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Bookish Pleasures : Devoted Blanchard Librarian's Durable Career Brings Prestigious Award

July 14, 1988|JEFF GORDINIER | Times Staff Writer

The Blanchard Community Library is a wreck. On rainy days the roof leaks, and on hot days the prehistoric air conditioner sputters to a halt. The blue walls of the library, formerly the Santa Paula Safeway, need a paint job, and the stone benches outside are splattered with graffiti.

"Our building is falling apart," says Daniel O. Robles, director of Library Services, "but for the last 10 years, we have ignored the building to concentrate on the services inside."

To paraphrase a maxim, don't judge a librarian by his library. Robles is the first Californian to win the American Library Assn.'s most prestigious prize, the Allie Beth Martin award.

He picked up the award and the $3,000 stipend that comes with it at the association's annual convention in New Orleans last weekend.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday July 21, 1988 Home Edition Ventura County Part 9 Page 2 Column 6 Zones Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
A photo caption in the July 14 Ventura County edition misidentified Daniel Robles as a Santa Rosa librarian. He is a librarian in Santa Paula.

Robles, 36, has worked at the weather-beaten library since he was a freshman at Santa Paula High School in 1966. In college, he spent summers and holiday vacations shelving books, and he started full-time as soon as San Jose State handed him his master's degree in library science. He has never worked anywhere else.

And though he already knows more about the place than anyone in Santa Paula, Robles is furiously researching the library's history. In an office at the back of the building, Robles burrows through a pile of historical documents.

"The children of Santa Paula are being cheated out of a portion of their education," Robles says, reading from an editorial dated 1906, four years before the city had a library. He finds another document and explains that in 1909 Santa Paula's founder, teetotaling rancher Nathan W. Blanchard, gave the city $10,000 to establish a public library under the condition that every saloon in Santa Paula be run out of town.

Then Robles shakes another sheet from the pile and reads, in the words of Blanchard, "the library is for helping those who help themselves."

"That's it," he says, nodding.

The Blanchard Community Library has been helping itself since 1968, when books were moved to the Safeway because the weight of 40,000 volumes was causing plaster to fall through the bowed floors of a building on Main Street. That year, Blanchard became a special-district library, a shift that gave it a larger tax base than most city libraries.

Ten years later, Californians voted for the anti-tax Proposition 13, and Blanchard lost 54% of its budget. It was only two years ago that the library returned to the level of funding it had before 1978.

Still, with 19 employees and 70,000 volumes, Blanchard operates on $220,900 annually, under a skin-and-bones budget that allows only $6,000 a year for new books. Because of the cost of new books (an Encyclopedia Britannica set goes for $1,100), Robles relies on book donations and whatever he finds in local thrift stores.

"My management style is to take things as they come," says Robles, who leafs through every used book that comes in, "because there is no money to be visionary."

The ALA disagrees. The Martin award--named after a late ALA president who was a librarian in Tulsa, Okla.,--cites Robles' "extraordinary range and depth of knowledge about books or other library materials, and distinguished ability to share that knowledge."

Bridget Bradley, a program officer for the ALA, would not reveal how the seven-member nominating committee picks a Martin award winner, nor how many are nominated.

But, Robles acknowledged, the pool is often sparse--in the past 10 years the annual number of nominees has ranged from 7 to 68. He says the recognition "keeps me going."

Despite the financial constraints at Blanchard, Robles has developed an adult-literacy program with 82 student-teacher matches, increased the number of children's reading workshops, and started the library's first "weeding" project in 25 years, purging the book collection of oldies that never circulate, such as a 1961 travel guide to Sweden. Robles estimates it will cost $39,500 to fix the leaky roof; a fund-raising drive he organized last fall has already netted $29,500.

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Robles arranged a Hispanic arts festival last year and brought classical guitarist William Kanengiser to Santa Paula. He also writes a weekly column in the Santa Paula Chronicle, recommending books for readers interested in topics from AIDS to small business development.

"One of the things every professional public librarian should do is be visible and make the library visible," he says. "This library is special because of the employee's ability to offer a personal service."

Robles makes a point of calling patrons to tell them when the library has acquired books by their favorite authors.

"He's had to work under difficult circumstances to keep the library going," says Carl Barringer, Santa Paula's mayor. "And he's a tremendous example for many people who are trying to learn how to read."

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