When Santa Ana's public library invited best-selling mystery writer T. Jefferson Parker to speak several years ago, fewer than a dozen people showed up. An appearance by Mexican television anchor and author Jorge Ramos at a Latino bookstore downtown last October drew 3,000.A growing number of critics--ranging from educators and businesspeople to library experts--say the comparison shows that Santa Ana's library system is out of touch with residents in a city deemed the most Spanish-speaking of its size in the United States.
In a community where 74% of residents speak Spanish, the library's Spanish-language book collection comprises only 10% of the books in its three branches. Other cities with large Latino populations devote as much as half of their collection to books in Spanish, some entire branches.
"Santa Ana is probably one of the worst cases in California" when it comes to serving its residents, said Elizabeth Martinez, former executive director of the American Library Assn.
The city's librarians "accepted the mantra that they can't do anything," said Martinez, a UCLA library science professor from Newport Beach who is among several librarians who have monitored the Santa Ana library for decades.
Rob Richard, library director since 1986, doesn't disagree. "The library got fat, dumb and happy," he said. "It became irrelevant to the residents, so the [city] council never heard what it needed."
Critics say the small collection of materials in Spanish is part of a broader problem with funding of Santa Ana's library.
It ranks 142nd of the 178 library systems in California in per-capita spending. The library spends less per year on each city resident--$12.51--than the cost of a bestseller.
Library officials say they are doing the best they can given their resources. But even after the city two years ago increased the library's acquisition budget, only 17% of the book budget, about $80,000, was spent on Spanish-language books this year.
Moreover, literacy advocates including Martinez--who has helped libraries around the state develop programs for Latino patrons--say Santa Ana could seek money from foundations and corporations to improve its service to Latino residents, many of whom are poor and largely uneducated immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere in Latin America.
Rueben Martinez of Martinez Books and Art Gallery, a Santa Ana bookstore with a large Spanish-language collection, said the library and its employees show little sense of excitement about books, which is evident to people he has sent there.
"It's not so much the fact that the library doesn't have the books they should," said Martinez, whose store hosted the overflow crowd for Jorge Ramos. "No one makes you feel at home. You don't feel like it's your library."
Alejandro Moreno, a social worker who has helped unite troubled families, says the library doesn't offer enough to recommend it as an activity for his clients, as he used to do. "We don't feel welcome in the libraries anymore," he said. "There is nothing for us."
"The library often doesn't have what I'm looking for--it's out, it's lost, it's just not there," said Ana Maria Salas, 45, an immigrant who was a schoolteacher in Mexico. Instead, she shares books she buys from Martinez with her friends.
Libraries are not required to offer books in foreign languages, but many do because they want to foster literacy.
The American Library Assn. advocates that libraries serve communities no matter what their dominant language. The association's bill of rights stresses that encouraging literacy serves a public good. "We are supposed to serve everyone and provide services without barriers--be they fees or languages," said Maurice J. Freedman, the organization's current president.
Freedman noted that free public libraries were established in the 1850s--in great part to help immigrants become more literate and more productive in their communities. Even then, collections included newspapers in other languages, he said.
Not everyone in Santa Ana city government believes the city should supply Spanish-language texts or boost library participation.
"I would question whether it is the city's duty to provide materials that mirror the demographics of the city," said City Councilman Jose Solorio, son of migrant farm workers who has a master's degree from Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. "If we go to another country, should we expect to see books in English?"
Councilwoman Alberta D. Christy, a bank consultant, said the city has increased the library system's budget "as much as we possibly can." She said that in the age of the Internet, fewer books are needed, even for small children.
"If you are 3 or 4 years old, you go on the Internet to Nickjr.com [and] you have stories there. It's teaching them to read the words and hear the stories," Christy said.