Gabriela Melendez, 24, recently applied for a library card after not setting foot in a public library since junior high school. She wants to check out books in English and Spanish to read to her 2-year-old son.
On the same day, Lupe Reynoso, 24, ventured into her local library for the first time, to peruse instructional books and tapes. She wants to learn English to get a better job.
Jose de Jesus, 32, discovered the library when he needed a quiet place to study between classes at East Los Angeles Occupational Center. A librarian helped him find technical books in English and Spanish.
When he tired of poring over electrical circuitry, De Jesus began to pick up books that piqued his interest in areas totally new to him--novels by Carlos Fuentes and Juan Rulfo and books on the Mexican revolution and Latino history. "I have learned about things here that matter, my ancestry and other things I never knew about," he said.
Just as Melendez, Reynoso, De Jesus and other Latinos have discovered their local public library, public library systems throughout Southern California increasingly have discovered them.
Said Julia Orozco, regional administrator for the Los Angeles County Library, "Every community library is responsible to respond to the immediate community and to reflect the (ethnic) composition of the area." Orozco and other public librarians in Southern California said expanding Page and upgrading services for Latinos, both in Spanish and English, have become a priority.
The heightened responsiveness of libraries comes at a time when Latinos, Southern California's fastest-growing ethnic group, are striving for increased literacy and better educational and employment opportunities.
The neighborhood library "discovered" by Melendez, Reynoso and De Jesus is considered by experts to be a model for use by Latinos. It is the East Los Angeles Library, part of the Los Angeles County Library system. Manager Albert Tovar said his library must provide a combination of English- and Spanish-language services.
At the East Los Angeles library, Tovar said with pride, "the days of service to the Spanish-speaking being a separate entity are over."
Tovar's library has a broad selection of books in Spanish, and is "starting to build a strong video collection," he said. The library is connected to a countywide data base accessible in either English or Spanish. The Chicano Resource Center, which features mostly English-language books, periodicals and a multimedia center showcasing Mexican-American history and culture, is also on the site.
But Tovar and other librarians are not satisfied with the number of patrons they are serving. Outreach is a major task. It is not unusual for libraries to sponsor such public service programs as bilingual children's story hours, parenting classes, health lectures and senior citizen events.
Some offer free dial-a-story, -song or -poem services in Spanish and English. Literature explaining library services is published in both languages. And librarians are continually inviting children--who are introduced to the libraries through class trips and story hours--to bring in their Spanish-speaking parents and grandparents.
Word of mouth is not enough, however. "Today's libraries have marketing experts and analysts," Tovar said. Recently, Tovar got together with an expert and formulated a plan to promote new Sunday library hours.
Los Angeles County is not alone in seeking new ways to attract patrons. The Orange County Public Library distributes a black-and-white fotonovela about a family's trip to the library. (More than a comic book, less than a novel, the fotonovela is a popular format in Mexico.) The Pasadena Library holds a musical Celebracion Latina in the library, and bilingual story hours for children while their pregnant mothers receive prenatal medical care.
With all the community services, Tovar and other librarians believe that the Latino community "should be knocking down our doors, and they're not. You wonder why," he said, shaking his head.
Part of the answer is contained in a 1988 RAND Corp. report on library usage. According to the report compiled by social scientist Judith Payne, only 7% of all Californians seeking information--and an even lower 3% of Latinos--turn to libraries for help.
Lower usage by Latinos, Payne said, could be ascribed to a lack of tradition of library borrowing in some Latin American countries, notably Mexico, which has many bookstores but a very limited public library system. (The considerably smaller Chilean community, by contrast, has a strong tradition of library usage.)
In addition, Payne said, many Latinos may find libraries difficult to use or not hospitable, she said. But libraries are making efforts to change, she said.