by Lori Rivas (please go to and comment at The Signal)
Related: See video at SCVTV—Rivas speaks before City Council on this subject (20 minutes in.)
I heard an interesting story: a public utility facility, in South Central LA, has grounds covered with gravel and weeds, the driveways have oil stains, the building has chipped paint and bullet holes. The equivalent facility in Bel Air, however, is beautiful, the building plans approved by local home owners, who also dictated the use of special noise reducing equipment, and the removal of an outdoor windsock, required as a safety device.
A public agency, operating on public property, fully funds both facilities, from the same pot of money, and yet the Bel Air neighborhood has more clout in dictating the appearance and function of the plant in their midst.
Would not both neighborhoods benefit from a nicer building, and noise reduction equipment? Is it kosher that a public agency caters to a louder/wealthier/more powerful demographic?
Of course not. How, then, do you magnify the voices of those who are marginalized? How do you empower those who do not have the same access to influence and power?
The answer, my friends, is public services, which level the playing field for poorer communities: public transportation; public education; social workers; community clinics, etc.
And public libraries.
Libraries are the great equalizer, essential to having an educated and literate population. A public library provides access to information for those who cannot afford to pay for books, for tutors, for advanced learning. A librarian is the community’s bridge to knowledge, creating order out of the sea of information chaos.
Just as we expect our city bus drivers to be state licensed, our teachers to be credentialed, our social workers to be degreed, our public health workers to be certified, so, too, we should expect our libraries to be staffed by those who have earned an advanced degree in library science.
This is not the case when a library system is managed by a private company, and when those overseeing the contract are not trained librarians. Then, the inequality persists. Then, the vocal communities get better service. More professionals. More programs.
A commercial contract is driven by customer satisfaction, and plays to the demands of those footing the bill, not to those who are most needy: improving public image, and garnering popular support are the name of the game. A city management and library board of trustees, who are untrained in library development, are apt to swallow this sales pitch, and not identify or recognize deficiencies.
In August 2010, when the city approved a contract with LSSI, a prevalent citizen concern was that LSSI would cut costs (and maximize profit) by reducing staff. Today, although we employ 14 municipal librarians, not one single librarian works primarily out of Newhall.
City manager Ken Pulskamp responds that the city employs a “team approach” to serving library patrons, ie, the Newhall library patrons are served *just fine* without their own librarians.
Rather, Newhall “borrows” librarians from the other branches. A roving librarian works out of Newhall two days/week. Three days/week, librarian hours “fluctuate,” and there are no librarians on Saturday and Sunday. Newhall library, open sixty-three hours per week, guarantees only sixteen hours of on-site librarian service.
Newhall. The library that serves the poorest community, the most non-native speakers, the patrons that are least likely to speak out, yet are the most likely to need professional library services. It is for communities such as these that public libraries were created, and for which library services are so vital.
Fourteen municipal librarians, all primarily assigned to either the Valencia or Canyon Country branches, none to Newhall.
Is this what we signed up for?
Under the county system, Newhall had both a library manager, and a children’s librarian, one of whom was on site, every day, for nearly every hour the branch was open.
City staff and city librarians contest that the Newhall library paraprofessionals are adequately trained to address the daily needs of Newhall patrons, that LSSI provides excellent and on-going training to our library help.
What kind of training? That’s proprietary information, not available to the public. Does this training rival the rigor of a master’s degree in library science? Is LSSI training accredited by the American Library Association, ensuring the depth and breadth of knowledge? Not likely.
In fact, would you like your local school to employ a “team approach,” instructing your child with non-credentialed teachers?
Would you like the hospital to employ a “team approach,” guaranteeing RNs for only a quarter of patient care?
Is there value in attaining a specialized degree, or are paraprofessionals just as well suited to serve in these capacities?
Is our city government acting in the best interest of our poorer community in this instance? Obviously not. If they were, our library board of trustees would have fought to employ a Newhall librarian. Our city management would have certified that Newhall has regular and daily librarian hours.
Instead, Newhall library patrons have been sacrificed, in the hopes that no one would complain, no one would speak out, that the year would pass quietly, and then we would be dazzled by the new library.
But, I’m speaking out. Will you join me? Newhall has been short changed, and the inequity should be rectified.
Who benefits when paraprofessionals are doing the work of professional librarians? There is only one answer to that…and it is not the Newhall library.