I’ve been working with the Contra Costa County Library System for nearly three decades. During the eight years that I’ve been Senior Community Library Manager (SCLM — which is a fancy term for Head Librarian), I’ve seen many changes in downtown Brentwood. Perhaps the most important event in the city’s history took place last fall when we opened the new library.
A few decades ago, when the internet revolution was gaining strength, many people believed that the advent of the so-called Information Highway threatened to do the same thing to libraries that online shopping sites were doing to “bricks and mortar” retail businesses.
Of course, digital information technology completely eliminated one key service formerly offered by libraries, because they had shelves filled with encyclopedias, dictionaries (both English and foreign), almanacs, atlases, thesauruses, handbooks, yearbooks, manuals, grammars, indexes, concordances, and literary guides that could provide information on a wide variety of subjects. These were made obsolete by innumerable webpages that could instantly respond to any question that an encyclopedia could answer, and answer a vast number of questions that no encyclopedia could ever deal with including such things as cast lists for movies that are still in production. You can find online answers to almost anything. For example, if you ask Google, “What are the words to the itsy-bitsy spider nursery rhyme?” in less than a second Google will provide links to 879,000 webpages answering that question.
In spite of the internet’s role in our new Information Age, libraries not only survived the internet threat, they are thriving. Rather than simply being a place to check out books and providing hushed spaces where people could read in isolation from others, our library has become a dynamic gathering place, providing various environments for interaction and shared learning. The library has about 55,000 items, including magazines and other media, such as DVD’s. We have capacity for 80,000 items, which we will get to in the next few years. At the opening, the Friends of the Library and the Library Foundation gave us nearly $60,000 for books. Each year the county gives us funds to purchase books. Last year it was $73,000, which we used to purchase about 4,500 new items.
We are a community resource — a gathering place for entertainment, exploration, and discovery. Brentwood residents of all ages love our library. Students come flocking to us each day when school lets out and fill our tables, computer desks, study rooms, and lounging areas with positive energy as they take advantage of our multiple pathways leading them to literacy, learning, discovery, and fun.
We are multi-media in the deepest sense of the word. Besides our large collection of printed materials, we have music and books on CD’s and DVD’s. Residents can check out concerts and movies on DVD, or listen to them on any of our 18 computer workstations or on one of our dozen lending laptops. Other media includes the spoken word in story-telling and performance, which is used by magicians, musicians, and dancers. We investigate other media with classes on a variety of subjects including 3-D printing, sewing, and jewelry making. We host book clubs and offer genealogy workshops. Upcoming activities will include a lecture on Russian Art and hands-on Make a Nesting Doll Ornament classes. Physical exercise is another media, with Karina Dugand conducting Zumba classes.
For the past 17 years, the library has sponsored an annual CityRead project, which is a city-wide reading program offering a selected book for no charge in an effort to promote literacy and to encourage a sense of community. This year’s project, which will run from September 9 through October 26, will feature a book by C.W. Gortner, called The Romanov Empress.
The Brentwood Library employs eight permanent staff and a dozen library aides. Many of our services are maintained by a large team of volunteers that provide such assistance as homework help, and staffing our bookstore. There are at least 70 official volunteers; 50 of them showed up at our recent Volunteer Appreciation Luncheon. Eight people serve on the Brentwood Library Foundation’s board. The Friends of the Library group currently has 178 members.
HOW IT ALL HAPPENED
I grew up in Pleasant Hill and got my first job during my senior year at Pleasant Hill High as a Library Student Assistant (LSA), which involved shelving an endless flow of returning books. Most people would have considered the job to be tedious, but I had developed a love for books in early childhood, when both Mom and Dad would read to me and to my four siblings while we were growing up. As we grew older, our parents continued to encourage us to maintain our good reading habits.
After graduating high school, I attended UC Davis. I earned a double major in International Relations and German, because I was interested in both subjects. I became fluent in German by spending two years abroad in Berlin and in Karlsruhe, which is 400 miles southwest of Berlin. The two places offered wonderful opportunities for language acquisition.
However, I struck a problem when I graduated and began looking for a career. Any Google search using “international relations” and “german” now returns nearly nine million hits, but this was a long time before Google and I couldn’t begin to find a career that related to my broad education. I recalled how satisfying it was to work at the library, so I enrolled in the Library Science degree program at San Jose State. I spent two satisfying years mastering the skills, attitudes, and materials essential to the industry, including abstract subjects such as management techniques, plus down-to-earth practical skills, such as story-telling. After graduating in 1989, I got a job back at the Pleasant Hill Library, working with a few fellow-employees from my LSA experiences a decade earlier.
After adopting my first child, I went on a six-month maternity leave. A colleague told me about a part-time Children’s Librarian job at the Oakley Library. I spent a couple years in the position, was elevated to Library Manager, and four years later was promoted to my current position as SCLM here in Brentwood.
When I arrived on the job in 2011, I had to face the challenge of making effective use of the library spaces we were crowded into. I also had to squeeze myself into my tiny office that could hold two people only if one of them remained standing.
A light was shining at the end of the tunnel, however, because when I arrived, a plan had already been in place for three years to undertake a complete renovation of the old library facility. The 2008 economic slow-down had put the project on hold. Things worked out fine because a Needs Assessment showed that we required a 20,000 square foot building, which was somewhat larger than the renovated facility would have been. Even better, the renovation turned out to be less cost-effective than a new building. The proposal was discussed and batted around by several city managers, until Gus Vina showed up. Gus is a get-things-done kind of guy. He put a number of plans into place to get the city rolling, including the library.
That’s how it all happened!
Photos by Ron Essex