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

April 07, 1986|DENNIS McLELLAN | 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.

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