Front desk at the Stevenson Libraru in Boyle Heights. Photo by Armando Magallanes
By Armando Magallanes
Boyle Heights Beat
On this night, Boyle Heights’ Robert Louis Stevenson Library is full and bustling. Excited kids run out the double doors, talking loudly and jumping around. Some parents crowd around the checkout desks, while others linger to talk following this night’s activity: taking turns holding a giant live yellow python.
It’s a scene that might become increasingly familiar as librarians in Boyle Heights and elsewhere work to lure in new patrons. On most days, libraries in Boyle Heights – and in many other communities — look almost empty.
For almost 300 years, libraries have offered a quiet spot to read and check out books for learning and pleasure. According to a 2016 Pew Research study, most Americans still view libraries as an important asset and say closing libraries would have a major impact in their communities.
Today, in many neighborhoods, libraries are trying to evolve from their traditional role as “book warehouses” toward serving as community centers. While libraries still offer traditional resources, they also offer a number of online resources and classes.
Public libraries are looking for ways to reinvent themselves, while continuing to inform and educate the public. Consumers today are seeking more technology and online-based ways to access information. Libraries’ success in making this transition from traditional to more digital resources – and to finding new ways to bring people into library buildings — could be the key to their survival.
Where people are divided, according to Pew findings, is how libraries should treat books. Almost a quarter of people surveyed support moving books to make room for more community space, while 30 percent say libraries should not move books. (Four in 10 say maybe.) The number of respondents who have borrowed printed books from a public library, however, has dropped by 7 percent in 3 years.
For librarians, responding to these changes requires understanding and being willing to address the needs of the community.
“One of the things we take very seriously here is outreach. We know that the type of programs –
the services that you provide in a library – always have to be centered around your community and what your community wants,” says Lupie Leyva, a longtime Boyle Heights resident who is head librarian at R.L. Stevenson Public Library.
Leyva has worked for the Los Angeles Public Library for the past 13 years, mostly in Boyle Heights. She has an insider’s understanding of the needs of her community.
According to Leyva, Stevenson Library has seen a steady decline in the number of books checked out from around 10,000 per month to about 4,000-5,000 per month today. She says the shift is occurring because more people are using online resources. The library still issues the same number of new library cards every year, an indication of steady demand.
“We are venturing a lot more into what we call non-traditional library services,” says Leyva.
“A lot of what we do now is train people how to use our online resources, so people may come in, get a library card, never come back into the physical library, but they’re still using the library card.”
School-age children rely on libraries for both traditional services and internet access. “I mainly come here to use the computers,” says eighth grader Brian Sanchez, “but I also come here to check out books, so pretty much what the library is for.”
The East Los Angeles County Library, run by the County of Los Angeles and separate from the Los Angeles Public Library system, also offers many resources designed to respond to the overall shift to digital platforms.
Robert Daicopoulos, teen services librarian, says that many people come to use the computers in the library or borrow laptops to take home. He says the East Los Angeles library seems to draw a lot more people than libraries in surrounding areas. “I think part of it is because we have longer hours here, we have a few more amenities and we do have more programs here,” he says.
Ana Meneses, who is in her early 50s, used to come more for her daughters, but now visits one of the Boyle Heights libraries or East Los Angeles Library at least once a week for her own purposes.
“At first, I came to the library mainly to use the computer so that I could check my email, and I also came to check out books, mainly for my daughters and myself. But now, I also check out a few DVDs,” she says.
East L.A. Library differs from other older libraries, like Stevenson, because it was opened in 2004 and can offer more modern services. Libraries in Boyle Heights, including Stevenson, Malabar and Benjamin Franklin, were built in the 1930s.
“The three libraries in Boyle Heights have not been recently retrofitted,” says Leyva. “This building [Stevenson Library] is very charming, but it was not meant to serve a large community or 21st Century resources. It’s woefully insufficient for 21st Century resources now.”
Over the years, libraries have switched from offering print products only to more online resources, ranging from databases with information on a wide range of topics to eBooks and even movies. With this shift, the types of patrons are also changing. Traditionally, children have been the heaviest users, but libraries are now aiming more resources at adults. There are online classes, including high school classes offered through Career Online High School, citizenship classes and online English classes.
The community surrounding each library affects which resources it provides. In the largely Spanish-speaking community of Boyle Heights, many library patrons come from countries without many libraries and are unfamiliar with what they can offer, Leyva says. As a result, a lot of what libraries do is customer education.
“We are a community center, we are a public space for everybody and we welcome everyone to come in” says Leyva.
Los Angeles Public Library Online Resources
Visit www.lapl.org to access the following collections and resources:
- Overdrive: the library’s collection of digital and audio books
- Freegal: a free music streaming service that allows patrons to download five songs per week
- Hoopla: digital collections, including free movies online
- Lynda.com: free online courses
- NYTimes.com: free online access to New York Times
Armando Magallanes is a 12th grade student at Francisco Bravo Medical Magnet High School. He has been part of his local choir for 9 years and enjoys reading and is learning how to play the piano. He hopes to attend a 4-year university for next year.
All photos by Armando Magallanes