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Central headquarters

Stan Gotlieb

Sra. Ruth Gonzales, Librarian, who knows everyone's card number by heart. Photography by Diana Ricci

Remember how quiet libraries used to be? How everyone talked in whispers at the desk, and when you got into a giggling session with your girlfriend/boyfriend, someone would "sshhhh" you? Well, if that's what you're looking for, stay away from the Oaxaca (English Language) Lending Library.

Founded a little over 30 years ago, the Library (the only one between Sn Miguel de Allende and Antigua Guatemala) has evolved and grown and become the anchor for the diverse population of expatriate English speakers who make their permanent or temporary homes here.

Filled to overflowing with an eclectic collection of English and Spanish (and a few in German and French) hardcovers and paperbacks, magazines, reference books, video tapes and talking tapes for the hard-of-seeing, the Library is a busy place, frequented by readers of all ages and cultures. On any given day, there are as many Mexican students as foreigners, browsing the shelves. There are books for kids, back issues of the Mexico City News in English, and perhaps the only complete collection of the works of Anthony Trollope south of the Rio Bravo.

There is a classroom, where English is taught to Mexicans, Spanish is taught to everyone else, and - twice a week, for two hours - I hold forth, with quiet voice and quirky insight, on how to get the most out of Oaxaca. There used to be an AA meeting in English, until the group got too big, and now they meet nearby. A large bulletin board contains 3x5 cards offering places for rent and sale, specialty foods, legal services, language lessons, dog sitting, massage: the whole gamut of goods and services being offered and requested. A large, detailed map of the city of Oaxaca hangs nearby. Anyone can read them, but you have to be a member to put up a card (unless you pay 10 pesos at the desk).

In addition to all this, the Library offers a unique and valuable mail service, for members only. There is a box near the desk, into which mail bearing U.S. postage is deposited (stamps are available at the desk). Whenever someone is "going back", they take the mail with them and mail it from the first U.S. airport they get to. Since MexPost can take up to three weeks, this is a very valued service indeed.

There is also a message board, where members without telephones can contact one another, and where nonmembers may pin messages to their member friends. What there is not, is peace and quiet.

Newcomers arrive, loaded with questions. Repeat visitors come in so that the word will get out that they are back, and enthusiastic shouts of "que milagro" (what a miracle) and "welcome back" are heard, along with information on how many days the immigration people in MexCity (or whatever port of entry) were giving yesterday. Old residents argue about politics, library policy or the "noise question". It amuses me to hear one of my neighbors telling me in a normal tone of voice that we shouldn't allow talking above a whisper.

Regular volunteers assist Sra. Gonzales at the main desk, and anyone will be glad to point you to what you need. Membership is cheap, and I encourage you to join. If you don't want to join, you can buy a used book, or read any book in the collection at one of the tables provided. Just don't go "sshhhh" when someone starts talking.

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Published or Updated on: September 1, 2000 by Stan Gotlieb © 2008
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