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Will Mexico’s ‘jewel’ shine?

Times Staff Writer

To its boosters, including President Vicente Fox, the massive $97-million Biblioteca Vasconcelos is a cultural “jewel in the crown” and a symbol of the nation’s commitment to turning more Mexicans into lifelong bibliophiles. But to its critics, the new mega-library is an instant white elephant, a needless and overpriced memorial to dead-tree literacy in a digital world.

The 125,000-square-foot building, designed by Mexican architect Alberto Kalach, has drawn support from some of the country’s leading intellectuals and writers. It also has been savaged for its hefty price tag, its location in an iffy center-city neighborhood, its alleged draining of resources from other cultural projects and what detractors say is the library’s insufficient alignment with 21st century technology. “Pharaoh-like” and “mausoleum of knowledge” were a few of the terms being bandied about as the building was readied for Tuesday’s official opening.

The project is part of a broader initiative by Fox to increase literacy throughout Mexico. “Reading makes us better, makes us more human, makes us more free,” the president said at Tuesday’s ceremony.

Since Fox approved the project in December 2002, the library has been plagued with questions while struggling to meet a tight deadline.

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Monday, just hours before the official opening, an army of workers was still scrubbing floors and testing some of the library’s 750 free, Internet-accessed computer stations. To cope with the last-minute preparations, Fox dispatched 200 soldiers from his presidential guard to help keep order around the concrete, steel and glass edifice.

At the center of activity, and controversy, has been Sari Bermudez, president of Mexico’s National Council for Culture and the Arts (known by its Spanish-language acronym Conaculta) and a former news presenter for the Univision television network who once lived in Los Angeles. As workmen scurried around her, Bermudez enthusiastically guided visitors on a tour of the building. “You have great libraries in L.A., so maybe that inspired me,” she said.

As head of the organization that will officially administer it, Bermudez was eager to show off the most conspicuous cultural project of the Fox “sexenio,” as Mexican presidents’ six-year terms are called. She stressed the library’s importance to Mexico’s poor, explained the design of the surrounding gardens and marveled at the long, airy interior vistas, in which the three upper levels of book stacks appear to float encased in glass above the main floor. Bermudez also rejected the idea that digitalization could quickly render the library’s planned 1-million-plus paper volumes obsolete. “I think it’s going to be very, very difficult for the book to disappear,” she said.

During the project’s development, Bermudez has become nearly as much of a lightning rod as the library itself. She was criticized in the press for visiting several European libraries, at taxpayer expense, on what she characterized as research trips. On Monday, Bermudez said that, although she welcomed informed criticism, she dismissed other criticisms as coming “from people who had no information or who were partisan.”

Named for the Mexican education minister who helped spur the country’s cultural renaissance following the revolution of 1910-1920, the library is the capital’s second to bear the name of Jose Vasconcelos. The first, an aging Colonial-style structure about a five-minute drive away, has been the nation’s central library since it was founded about 60 years ago. Though it recently underwent a $50-million renovation, the building remains a cramped, old-fashioned structure with a collection of only around 250,000 volumes.

The much larger new building reportedly has been compared by its creator to a horizontal “arc” bearing a cargo of “human knowledge.” Its classic Modernist lines reflect the Mexico- and Cornell-trained Kalach’s architectural vocabulary, which has been described as deriving from Le Corbusier and Russian Constructivism. And its monumental size is in keeping with the gargantuan scale of many of the capital’s historic structures, which include the remains of Aztec pyramids.

Bermudez said the old building will continue to house many of the library system’s administrative staff. She also stressed that the new library, known as the central library, will not become the Mexican national library, though it will be under the aegis of the federal government. The National Library, a comprehensive collection of books that also includes irreplaceable documents and archives relating to the nation’s history, will remain in its longtime home at the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

While that library is geared toward students and scholars, the new library, in addition to serving thousands of walk-in readers, will serve as a clearinghouse and lending center for Mexico’s 7,200 public library branches and provide them with support from librarians and computer technicians. By the time Fox leaves office later this year, a third of those branches reportedly will have areas offering free Internet access. That expansion is being underwritten in part by a $30-million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, while Microsoft Mexico has donated nearly $10 million worth of software.

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The facility is part of a long-term initiative by successive presidents to raise national literacy levels and encourage reading, said Jorge von Ziegler, the library’s director. Mexico’s public library system was launched just 25 years ago, and as recently as 1983 the country had only 500 branches. “And of those 500, I can tell you, 350 were in very bad shape,” said Alberto Fierro Garza, a longtime library administrator now with Conaculta.

The new library’s design was chosen following an international competition that drew entries from a number of prestigious architectural firms, including the eventual runner-up, Culver City-based Eric Owen Moss Architects. . Moss called the library “a wonderful project” but described the competition process as “a little bit opaque.” “I think, to be honest, that we won the design contest,” Moss said. “I think we didn’t win the political discourse involved.”

Michael Keller, head librarian at Stanford University, who served as a consultant to Moss’ firm, was more blunt. “I thought that the [winning] design was incredibly prosaic. I believe they chose the architect for national reasons: a Mexican architect.”

Keller, an expert on library technology who serves on the tech advisory board of the acclaimed modern library in Alexandria, Egypt, said that 21st century libraries must have versatile, adaptable designs with “a lot of conduits and power and flexibility” to accommodate rapidly changing technology.

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Inti Munoz, a member of Mexico’s national congress from the opposition Democratic Revolution Party, lauded Kalach. But he said the money spent on the building would have been better used in aiding the nation’s provincial branches. He also said the project was an attempt to compensate for an “enormous void left by the failure of the cultural policy of the Fox government,” which he said was characterized by an overall “disdain” for, and neglect of, Mexican artists and cultural agents.

Mexico’s library isn’t the first showcase to experience controversy. The $1.5-billion Bibliotheque Nationale de France, which opened in Paris in the 1990s, was beset with delays, computer breakdowns and a flawed glass-tower design that might have fried the books with sunlight and had to be rectified.

Bermudez acknowledged that plenty of work remained to be done. She is trying to round up more private donors. And then there’s the restaurant, which some of Bermudez’s colleagues wanted to rent to an outside catering company. “If you charge $70,000, the kids can’t pay” the prices, Bermudez said in a tone of disbelief. “I fought it like you wouldn’t believe it.”

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Times staff writer Cecilia Sanchez contributed to this report.


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