Monthly Archives: May 2023


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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