A Passion for Books, Nooks and Crannies : County's Head Librarian Believes Libraries Should Be Places for People and Discoveries

Times Staff Writer

Elizabeth Martinez Smith couldn't help smiling.

"This is the children's room, and this is where you go from place to place and discover books," said Orange County's head librarian, taking a first-time visitor on a tour of the San Juan Capistrano Regional Library.

The Spanish Colonial structure, which has earned national and international acclaim for its design since it was built in 1983, is one of 25 branch libraries that Smith oversees.

It also, she said, is her favorite branch, an architecturally stunning, yet cozy, building filled with living-room-style reading rooms and inviting nooks and crannies for curling up with a good book.

The branch, which was designed by renowned architect Michael Graves, symbolizes Smith's view that libraries should be "people places and discovery places."

And that's why Smith was relishing showing off the library one afternoon last week on a day that, coincidentally, marked her seventh anniversary as director of the Orange County Public Library.

Walking through the children's reading room--a long, comfortable room with a cathedral ceiling of exposed Douglas fir--Smith stepped into one of the six book-filled alcoves off to one side and entered a small circular room lined with padded blue benches.

'Crammed Full of Books

"We call it the reading tower because it's one of two major towers in the complex," she said, looking up at the wood-beamed ceiling 36 feet above. "Doesn't it look like a kaleidoscope? Isn't that fabulous ? It's almost an artwork in itself."

Smith's smile grew wider.

"Now you see why I love to come here," she said. "It's a whole inspiration to me."

Smith has been inspired by libraries since she was a child growing up in Pomona in the 1950s and paid her first visit to the city library while in elementary school.

"It was an old Carnegie library that had all these nooks and crannies and was crammed full of books," she recalled in an interview at the Orange County Public Library administrative offices in Orange on the eve of National Library Week, which began Sunday.

Her childhood library was an imposing building that resembled a mansion, she recalled, "so that in itself made it an event--a place to go."

But what she remembers most is the children's librarian who, she said, "took an interest in me. I don't remember it being a very close relationship, but I remember she knew I was there and would talk to me. That gave me a sense of self-esteem. I was a reader, but I think I also came to the library because of the interest she had."

With a laugh, Smith added, "But I never thought of being a librarian."

Smith, whose 20-year career began, appropriately enough, as a children's librarian, became Orange County's head librarian in 1979 after having served as chief of public services for the Los Angeles County Public Library, where she worked for 13 years.

She brought with her a professional reputation for developing ethnic library services--bringing to minority communities such outreach efforts as Spanish and bilingual books and literacy programs--and she has continued to make outreach into ethnic communities one of her priorities in Orange County.

'A Good 7 Years'

"It's been a good seven years for me. I think we've accomplished a lot," said Smith, 42, the mother of two children. "It's interesting--I can see my own footprint here, and that's satisfying."

Over the past seven years, she said, "we probably have built more libraries in Orange County than (have been built in that time) anywhere in the country."

In spite of Proposition 13, which forced libraries throughout the state to cut back on plans for new facilities, seven new branches have opened in Orange County since Smith was hired. In addition, the Heritage Park Regional Library in Irvine is scheduled to open next fall, and construction recently began on yet another branch in the Costa Mesa redevelopment area. Plans also call for building seven more libraries in the developing areas of the county by the year 2000.

The continued growth of libraries in Orange County in the post-Proposition 13 era is the result of a cooperative program between the county and cities in which, Smith said, "the city puts up the land, builds the library and maintains the exterior. We (the county) furnish it, equip it and operate it." The county also has contributed funds for construction, she said.

New Control System

Among Smith's other accomplishments as county head librarian:

- Implementing a $2-million automated circulation control system in all the branches. The computerized system provides instantaneous information on any book within the library system's collection. It shows where a book is located, whether it has been checked out, when it is due, whether there are any fines and even whether there is a waiting list for it.

- Initiating the Books-by-Mail program in which library users who live more than three miles from a branch are loaned books through the mail. The program, primarily for residents of the county's canyon areas, eliminated the Bookmobile, which, Smith said, was not only costly but duplicated services.

- Establishing "Friends Rooms" in each new branch library--and in some of the older branches--for Friends of the Library support groups. She did so, Smith said, because the Friends groups "are a part of us, and this makes them a part of our operation in a very formal way."

