Monthly Archives: April 2023


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.

Library of Congress

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.

Learn More:


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