Five Minutes With John Szabo

by Jeremy Loudenback

In February, City Librarian John Szabo visited the Bedrosian Center to share his perspective on innovation and implementation in a setting not normally associated with governance studies: the public library. Szabo has had a long relationship with libraries, starting with his fond childhood memories of being dropped off at his local library every Thursday night while his father played in bowling league. During his career, all of Szabo’s jobs have been in a library save one, and his long experience has given him an appreciation of one of the country’s most important civic institutions as well as a bold vision for evolving role of libraries in the 21st century.

You came to the Los Angeles Public Library from a similar position in Atlanta. How is your new job different?

The Atlanta Public Library is certainly a large, urban public library, but L.A. is much bigger. And one part of the city is very different than another, so it makes ensuring equity of service very, very important. And as proud as we are in Los Angeles of our diversity, I think that the city has a long way to go in terms of addressing issues of segregated pockets. And I think there’s enormous opportunity here for the public library to help bridge those differences and communities. And the other great thing about L.A. that I’ve certainly noticed is L.A. is all about innovation, it’s all about the new. It seems as though all good ideas take root here and blossom. When I talk about the public library having a role to play in addressing health disparities, the reaction in some places might be, “Libraries? Really?” But here in LA, it’s, “Yeah, libraries!”

What’s your strategy for reaching out to such a diverse range of communities?

A big part of my job is about telling stories and about not just being in the fabulous 1926 Central Library in downtown L.A., but really understanding what happens in and Watts and Canoga Park up in the valley and the Pacific Palisades to the west. And understanding all of the different ways people make use of libraries today in places like Porter Ranch as well as in places like Lincoln Heights. So a lot of it is about telling stories and about sort of spreading the word about how relevant public libraries are today to the communities they serve and how they are serving communities in so many different ways.

This year, the Los Angeles Public Library announced it would begin offering an accredited high school diploma to adult students using online classes. Does this educational component change the library’s core identity and function?

In many ways, we’ve always called ourselves an information organization, but I think also we’ve always been a learning organization. I think we’re moving from being a repository of information and an organizer of information and a collector of information to being a place where information is created and where people learn. Public libraries have long been about lifelong learning, and this is just another example of that, so I think it’s a completely appropriate role for the public library to play. On average, 25 percent of L.A.’s population is without a high school diploma; in some of our communities, it’s as high as 60 percent.

We’re the first public library in the nation to be offering an accredited high school diploma, and even if we’re extremely successful, we’re really just scratching the surface of the problem. Even if the audience that we bring in finds that something else is a better option for them, it brings the audience into the public library and it exposes them to all of the great resources that we have. They may bring their children to a story-time program or they may enroll kids in a summer reading program or a teen program or learn about our citizenship initiatives.

Librarians are usually great at suggesting a good book. Is there anything you would recommend right now?

Yes! Susan Orlean, a wonderful author who writes for the New Yorker and other publications, is doing her next book about the Los Angeles Public Library so I’m reading a lot of her. She lives up in Studio City, and she’s a library lover and library user, and this is sort of a little window into Susan as she writes this book over the next couple of years. Right now, I’m actually reading one of her most well-known books, The Orchid Thief, which was made into the movie “Adaptation.” Having lived in Florida for 10 years, the whole crazy wacko orchid culture fascinates me, so I’m working my way through that.

Full transcript here.