Getting a read on L.A.'s new city librarian

The gig: As newly appointed city librarian of the Los Angeles Public Library, John Szabo runs the nation's largest public-funded library system, measured by population served. From his corner office atop the Central Library in downtown L.A., the 44-year-old oversees the city's 72 branches, 6.4 million volumes, 3 million photographs, 30,000 electronic volumes and 883 employees. Appointed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa in June, he reported for duty Aug. 20.

A "library person": For some, it takes decades to find their life's calling. Szabo fell for libraries while still in short pants. "My father would drop me at the library while he played in a bowling league," Szabo said. "I loved this space where I could explore every subject under the sun. But I was also fascinated by what went on behind the circulation desk." He found out soon enough. As a 16-year-old in Montgomery, Ala., he got a library clerk position at the local Air Force base where his father, a lieutenant colonel, served. Szabo never looked back. "Every job I've ever had save one has been in libraries," he said.

A degree for everything: As an undergraduate at the University of Alabama, Szabo worked in the campus' inter-library loan department, which convinced him that he needed more book learning. So he went to the University of Michigan and got a master's degree in library and information studies. A fellowship program there gave him the chance to operate a small campus library on his own — from reshelving returned books to budgeting. Until then, he mainly regarded libraries as places where books move around. "It got me thinking about management of libraries for the first time," Szabo said.

Sweet smell of success: Szabo's first job after graduating was running the public library in little Robinson, Ill., best known for the factory where Heath bars are made. With the aroma of chocolate and toffee wafting through the stacks, Szabo launched an ambitious growth campaign, expanding Robinson's library system to four locations from just one when he arrived. Not bad for a kid who applied on a lark. "I think a lot about the library board there," Szabo grins. "If I had been on it, would I have given a 24-year-old a chance?"

By the book: After 3 1/2 years, Szabo moved on to Palm Harbor, Fla., where he added a second branch to its library. Then, in his early 30s he became assistant director of the libraries in Clearwater, Fla. That was a big step — a system with 125 employees and five libraries and far more residents served. Szabo also got political. As president of the Florida Library Assn., he opposed a plan by then-Gov. Jeb Bush to close the state library, and he took flak after two Clearwater residents were arrested because of unpaid overdue-book fees, making the national news.

File under ATL: Szabo's next whistle-stop was in the bibliophile equivalent of the major leagues: the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System, where he landed the top job in 2005. There, he championed a $275-million construction bond measure that passed with a whopping 65% of the votes and will help build eight libraries and expand or renovate 25 others. One of his non-library passions, modern architecture, came to the fore as well, with Szabo defending the city's central library against public calls for demolition on grounds that Marcel Breuer's brutalist design was ugly. Szabo, as is often the case, got his way.

West side story: This spring, the Los Angeles Public Library's previous chief, Martin Gomez, left to help run the USC libraries. A national search led to Szabo, who inherited a system battered by the economy, with staffing down more than a quarter in recent years and hours sharply curtailed.

Happily, Szabo's predecessor had already solved that problem for him: In 2011 voters approved Measure L, guaranteeing the library a chunk of all property tax assessments in Los Angeles on a sliding scale reaching 0.03% in 2015. In other words: a gusher of cash for the foreseeable future. "Our funding is secured," said Szabo, who will use some of the money to restore service to pre-recession hours and, eventually, bring back Sunday hours as well. The beauty of the new funding source is that it ties the library's financial fortunes to those of the community. "We know that libraries help increase property values," Szabo said.

Looking ahead: The city's libraries already have undergone extensive renovations and expansions, so Szabo predicts that future improvements will come in areas such as digital collections and community involvement. One idea he hopes to introduce is Books for Babies, which provides new mothers with a free book, library card application and other items to encourage them to read to their children. Szabo thinks of libraries as not just book repositories but also community centers and places where people can create new content. "I truly believe public libraries change lives," he said. "I know there are lives we've saved. People who were kept out of jails, jobs we've helped people get, kids who are not being drawn into drugs because they've been encouraged at the library."

Not a big reader: Bucking time-honored stereotypes, Szabo said he's not a voracious reader. He does love the Truman Capote story "A Christmas Memory," he said, but when he has free time, Szabo and his partner, a second-grade teacher at a Los Angeles charter school, are more likely to go for a hike — or turn on the tube and root for his beloved Alabama Crimson Tide — than crack open a hardback.

ken.bensinger@latimes.com

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