Resource Centers : Ethnic Data Kept on Tap at Libraries

Times Staff Writer

While fielding the usual stream of questions on Latino history and culture, Linda Chavez spent several days recently looking for the last line of the fourth verse of the Mexican Revolution period song, "La Cucaracha."

Considering Chavez's track record in responding to hundreds of questions posed to her as librarian for the Los Angeles County Chicano resource center--ranging from a translation from the ancient Nahuatl to the availability of a yoga class in Spanish--chances are she will find it.

"A lot of it is detective work," said Chavez, the one-woman resource center who can answer just about any question you might have regarding Chicanos or put you in touch with someone who can.

Accent on Diversity

Questions to the Los Angeles County Library come in a variety of languages and reflect a keen interest and curiosity in the culture and history of the area's diverse population.

To better address this demand, the county library system now has four ethnic resource centers, including Asian-Pacific, American Indian and Afro-American units in addition to the Chicano center. The system began establishing ethnic resource centers about a decade ago to centralize and allow for greater specialization of book collections and materials relating to ethnic groups.

"The concept is unique to Los Angeles County," said Wini Allard, adult services coordinator for the library system, adding that the specialized units serve as information centers for the county's entire 91-branch library system. No other local system has so many individual ethnic collections, Allard said.

The system's main information phone number makes general information available to callers in Spanish, Chinese and Japanese as well as English. For more specialized questions, however, callers are referred to the ethnic resource centers. There they will find a full-time bilingual librarian and a wealth of information in its collection of books, films, slides, records and periodicals.

Plenty of Answers

Are you curious about the medical properties of a Chinese centipede or how to perform the traditional Japanese tea ceremony? The Asian-Pacific resource center at the Los Angeles County branch library in Montebello will have the answer.

Center librarian Florence Wang also has compiled dozens of lists of available books and information on the most asked-about topics, such as the Chinese New Year celebration, East-West trade and Asian music.

The American Indian resource center, located at the Huntington Park branch library, maintains a collection of tribal newsletters and an extensive collection of Indian census rolls useful in genealogical research.

And the Afro-American resource center at the Compton branch library maintains a large historical collection of newspapers published by blacks. The center is also the focus of an annual Black History Month Celebration which in the past has honored such personalities as writer James Baldwin and the late jazz musician Count Basie.

First of Four

The Chicano resource center, housed in a corner of the East Los Angeles branch library since 1976, was the first of the four ethnic centers to be established.

The concept for the center is a legacy of the early 1970s, a period of political and social unrest during which Chicanos demanded greater accountability from public agencies, said Elizabeth Martinez Smith who, at the time, served as the regional administrator for county branch libraries in the East Los Angeles area.

Noting that in 1966 she was the only Chicano librarian employed by the county, Smith said the library system lacked bilingual personnel and generally lacked information on Los Angeles' ethnic communities. "The libraries were not as responsive to the community as they could be," she said.

With this in mind, Smith set aside $5,000 from her regional budget to set up the Chicano center. The center later gained additional funding through federal Library Services and Construction Act funds administered by the state library, which also later paid for the establishment of the other ethnic centers.

Source of Funds

In recent years, the centers have become an integral part of the county system, now funded through annual county allocations ranging from about $15,000 to $40,000 for each center, according to library officials.

By 1979, when Smith left Los Angeles to become director of the Orange County library system, she said, "People had come to know the library was a part of the community." Allard said the library currently employs 22 Latino librarians out of a total of 233.

The ethnic centers continue that tradition. The Asian-Pacific center was established in 1979 in response to the large influx of Asian immigrants and refugees into the area, said Wang, the center's librarian, pointing out that Asians are the fastest growing ethnic group in the United States. The center offers information on a variety of Asian-Pacific cultures, with an emphasis on the Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Filipino.

"There were a tremendous amount of questions" from and about the newcomers, she said. "But the library was not prepared to answer even the most basic ones."

Another major objective of the center is to help the newcomers adapt to their new homeland by providing materials for learning English and information on such topics as health, consumer issues and taxes, Wang said.

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