Saturday, December 23, 2017

The Public Library Today

Books & Reading: An Interview with Luis Herrera


Recently I had an opportunity to spend a weekend with my former classmate and friend Luis Herrera, City Librarian, for the San Francisco Public Library, a position he’s held since 2005.

In 1976 Luis and I were two of fifteen students recruited by Dr. Arnulfo Trejo, Professor of Library Science at the University of Arizona in Tucson, as part of an innovative program to train Spanish Speaking Librarians. Dr. Trejo, born in the same Tucson historic barrio as Lalo Guerrero and the writer Mario Suarez, was aware of the great inequality of Library services to Spanish Speaking communities, a situation he wanted to improve.

The focal point of Dr. Trejo’s ideas was to graduate Librarians of Spanish Speaking backgrounds that would work in these underserved communities, be they school or the general public. His strategy was three pronged: to advocate, to educate and to serve as models.

Several of those fifteen students went on to have librarian careers with a great degree of responsibility: Jose Aponte a Puerto Rican became head of the San Diego County Library System, Martin Gomez, a Chicano, became City Librarian for the City of Los Angeles and then became the Vice Dean of Libraries for the University of Southern California, Orlando Romero, a Manito, in addition to being a Santero and author of Nambe, was the Director of the Palace of the Governors Museum of New Mexico. Luis Herrera, a Chuqueno from El Paso, before going to San Francisco was City Librarian for Pasadena.

Antonio-Luis this interview is about books and libraries, so we'll ease into it by each of us telling a story that's relevent.

Luis. To tell you the truth my first experience with the public library was not very good. When Iwas a young boy my mother took my brother and me to the El Paso Public Library and we checked out some books. I was really happy with my books until we were notified by the library that the books were a loan and that if they were not returned they were sending a "book cop" to collect them. So all summer I lived in fear whenever someone came to the door. Heck we were just kids and didn't know any better.

 Antonio- My best story about books is about my grandmother, who was a maid at the Sheraton town House. She and the other women who cleaned the rooms were allowed to keep stuff left behind by the guests if it was not claimed within three months. Thus she would bring home lots of paperbacks, pulp fiction mostly with racy sex scenes and fortunately for me my grandmother couldn’t read and never knew what she was giving me. But sometimes the books were best sellers like Marjorie Morningstar, Studs Lonigan and The World of Susie Wong.

Luis-You had your own special library.
Antonio-  That's right. Ok Luis, you’ve been the mero mero for 20 years and when you finally retire I’ll have to telephone you so you can give me orders. It’ll easy the pain of not being the boss anymore.

Luis- No it’s not like that he answers laughing. Now a days you don’t order people, it’s more like saying can I suggest that you consider….            

Antonio –Besides having to relate to staff differently, what differences do you see in librarianship from when you started forty years ago?

Luis- Libraries are so changed Tony. When I started one couldn’t say library without conjuring up an image of a book. It’s not like that anymore. Libraries are so much more.

Antonio- Talk about how that happened?

Luis Herrera  December 2017

Luis- It was a process. But the big changes began when the Internet burst on the scene around 1994 and libraries had to respond to the public demand for computers.

Antonio- I’ll share something that’s related. I was working at the Kellogg Foundation at that time and we had a dual concern, one that the digital divide that was developing between well to do communities and those that weren’t so well off was a threat to our democracy and the second concern was that public libraries, the institution that has always had a role in providing information, was not going to be able to make the transition to the information age that was emerging.

Luis- Well that fear certainly didn’t manifest, evidenced by the fact that 20% of our circulation is electronic material.

Antonio –That much?

Luis- Yes  and I tell you that the library is so much more now. Libraries are just a microcosm of what is taking place outside in the rest of the world.

Antonio- So tell me.

Luis-Well for example, San Francisco like most cities has a large population of homeless people and we took the step of having a social worker on site to attend to their needs. Another thing we do is to partner with a nonprofit agency that parks a bus in front, outfitted with showers and a barber.

Antonio-That is quite different from the traditional public library.

Luis-It is. And those two services take place outside our walls but we have also changed what goes on inside. For example we had a good sized area for old periodicals that we converted it into a teen area that we call The Mix.

Luis Herrera December 2017

Antonio- Taking the room away from periodicals must have ruffled some feathers?

Luis- It did Tony but all of those periodicals are available online and the teens really needed their own space. It’s incredible what goes on in there. We have a 3D printer, audio recording equipment, film making equipment and all sorts of creative projects take place. And the teens really own that place and run it.

Antonio- Wow! Sounds pretty nice. And for adults do you have something  special?

Luis –We do. One really neat thing we offer are spaces for the Career Online High School that allows a person to get a fully accredited high school diploma, not a GED. And for those that need it, we can provide a laptop and something called a MeFi which is a device that allows them access to the Internet. It’s like WiFi except it can work from their home.

Antonio-And I’m certain that you have all sorts of ebooks and audio books and online databases.

Luis- Oh of course and we continue to have regular books.

Antonio- I’d like to switch topics, knowing that you have served in national organizations and that you’ve had some recognition for your work. Can you tell me about that?

Luis –Sure, there are a couple that I feel especially proud to have been associated with. One of them is The Digital Public Library of America that is now online and providing access to several large digitized collections, like the Smithsonian, The New York Public Library, Harvard, the University of Virginia and others.

Antonio- And a person can search those collections.

Luis- Absolutely. It’s an amazing resource.

Antonio- And the other one?

Luis- I was appointed by President Obama to the board of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, whose mission is to provide federal support to 120,00 libraries and 35,000 museums. We considered proposals and made grants.

Antonio- Before we bring this platica to a close, can you talk about how you have been involved in continuing or even expanding the presence of Latinos in Libraries.

Luis-Gee Tony there are now so many in the library field. One of the ways we have promoted their entry is through Reforma the national organization whose mission is to promote library services to Spanish Speaking communities and of course we push librarianship as a career whenever we can. We even have scholarships for that purpose. And for several years I have been a board member of Knowledge River, The University of Arizona's Masters program in Librarianship for Latinos and Native Americans.

Antonio- Knowledge River follows up on what Dr. Trejo started so many years ago.

Luis- Yes he was a visionary.

Antonio- Luis I appreciate the time you've given for this little chat. It's nice to know that the public libraries are keeping up with the times. 

Below some of the original fifteen individuals selected for the Master program in Library Science by Dr. Artnulfo Trejo in the back row with the red vest.The two women in the front row L-R Amanda Castillo, Laurita Moore. In the back row L-R Antonio SolisGomez, Francisco Avalos, Luis Herrera, Dr. Arnulfo Trejo and Alberto Villegas, taken a few years after graduation.

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