The neighborhood public library holds a warm place in my childhood memories – a friendly and welcoming place, as well as a seemingly limitless source of information and entertainment.
When I moved to Mexico a few decades ago, there were few lending libraries open to the public. Sometimes I found one in the Casa de Cultura of some pueblito, but more often than not their collection of books occupied only a few shelves.
A friend of mine from the United States Peace Corps noticed the same thing. Unlike me, she did something.
Barbara Dye found resources to purchase children’s books and started her own traveling library, bringing reading materials to children in remote corners of the Primavera Forest of Jalisco. One day, I followed him in his truck which had become a bookmobile.
I must admit that I was very touched by the joy and enthusiasm of these children as Barbara brought them new boxes of books from which they could choose which ones to borrow. What impressed me the most, however, was what the kids were doing with these books.
“They opened their own school,” Barbara told me, “under that tree. They meet regularly and each one tells the others about the book he is reading.
The idea of a public library in Mexico, I suppose, may have been influenced by the notion of public libraries in Spain.
Once upon a time, in 1976, I lived in Barcelona. When I found out that the Biblioteca de Catalunya had a huge collection of books, both in Spanish and English, I immediately asked for a library card.
I wanted to do a comparative English-Spanish study of literary translations. I thought the Barcelona library was ideal for this, but I quickly found out that I couldn’t accomplish my goal without a library card.
To get one, I had to amass a thick pile of documents, including a letter from the United States Consul swearing that he would take personal responsibility for any books I might not return. It took me four months to finally have this precious library card in hand.
My wife and I entered the Biblioteca. I carried a camera and a tripod (knowing that in Spain, flashes are an abomination in all public buildings). I was hoping to get photos of some of the library’s impressive murals.
Out of nowhere, a guard appears. “Señor, we do not allow the use of cameras – or tripods – in the Barcelona library.
So I checked the tripod and the camera and we walked hand in hand to the room with the collection of English books.
Another guard appeared out of nowhere.
“Visiting estimates“, he said,” I regret to inform you that it is forbidden to hold hands between people of different sexes in the Barcelona library. “
Blushing, we moved away from each other, and I found a copy of The old Man and the Sea. “Now we’re just going to watch the Spanish version,” I said.
But before I could take two steps, a third guard appeared, as if out of the woods.
“Please!he said. “You can’t take any book out of a coin of …”
I finished the sentence for him: “in the Blessed Library of Barcelona. But do not worry, señor. I have the feeling that this is not only my first but also my last visit.
And, in fact, it was.
Luckily, I now live only 29 minutes from the Jalisco State Library. Several visits have proven to me that it is much friendlier than the one I met in Barcelona. Perhaps this is due to its whimsical design.
If you have the chance, take a look and ask yourself: inside a building like this, would anyone be worried about people holding hands?
The Biblioteca Pública del Estado de Jalisco “Juan José Arreola” is located at the northwest end of Guadalajara, just along the city’s ring road, the Periférico. This location allowed many of the city’s residents to familiarize themselves with the unusual and controversial architecture of the building, designed by González Gortázar Architects.
Including its newspapers and magazines, this library – administered by the University of Guadalajara (UDG) – contains more than two million articles, surpassed only by the library of the National Autonomous University of Mexico.
But can you go there and borrow a book?
To find out, I went there and put my question to the representative of the library Rigoberto Hernández Gómez.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” Hernández said. “We tried to lend books 20 years ago. To ensure that all the books would be returned, we made people leave their official ID cards with us. The result was we were left with no books and three huge boxes of ID cards!
While you can’t borrow books from this library, you can read them on site, with plenty of options to choose from. To begin with, the Biblioteca is divided into two buildings, one filled with contemporary works and the other dedicated to venerable old historical documents that must be seen with gloves and a face mask.
The first building, the Edificio Contemporáneo, was full of surprises. For example, on the fifth floor, I discovered the Benjamin Franklin Library, donated by the American Consulate and full of good books in English.
Next to it is another huge collection of 50,000 books, all in French (the Paul Rivet Library). On the same floor there is a large collection of books in Catalan and another of books from China.
“This collection,” Hernández told me, “is the result of an exchange of books between the Chinese government and the UDG. Each donated 626 pounds to the other with the idea that in the future they would continue to donate. And both collections have grown considerably.
I also discovered a large collection of books for children and adults in indigenous languages.
“The indigenous people of Mexico speak 68 different languages and there are 364 varieties,” Librarian Nilva Ordón told me. As an example, she showed me a book in Hñähñu (Otomi), a language spoken in several Mexican states. “Hñähñu has 14 vowels, compared to five in Spanish,” she said.
Since I’m a language teacher, I countered that English has between 19 and 21 vowels – depending on which expert you’re talking to – and assured him that for the most part Mexico Daily News readers, Hñähñu would be a cinch.
According to Hernández, the most recent addition to the Jalisco State Library is the Centro Documental de Literatura Iberoamericana Carmen Balcells (Carmen Balcells Documentary Center for Ibero-American Literature). It is a comprehensive collection of great literary works produced throughout Latin America, including Brazil.
This is unique because Carmen Balcells, originally from Spain, insisted that appropriate royalties be paid to all authors of all these books: a position that contrasts sharply with the exploitation of writers frequently practiced in some countries of Latin America.
In addition to everything I mentioned above, there is also a very large librería (bookstore) inside the library: Librería Carlos Fuentes, which has 120,000 titles.
So although the library will not allow you to take a book home, the librería won’t object at all … as long as you pay for it.
Jalisco State Library doesn’t quite have nostalgia for the neighborhood public libraries of my youth, but, of course, they – and I – are from another millennia.
The writer has lived near Guadalajara, Jalisco, since 1985. His most recent book is Outdoors in Western Mexico, volume three. More of his writings can be found on his Blog.