Meet the Innovation Leadership Program Residents: Part One

Over the last year, the Library Foundation and Los Angeles Public Library have collaborated to launch the first of its kind librarian residencies in a major public library. The Innovation Leadership Program (ILP), which is in the planning phase of what we hope to be an ongoing program, partners midcareer librarians with recently graduated librarians to address the challenges facing the 21st century public library. The ILP brings together new professionals with their knowledge of cutting edge information science and technology and pairs them with seasoned librarians with their knowledge of Los Angeles communities and the library profession to create an exciting synergy.

Immersed in their residency, we caught up with the two inaugural ILP residents, Amy Bradley and Yesenia Villar-Villalobos. We will be featuring interviews from each of the fellows in the next two weeks. First up, we talked to Amy Bradley.

Imani Harris, Melissa Briggs, and Amy Bradley at Young Literati event. Photo by Marlene Picard.

Tell us a bit about yourself—where are you from, what are some of your interests, and how did you first decide that you wanted to be a librarian?

I grew up in a gateway city just outside of Los Angeles. Like many families in our community, mine struggled with poverty. But I was fortunate enough to live around the block from a public library, and to be raised by two women who loved to read. The first thing my grandmother did in the morning was read her Bible, and my mother was always buried in the tomes of Anne McCaffrey or Jane Auel. I loved fiction early on, and as I grew older I continued to read in order to understand myself and those around me. Literature allowed me to escape a sometimes difficult upbringing, and fueled my imagination and hope for the future.

I found my first job as a page at our neighborhood library, Norwalk Regional. I studied literature and creative writing at BIOLA and Oxford University, but it wasn’t until after I finished college—having worked for years in public libraries—that I decided I wanted to be a librarian. A wonderful branch manager in the County of Los Angeles Public Library named Jennifer McCarty urged me to become a librarian because I was “smart as a whip, and interested in everything.” Her words stuck with me, and I’m so glad they did.

As the first person in my mother’s family to attend college and earn an advanced degree, I credit a love of reading—nurtured by our public library’s collection—to overcoming the circumstances I grew up in. As a public librarian, I’m thrilled to use my imagination and love of literature to improve the lives of people in our communities.

What has been the experience of your residency thus far?

I’m always being confused with an intern, so I’m excited to have a chance to talk about this! The concept of a residency is borrowed from the medical field, where it spread to medical and academic libraries at large. It’s essentially a model of accelerated development for new librarians, meant to close the gap between what’s learned in LIS schools and what actually happens in libraries. As a resident, I gain the ability to acquire skills and firsthand knowledge in a wide variety of library work, sharpen my future career goals, and build a “big picture” view of LAPL and the profession as a whole. The fellows, seasoned librarians who serve as mentors, are able to build their leadership experience as they move on as the next generation of library leaders. For LAPL as an organization, this means an influx of young librarians with new ideas who can motivate other librarians to rethink the way we offer services. The Innovative Leadership Program is the first large-scale public library residency in the nation, and we hope to set a model for public libraries across the country.

As a final result, of course, this means communities with libraries that are even better at meeting their needs. I spent the first month of my residency downtown at the gorgeous Central Library, meeting other librarians and gaining a sense of LAPL as a whole. I spent the second month in the Valley developing my program, helping out with storytimes, and working at the reference desk. I’m spending the next few months in Highland Park, coordinating a poetry workshop for teens that incorporates social media.

What are you learning about modern urban libraries as you work in the different branches across Los Angeles?

I’ve spent time at Central Library and in the branches, and it’s been exciting to learn about each branch’s distinctive culture and relationship with its community. For instance, West Valley Regional has a considerable Farsi language collection and a monthly Persian book club. I spoke to one patron who expressed how grateful he was that the library provided books in his native language, and another who was eager to discuss the Persian novel she’d just finished. I also learned first-hand what a resource the library is to students—each afternoon, the branch is abuzz with students who are working with tutors, finding a book for a homework project, or playing games on the children’s computers. I’m learning how truly diverse the city is, and experiencing what a natural partnership exists between public libraries and public schools.

ILP Residents Amy Bradley and Yesenia Villar-Villalobos

What are you learning from the librarians you are working with?

I’ve learned that librarians are truly the library’s greatest resource. The library isn’t simply a collection; it’s a plethora of intelligent people who care about their community and are doing all they can to help it succeed. One’s opportunities increase with knowledge and education, and societies improve as a whole when people are healthy, literate and educated. Public libraries open up possibilities for every member of society, and this wouldn’t be possible without the librarians who make it happen.

What surprises have you encountered? What are you learning through being on-site that you never imagined as a student?

I get really excited about helping people find what they need. One afternoon, as I was showing an elementary school girl how to use the catalog, one of our regulars asked me to quiet down! He reminded me that it was, after all, a library. It was interesting to be shushed by a patron—it caused me to reflect on how the library is changing as an institution, and how public perception of the library is sometimes still that of a hushed, monastic building filled with books. I personally love that nostalgic vision, but think LAPL can be much more dynamic in its communities—less a pantry where ideas are stored, and more a kitchen were ideas are being created.

How has this residency changed your thoughts about the role of the public library?

In grad school I read about public libraries becoming community centers, and that idea resonated with me. In the branches, I’ve been able to see that at work. At the reference desk I’ve helped people find resources to develop their small businesses, worked with Los Angeles Unified School District tutors to locate resources that will help their students succeed, and created Valentine’s crafts with children and teens. Our branches are truly community centers, and building relationships with people in our communities can start anywhere–at the reference desk, in the stacks, and over a pile of cut-out hearts and googley eyes a group of nine-year-olds are gluing together to make Valentine’s Day fish.

What is your vision of the library in 50 years?

Technology is changing how we interact with information. Fifty years ago, the task would have been to unearth information about an obscure topic. Today, the task is to sift through and select the most relevant and accurate information from millions of web hits (a Google search for “pug fan club” nets 417,000 pages). Technology is even altering our episteme—in an age of ubiquitous media, who has the power to define reality? Social media and other web 2.0 sources have created new pathways for truths to emerge from, and are challenging our traditional ways of knowing.

I think that society will become increasingly participatory, and that libraries decades in the future will have embraced content creation. This starts with building a personal connection with people in our communities, something I’m excited about doing each day. In 50 years, I see libraries as community centers where conversations are happening and ideas are shaped that will improve our communities and our society.

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