midst of the earlier war in eastern Ukraine. I just started a book by the incredible Atlantic writer Anne Applebaum called Red Famine Stalin’s War on Ukraine. You may notice a theme here. Ellen and I are preparing to produce a public program on libraries and Ukraine in October at the San Francisco Public Library. This is part of my way of getting prepared. I am thankful I have the time and now the strength to read these two exciting books!

We are now headed to Boston where tomorrow we will take a flight to Denver for the final chapter of this most unusual journey. Stay tuned…


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