Biggest Books in Baja

BY: MARLA O'BRIEN

Where is the largest bilingual library in Baja California Sur? La Paz? Cabo San Lucas? You might be surprised to learn the biggest collection of borrowable items is located in Todos Santos, and it is stocked entirely through donations. 

The community library for adults, named after famed Mexican author Elena Poniatowska, boasts over 10,000 materials plus the children’s library has over 4,000. These collections have grown since 2004 thanks to the efforts of many dedicated volunteers and donors. Today, both libraries reside at the Palapa Society Learning Center opened in 2017 on Calle del Huerto. 

“You’d be surprised what we have here,” says library director Donna Schultz, who started volunteering 10 years ago. 

The adult library’s collection consists of DVDs of movies and television series, magazines, and all sorts of fiction and nonfiction, including biographies, travel guides, reference, cooking, gardening, poetry, and even some audiobooks on CD. The materials are primarily in English with a special section in Spanish, as well as a collection of works by Spanish and Mexican authors. 

The building itself is bright and flooded with natural light by windows in the ceiling. Most of the solid wood shelving was constructed by volunteers with donated materials. 

Though the library has relied solely on gifts of items and labor, there are hard costs that need to be covered. A computer system was recently upgraded to better keep track of materials and reduce losses, as well as monitor which items are most popular. Schultz is also working hard to build a budget for new books. 

“Because we rely primarily on donations, many of our books tend to be older and we’d like to be able to offer patrons more new releases.”

So she has been creative with fundraising ideas. Recently, the library held a Bestseller Bonanza event where people who gave $400 MXN got to be the first to borrow a new title and get their name added inside the cover on a commemorative bookplate. 

Two more events are coming up in support of the library. Stock up on Valentine’s Day treats at their truffle sale on Thursday, February 13 from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Anyone who buys handmade chocolates will also be able to load up on used paperbacks. 

Then on March 21, a Saturday Night Fever-themed fundraiser will be held at Gallo Azul Pizza Bar with all proceeds going to new book purchases. 

Library membership is open to everyone for $250 MXN a year, roughly the cost of one new hardcover, and current membership numbers around 350, primarily gringos. 

In an effort to share literature with the local Mexican community who may not be able to afford membership or cannot visit the library during open hours, Schultz is harnessing volunteers to set up three “free little libraries” around town. These boxes will contain Spanish-language books and work on the honour system - take one and leave one. 

“We hope to have them set up in a few weeks and we’ve secured locations that local families frequently visit,” she explains. 

They will be located at the Los Pinos park next to the bus depot, at La Esquina restaurant, and the Padrino Childen’s Foundation on Calle Cuauhtemoc. 

All young ones are also welcome at the children’s library for free. This special collection includes books, movies, puzzles and games in English and Spanish. Shelves are color-coded by reading level and divided by topic for easy browsing. 

Children’s librarian Joy O’Brien (no relation) was a pediatric nurse for 30 years before moving to Todos Santos and volunteering for the Palapa Society. 

“At first we had a problem with children not returning the books because they didn’t know what a library was or how it worked,” says O’Brien. “But we solved that by offering a small prize to the children when items were brought back.” 

The library’s Saturday bilingual storytime is a popular weekly event from 11 to 11:30 a.m. It is geared for children aged 5-12 years old and each week includes a craft session. 

“Kids love it. We usually have about 20-30 families coming out,” O’Brien says. "In my humble opinion, libraries are the original eco-friendly champions and one of the best promoters of democracy, offering access to information for all. When I got my membership I told them to put the change from the $500 MXN bill into the donation jar, and I encourage everyone who can to do likewise. It’s a tiny price for a year’s worth of information and entertainment.

The Elena Pontiatowska library is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Check the Palapa Society’s website at palapasociety.org for children’s library hours and information on upcoming events.