Some Advice From the Guy Who Helped Save LA's Libraries
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Some Advice From the Guy Who Helped Save LA’s Libraries

Martín Gómez, city librarian for Los Angeles, was in charge of a library system in even worse financial trouble than Toronto's—until suddenly everything changed.

This year, Toronto Public Library narrowly avoided a 10 per cent budget cut that would have slashed about $17 million from its budget and forced it to reduce hours at branches citywide—but that was nothing. In 2010, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa handed Los Angeles Public Library a budget so severe that the system’s board couldn’t keep any of the city’s 73 libraries open more than five days a week, whereas in 2009, regional libraries were open all week, branches for six days.

In March 2011, LAPL’s fortunes changed dramatically when voters approved Measure L, a ballot initiative that forced the municipal government to rearrange the city’s budget in order to provide the library with enough funding to restore hours at all its branches. Six-day service has returned. Sunday service will be soon to follow, if all goes according to plan.

The man in charge of LAPL during this tumultuous period was Martín Gómez, Los Angeles’ soon-to-be-former city librarian. (He just took a job as vice dean of the University of Southern California Libraries.) He was in town yesterday to give a lecture at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Interational Studies, entitled “Turning the Page: The Role of Libraries in the Digital Age.” We caught up with him shortly before he took the podium. What follows is an edited, condensed version of our interview.

Torontoist: What’s your take on the state of public libraries in the US and Canada right now?

Martín Gómez: I think economically they’re struggling. As the economy dips, everybody is being pulled down in the process. On top of that, with this digital revolution going on right now, I think that we’re struggling to recast ourselves—everything from circulating e-books, to finding a way to reposition ourselves in digital literacy.

People are busy, and we can’t take for granted that people are going to come just because we’ve built these beautiful buildings.

Toronto Public Library had its budget cut by 5.9 per cent this year, but ended up avoiding serious reductions to hours. LAPL was faced with a far more dire situation in 2010. Can you talk to me a little about how you handled that?

Well, when I came into the library in 2009, they had adopted the new budget by then. In essence they discovered, probably in the second quarter, that the chewing gum, band-aids, and scotch tape they’d used to try to patch it together fell apart. What we were told was we were to take reductions in our workforce.

I have had enough experience in my career to know that the more successful outcomes for libraries have been in those situations where libraries have been able to take their case directly to the voters. Without getting too convoluted, eventually we were successful.

Underneath all that, there was a lot of hard work, and a lot of people who came together to make that happen. I mean, libraries in general—people love libraries. Even if they don’t use them, they see them as a community asset for children, and for adults who don’t have access to computers.

The surprise to me was that we actually had opposition. And it wasn’t because people didn’t believe in libraries. It was because people [and institutions, like the editorial boards of LA’s two major daily papers] didn’t think that budgets should be set by the ballot box.

In spite of that, we, in a very short amount of time, mounted a very strong grassroots campaign. We used a lot of volunteer organizations. And our unions, as well as our employees, went out and did some campaigning.

Do you think it’s possible to mount effective opposition to library cuts in a political environment like Toronto’s, where we can’t put these things up to a referendum?

I think the simple phrase—and it’s hard to do—is “power to the people.” As long as the library—whether it’s Toronto, or Los Angeles, or Chicago—can demonstrate that there is value in the services that are being offered and there’s relevancy in those services…I think it’s an easier case to make.

So the best way to guarantee funding is to keep users happy?

I think that’s one way. I think the other part of that is libraries have to work very, very hard to not just to give them what they want, but also to keep them engaged. In Los Angeles, for example, we have 67 “friends of the library” organizations.

Earlier this week, TPL decided to start selling ads on the backs of due-date slips, and to look for other in-library advertising opportunities. Is that something that you’d consider if conditions were right?

You know, I think it’s the right thing to do. The reality is that if we continue to operate as if we’re above that…we’re not going to be able to hold our own.

We have to do it in a way that makes sense for our community. We’re not trying to sell out our principles, but rather, I think if we’re smart about it, it makes complete sense.

Photo courtesy of Martín Gómez.