You have to be there

I am in Mexico City for the summer, doing some preliminary field work. Although I have visited the city a number of times, the last of these visits was some six years ago. So, along with attending a conference, meeting with various scholars down here, and actually getting on with some research, I was very excited to explore the city again – sufficiently so that a good part of my preliminary preliminary field research was spent dawdling among travel sites and blogs.

One location that stuck out, during these preliminary preliminary investigations, was Biblioteca Vasconcelos. I had never heard of this place, back when I first lived in Mexico – I didn’t move in quite such nerdy circles than – and so was determined to pay it a visit soon after my return. The Atlas Obscura write-up of the site, in particular, made it sound like some sort of surreal, Borgesian fantasy world, in which libraries existed within libraries, and in which musty old tomes could occupy the futuristic space shelves of tomorrow.

Wondering the cavernous hall of the Biblioteca, I waited and waited for space to collapse in upon itself, parallel universes of books coexisting in the same impossible singularity. Pillars of books did hang high over my head, the patterned skeleton of a whale suspended among the tomes. But it was all, in fact, rather consistent and uniform (even if the whale was a weird touch).

The reason that the Biblioteca of the write-up seemed to contain so many more multitudes was that the author had accidentally conflated two sites, describing them as if they were one.

A few metro stops away from the Biblioteca Vasconcelos is the Biblioteca de Mexico “José Vasconcelos.” The two share the name of one of the principal intellectuals of post-revolution Mexico, but in most respects they are very different. Biblioteca Vasconcelos is massive and open, full of layers of stark metal shelving. Biblioteca de Mexico, by contrast, occupies a colonial building, with a scattering of courtyards giving on to small libraries, laced with narrow staircases and passages between shelves stuffed with worn books. Rather than a jumble of impossibilities, each library has a distinctive and cohesive style.

A reminder, then, at the outset of this early stage of field work: you have to be there, in the field, getting a sense of how things really work and fit together. Don’t be like the travel writer that didn’t actually travel. Don’t try to be an expert from a distance. There is no substitute for seeing a place for yourself, for poking about, for wandering the streets, for getting a little lost and stumbling upon the unexpected.