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Where Libraries Go for Answers : Research Agency Continues Work Despite Fire Setback

May 06, 1987|IDELLE DAVIDSON | Davidson is a Los Angeles freelance writer

In 1965, a little-known cooperative of library jurisdictions formed to share books, special collections and other materials and services.

The Metropolitan Cooperative Library System, a joint-powers agency of 28 city libraries in Los Angeles County, is still not widely known by the public. Librarians, however, have relied on its services for years and hold it in high esteem--despite the agency's setback last year.

The cooperative's reference staff was headquartered at the Central Los Angeles Public Library when the first fire struck April 29, 1986. Their services, like others provided out of the Central Library, became just one more casualty.

At the Central Library, the seven-member research staff had access to more than 2 million volumes and numerous computer data bases. Member libraries would refer questions from their local patrons that they couldn't answer. The staff responded within days in writing, with books or photocopies.

Help From UCLA

The fire just about put them out of business. They needed another collection fast--one comparable to the enormous size of the Central Library's. They found it at UCLA.

Said Holly Millard, the cooperative's director and past president of the California Library Assn.: "It was immediately after the initial fire that I contacted Russell Shank, the university librarian. I asked if it would be possible for UCLA to accommodate the cooperative's reference staff. Librarians have a great deal of respect for each other and concern. I think he recognized that this was a major catastrophe that had befallen the public library system. They've been very, very generous."

The staff resumed service on the Monday after the fire, even though their new quarters in Powell Library on campus would not be ready for another five weeks.

Said Eleanore Schmidt, head of the reference staff and the cooperative's assistant director: "We had some rather interesting ways of providing service in the interim. My briefcase served as the MCLS reference center office, and we had meetings in various lounges on campus."

Member libraries still referred questions to the staff as they had previously, by way of electronic mail and through interlibrary van pickups. The requests for information, however, were now received at the cooperative's administrative headquarters in Altadena. From there, they were hand-carried to UCLA or to the Pasadena Public Library, where there is also a large collection.

There were only two things one could do, Schmidt said. "You could either sink into your grief and say 'Woe is me. This is terrible,' or you could say, 'I've got a job to do,' and you pull together and create something new."

Along with creating something new was an increasing feeling of frustration. As happy as the staff was to be at UCLA with access to 18 libraries, they soon realized that the resources available were not entirely compatible with their reference needs. Here were highly skilled librarians, with about eight to 10 years of experience each, struggling to answer public library questions with an academic collection.

"The how-to-do-it questions are impossible to answer here," Schmidt said. Requests for information, such as how to repair an automobile or trace genealogy or file a patent--once easily obtainable at the Central Library, are now referred to member libraries with collections in those areas."

In a small room off by itself, on the second floor of Powell Library, the staff works quietly in their areas of expertise.

Jill Conner, a specialist in art, science, recreation and theater arts, with master's degrees in two fields, was reviewing a request from the West Valley Regional Branch of the Los Angeles Public Library. The patron wanted information on Kawasaki Disease.

"We see this type of question over and over again," Conner said. "This patron wants information about treatment and causes. Sometimes the person panics and doesn't really know what to ask the doctor. At least we can provide them with information they can take back to the doctor and ask questions about."

UCLA's Biomedical Library has a collection of about 500,000 volumes, most of it technical. For that reason, Conner said, it took about three hours to weed through the numerous articles on Kawasaki Disease and pull together those the lay person could understand. In contrast, she said, the same question would have taken about an hour to research at Central. There they could have included articles on non-traditional treatments--an area UCLA does not specialize in.

Linda Banner is the specialist in charge of resources for the deaf and hearing impaired. She reviews and researches requests for information as they come of the TDD machine (telecommunications device for the deaf) or directly from the patron through the mail. But requests are down, she explained; the new UCLA TDD number is not yet widely known (the 24-hour TDD number is (213) 206-8610).

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