Smith, who also instituted Friends Recognition Day, said that the hours put in each year by the county's 21 Friends of the Library groups are the equivalent of $150,000 worth of pay at minimum wage. The Friends do everything from clerical work to putting books back on the shelves. And when the Los Alamitos branch was damaged by fire last year, Smith noted, the Friends cleaned all the books that could be salvaged and held fund-raisers for the library.

Among her outreach efforts into the county's ethnic communities, Smith has revitalized the Library Multicultural Committee, which, among other things, makes recommendations on policy and services, develops programs (such as ethnic holiday celebrations and ethnic author-lecture series) and translates brochures (the "welcome brochure" that describes the library's services is now printed in six languages: English, Spanish, Vietnamese, Korean, Chinese and Japanese).

As director of the Orange County Public Library, which operates on a $15-million annual budget, Smith is in charge of nearly 400 employees who work at the main office and the 25 branches.

She is, Smith believes, "one of three Hispanics in directorship of a library in the country and the only one in charge of a major library."

Smith recalled that when she was a children's librarian in Los Angeles County in 1966 there were only five Mexican-American librarians in the entire country, and, she said with a laugh, "we all knew each other."

Today, "there are probably 800 Hispanic librarians"--a development which, she said, has not only made libraries "more a part of the ethnic communities but it has brought the ethnic experience into the libraries."

Smith noted that for a Mexican-American to be the head of a major library system is "professionally significant because there are very few Hispanics who go into the library profession, and one of the reasons is that they don't have a tradition of library services in their community. So one of my efforts since I became a librarian has been to recruit more Hispanics into the profession."

In Smith's case, it was through a visit with her third-grade class that she was "introduced to the local library." She can still vividly recall that imposing old Carnegie library in Pomona and speaks wistfully about how "it was dark and had high windows, and when the light streamed through the windows it was like a ray of hope or something."

But it wasn't until she was attending UCLA, where she earned a bachelor's degree in Latin American history, that she decided to become a librarian.

And it was a decision based on practicality rather than any romantic notions of libraries. "I needed a job," she said. "My father had died when I was 19, my sister was ill and I was going to be the breadwinner in the family."

And, she said, she didn't see much employment future for someone with a degree in Latin American history.

The turning point in her life came by chance when she signed up for a course on "world literature for children." ("I needed three units in English," she explained with a laugh).

'Sense of Direction'

The class was taught by a retired children's librarian from New York and, Smith said, "I just became enchanted with children's literature, and she (the teacher) inspired me to go to graduate school and get a master's degree (in library science)."

The class gave her "an immediate sense of direction," Smith said. "The teacher was such a dramatic reader and actress. She made you see what literature represented in your life--that it instilled values and provided you with a whole sense of history--and how (through literature) you could instill values in children. It was fascinating to me, and I wanted to do that: to interpret this world for kids and give them a sense of place."

A "sense of place" is a term that might also be used to describe Smith's philosophy of what a library should provide.

In the 1960s and '70s, she said, libraries were "efficient and somewhat cold, and we went into a sort of supermarket effect: You went in and out, and you didn't stay. And people don't remember those places."

"But I think we're getting back to building 'people places,' " she said. "We're building lots of nooks and crannies where people can settle and just be with books and think. And the more we build these, the more people I think will develop a relationship with the library. We don't want people to just get something and leave. We want people to get something and stay and be inspired."

Recent studies show that library usage is up nationwide, Smith noted. But, she said, "Orange County probably has the highest per-capita (use) of a major library system in the country--across the country about 25% to 30% of the population has a library card, and in Orange County it's between 50% and 65% of the population--and we know the reasons why. The demographics tell us we have higher-income people, people with higher educational levels and people coming here expecting good educational support."

Smith noted that technology has "had a tremendous impact on libraries, but technology is just a delivery mechanism that makes us more efficient. We're still in the business of accumulating the collective knowledge of people and making it available to them."

"And when you think about it," she added, "who in the culture is the custodian of knowledge? We are. We're the only public institution with the responsibility to collect and disseminate ideas on all subjects and all points of view to all people."

In an age of measuring service in terms of dollars, Smith said, it is difficult to measure the value of a library "because the alternative is you don't have a library. And we serve a public good: It's the philosophy that a better-educated populace makes better citizens. I think libraries have fallen into a trap recently and have to justify the public good, and how do you put a price tag on that?"

"Some things," she said, "are very difficult to calculate--like (the value of) inspiring a child."

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