A New Chapter in Governance

by Jeremy Loudenback

Los Angeles Public Library
Los Angeles Public Library

The public library may seem like a strange setting for discussions about governance. But these days, public libraries occupy an active and surprisingly commonplace role in the public policy arena, especially in urban areas. From helping citizens navigate the new healthcare marketplaces to dealing with homelessness, libraries are no longer the fusty preserves of stern librarians and dusty archives.

At the Los Angeles Public Library, new City Librarian John Szabo oversees 73 locations and 883 employees spread out across the sprawling expanse of Los Angeles. In 2013, more than 14 million people visited the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) system in person (22.4 million online) and borrowed 15 million items. Appointed to LAPL’s top job in 2012, Szabo has quickly made his mark here, orchestrating a slate of new programs aimed at expanding the library’s reach into arenas like education, immigrant integration, and health. On Thursday, February 13, Szabo comes to the Bedrosian Center‘s  Lunch with a Leader series to talk about the evolving role of libraries and the challenges of building community and implementing policy in Los Angeles.

Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Szabo headed the Atlanta-Fulton (GA) Public Library System. In his time there, he demonstrated an ability to reach out to diverse communities and executed ambitious expansion plans for both physical and virtual resources. Szabo advocated an innovative set of programs that addressed community needs in areas such as health disparities, workforce development, adult literacy, and preschool literacy. He spearheaded the eCampus program, an online learning center with courses in many disciplines, career development resources, live tutoring, and other learning tools. And Szabo also pioneered outreach to communities in need, such as holding story times and creating space for books in an extended-stay motel in a blighted area of Atlanta without easy access to library resources.

John Szabo
John Szabo

Szabo now supervises a budget of $123 million, and during his time in Los Angeles, he has overseen the infusion of a new stream of money under Measure L, which re-opened the Central Library and eight regional branch libraries on Sundays, restoring hours that were previously slashed as part of budget cuts in 2010. While much of the credit for the Measure L money rests with his predecessor, Martin Gomez, Szabo re-opened the branches a year early in January, much to the delight of bookish Angelenos.

Szabo’s vision of a dynamic library is about much more than books alone, according to comments he made to the Los Angeles Times shortly after starting the new gig.

“I truly believe public libraries change lives,” he said. “I know there are lives we’ve saved. People who were kept out of jails, jobs we’ve helped people get, kids who are not being drawn into drugs because they’ve been encouraged at the library.”

During his time here, the LAPL has launched the “Health Matters” program to provide information and assistance about health plans under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). All city library branches have hosted workshops about the ACA or offered other enrollment assistance, and some have featured pilot programs with partnering organizations to provide outreach to patrons with different language needs. His newest plan to provide online high school diplomas for older students has already garnered interest. Szabo’s vision for the LAPL includes ambitious plans to build community involvement and civic engagement, implement a Books for Babies program to encourage reading to children, and increase the use of digital collections.