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Los Angeles Times

August 25, 2002

An 'Irrelevant' Library Leaves City Unserved
Literacy: Just 10% of Santa Ana system's books are in Spanish, which most residents speak. Officials point to scarce resources.


Metro Desk

Edition: Home Edition
Section: California
Page: B-8

Index Terms:

Estimated printed pages: 5

Article Text:

When Santa Ana's public library invited best-selling mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker to speak several years ago, fewer than a dozen people showed up. An appearance by Mexican television anchor and author Jorge Ramos at a Latino bookstore downtown last October drew 3,000.A growing number of critics--ranging from educators and businesspeople to library experts--say the comparison shows that Santa Ana's library system is out of touch with residents in a city deemed the most Spanish-speaking of its size in the United States.

In a community where 74% of residents speak Spanish, the library's Spanish-language book collection comprises only 10% of the books in its three branches. Other cities with large Latino populations devote as much as half of their collection to books in Spanish, some entire branches.

"Santa Ana is probably one of the worst cases in California" when it comes to serving its residents, said Elizabeth Martinez, former executive director of the American Library Assn.

The city's librarians "accepted the mantra that they can't do anything," said Martinez, a UCLA library science professor from Newport Beach who is among several librarians who have monitored the Santa Ana library for decades.

Rob Richard, library director since 1986, doesn't disagree. "The library got fat, dumb and happy," he said. "It became irrelevant to the residents, so the [city] council never heard what it needed."

Critics say the small collection of materials in Spanish is part of a broader problem with funding of Santa Ana's library.

It ranks 142nd of the 178 library systems in California in per-capita spending. The library spends less per year on each city resident--$12.51--than the cost of a bestseller.

Library officials say they are doing the best they can given their resources. But even after the city two years ago increased the library's acquisition budget, only 17% of the book budget, about $80,000, was spent on Spanish-language books this year.

Moreover, literacy advocates including Martinez--who has helped libraries around the state develop programs for Latino patrons--say Santa Ana could seek money from foundations and corporations to improve its service to Latino residents, many of whom are poor and largely uneducated immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.

Rueben Martinez of Martinez Books and Art Gallery, a Santa Ana bookstore with a large Spanish-language collection, said the library and its employees show little sense of excitement about books, which is evident to people he has sent there.

"It's not so much the fact that the library doesn't have the books they should," said Martinez, whose store hosted the overflow crowd for Jorge Ramos. "No one makes you feel at home. You don't feel like it's your library."

Alejandro Moreno, a social worker who has helped unite troubled families, says the library doesn't offer enough to recommend it as an activity for his clients, as he used to do. "We don't feel welcome in the libraries anymore," he said. "There is nothing for us."

"The library often doesn't have what I'm looking for--it's out, it's lost, it's just not there," said Ana Maria Salas, 45, an immigrant who was a schoolteacher in Mexico. Instead, she shares books she buys from Martinez with her friends.

Libraries are not required to offer books in foreign languages, but many do because they want to foster literacy.

The American Library Assn. advocates that libraries serve communities no matter what their dominant language. The association's bill of rights stresses that encouraging literacy serves a public good. "We are supposed to serve everyone and provide services without barriers--be they fees or languages," said Maurice J. Freedman, the organization's current president.

Freedman noted that free public libraries were established in the 1850s--in great part to help immigrants become more literate and more productive in their communities. Even then, collections included newspapers in other languages, he said.

Not everyone in Santa Ana city government believes the city should supply Spanish-language texts or boost library participation.

"I would question whether it is the city's duty to provide materials that mirror the demographics of the city," said City Councilman Jose Solorio, son of migrant farm workers who has a master's degree from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If we go to another country, should we expect to see books in English?"

Councilwoman Alberta D. Christy, a bank consultant, said the city has increased the library system's budget "as much as we possibly can." She said that in the age of the Internet, fewer books are needed, even for small children.

"If you are 3 or 4 years old, you go on the Internet to Nickjr.com [and] you have stories there. It's teaching them to read the words and hear the stories," Christy said.

Cities such as Miami and Los Angeles have tried harder to reach out to Latino communities. In Kansas City, Mo., more than 50% of the books in some library branches are in Spanish. In San Jose, an entire branch is devoted to Spanish-language books and materials. Librarians there hope to raise money by serving coffees from Latin America and pan dulce.

Santa Ana's libraries are concentrated near downtown and the western edge that borders Garden Grove, but there are none in the more heavily Latino southern part of the city. Richard dreams of opening another branch, but says that would be nearly impossible; he would need $4 million, plus land in a built-out city.

Because of a budget constraints, Richard said he has "written off" adults in favor of promoting youth programs.

"It's very difficult to change adult habits, but if we can get kids off to a good start, we can make them lifelong readers," he said.

The Santa Ana library's greatest successes have been with youth. . This year, library officials say, children made 30,000 visits to a reading club and 50,000 to a homework program at the branches. The library also offered a math club, a Spanish-language story time, even a recent teen pizza party. There are more Spanish-language story times in Santa Ana than any library in the area.

Free story times, puppet shows and movies rotate among the branches about five days a week. Two bookmobiles travel to neighborhoods far from the branches. One vehicle allows librarians to read stories under an awning outside and even show a video on the side of the vehicle.

Even so, some Latino parents interviewed say the offerings are limited. "There isn't much here in Spanish, but we are happy to find anything to help our children," said Marisol Jimenez, who had her three children--4, 2 and 1--in tow on a recent trip to the city's central branch. "We'd like more books in Spanish for children. You want to read to them so they get ahead, and we [parents] can't read enough English."

Heninger Elementary School Principal Kathy Sabine said more Spanish and bilingual books would help parents who speak little English to read to their children. In addition, students learning English can increase their literacy by reading in their native language.

Brooke Stewart, recently appointed library board president, who successfully lobbied the council for more funds, agrees that more needs to be done, and said she hopes to convince city officials, who juggle a variety of demands for funds.

"For years and years, the library board didn't seem to do much," Stewart said. "I started wondering if all we were supposed to do was approve minutes.... I think we are seeing that if we make noise, we can get something done."

GRAPHIC: Spending Per Resident
CREDIT: Los Angeles Times
PHOTO: The library's Spanish-language collection is on the first three bookcases at the lower left. Santa Ana ranks 142nd of the 178 library systems in California in per-capita spending.
PHOTO: "I would question whether it is the city's duty to provide materials that mirror the demographics ... ," said a city councilman.
PHOTOGRAPHER: Photos by ROBERT LACHMAN / Los Angeles Times

Copyright 2002 Los Angeles Times
Record Number: 000105038