Aula Máxima es la biblioteca y también lugar de recreo del espíritu.   - José Vasconcelos




Outreach & Media/Campesinos harvest library's riches in California project

Riverside City & County Public Library: The Campesino Program

The name Riverside chose for its Partnerships for Change grant proposal left no question about the group to be targeted by the outreach project. In California’s fourth-largest county, which stretches from the outskirts of Los Angeles to Arizona and includes the rich citrus-producing region of the Coachella Valley, the large and fluid population of agricultural laborers—campesinos—represented a significant number of potential library users.1 Also significant, however, were the barriers standing between these farmworkers and their library.

Language, culturally-appropriate service, and physical accessibility of materials were at the heart of the Campesino Program. All are important concerns for any library serving ethnically diverse groups; in Riverside’s case, it was perhaps the last of the three that presented the biggest challenge.

The popular perception of the migrant laborer as a highly mobile individual is largely erroneous. While certainly true that a farmworker will travel great distances from job to job and relocate frequently in response to vagaries of weather and crops, he or she may do so as one of a dozen passengers in a friend’s van. Consequently at many worksites most of the laborers present at a given time will be essentially stranded, with only their feet to carry them. Orchards and farms are usually far from towns and essential services, so more than a few fortunes have been accumulated by growers and their associates through the exercise of whatever-the-market-will-bear capitalism charging farmworker families exorbitant prices for commodities or rides to shopping areas.

Thus it would have been absurd had Riverside instituted service enhancements and collection policies targeting Spanish-speaking farmworkers, and then sat back and waited for the campesinos to flock to their local—or not-so-local—branch. Instead, a bookmobile was written into the proposal as an essential component of the Campesino Program. The library-on-wheels is arguably the centerpiece of this PFC project, a service of tremendous importance in that it directly addresses the major barrier to library access faced by most farmworkers.

More will be said later about the bookmobile. For many of the targeted population, it was the device that threw open the door to the library; still, what they found once ‘inside,’ in terms of materials and service, would have to be adequate, relevant, and appropriate if the library’s program were to succeed. Thus the grant proposal included aspects considered staples of any service enhancement strategy involving a group whose primary language is not English: target language collection-building, staff sensitivity training, and culturally-appropriate program development.

It would be interesting to know—though difficult to determine without extensive local investigation—to what extent this outreach effort, because of its name and service targets, perhaps alienated certain segments of the Hispanic population. Riverside County’s Spanish-speakers are engaged in a variety of industries and occupy every stratum from business owner to entry-level service employee. One might well speculate that among Hispanics not involved in agriculture, class identity would constitute a key factor in shaping attitudes toward the Campesino Program. According to this thesis, a construction worker might view the library’s efforts in a favorable light—even without a name like Carpintero Program or Albañil Program—and unhesitatingly avail himself of such new services as Spanish-language family-oriented programming and collection expansion.

On the other hand, it is conceivable that a Hispanic entrepreneur or white-collar worker might choose to distance himself from a program aimed nominally at campesinos, either out of a desire to distinguish himself from the laboring class or perhaps in objection to a historically Anglo institution’s seeming perpetuation of the stereotype that Spanish is—to paraphrase the infamous words of a former Washington state government official—"the language of busboys and fruit pickers."

None of this is to suggest that Riverside chose the wrong name for its program. It is clear however that anyone designing services for members of another culture must be ever-conscious of the fact that each dimension of the project, even down to the few words of its title or slogan, can carry unexpectedly heavy baggage. The lore of the advertising business is filled with stories of products that failed in international markets because of names and catchphrases that translated into local obscenities; with this in mind, librarians striving to serve ethnic populations would be wise to consult and work closely with members of those communities—that's members, not a member—to avoid unwitting errors.

It is worth noting that Riverside’s PFC project was hardly the first program of its kind. The sensible practice of bringing library service to agricultural labor camps goes back at least to the late 1960’s.2, 3, 4 A decade later, Rachel Naismith reported on an appealing bookmobile painted the tricolor red, white, and green of the Mexican flag, cruising the San Joaquín Valley pumping ranchera music through its rooftop speaker to announce its arrival in the manner of an ice cream truck.5

The Fresno Public Library outreach project described in Naismith’s article adopted a fine-free policy, as did Riverside’s Campesino Program. Fine forgiveness is a contentious issue among libraries targeting Hispanics. Those following the approach of these two California libraries point out that migrant farmworkers are prone to unexpected departures and indefinite absences as work opens up elsewhere, or dries up locally; these systems contend that low-pressure policies boost the material return rate. Workers pulling up stakes in a hurry, this reasoning goes, can scarcely be expected to bother to gather up and drop off library books. If they know that returning the items weeks later will reward them with a big fine, they are likely to become ex-patrons of that system, and may indeed be soured on public libraries in general.

Other library managers oppose making policy exceptions for a particular type of patron. This is not necessarily attributable to a zealous desire to protect their costly foreign-language materials; some argue that such an exception is unduly condescending, even insulting in its presumption that the population is incapable of following basic library rules.

The overdue fine is a rarely questioned aspect of public library practice in the United States. It is as ubiquitous as the Dewey Decimal System, and it is thus difficult to imagine a library doing business any other way. Mexican public libraries, however, charge no fines, and the same is true of many in the U.S., including the large Fort Vancouver Public Library system in southwestern Washington state.

The question of whether or not to excuse fines is difficult indeed. The only certainty is that there is no one right answer; fine policies ought to be tailored to local realities, structured so as to sensitively balance the loss of revenue and materials against the loss of patrons. Riverside’s reasoning seems to make good sense under the circumstances, though ideally some empirical study of patron behavior, integrated with cost-benefit analysis, could be applied to bolster this aspect of the program against skeptical accusations of favoritism or condescension.

Some librarians do seem to take a presumptuous position in their dealings with Spanish-speaking patrons, assuming an ignorance of library protocol that may or may not be present. An astonishing number of U.S. librarians accept the falsehood that lending libraries do not exist in Mexico, repeating it among themselves like a pernicious urban legend. Mistaken as this notion is, it may nonetheless be true that Mexicans who do not belong to the privileged classes often bring to this country very little recent experience with libraries. Fortunately the basics of public library use are far less complicated than opening a bank account and can be learned in ten minutes, if competently explained. To this end, Riverside’s Campesino Program put Spanish-speakers on the bookmobile and focused attention on patron education as well as staff development.

Results, as one would expect, were mixed, according to Miguel Rodríguez, original coordinator of the program and now a reference librarian at the system’s Palm Desert branch. By and large, Rodríguez speaks favorably of the PFC program and reports that it did indeed bring advances in Spanish-language service that continue to bear fruit.6

Prior to the grants, he reports, buying materials in Spanish was a problem. "They were very strict," Rodríguez says of the board; now, in contrast, each year’s budget includes a line item for such materials, and authority for their acquisition is placed in the hands of Spanish-speaking staff. Such staffers, furthermore, are more numerous than a decade ago, and Hispanic patrons continue to appreciate programs designed with them in mind, sometimes turning out in great numbers.

The system’s governing body has been a different story. "Nobody has ever spoken Spanish on the Library Board," Rodríguez says, although the PFC project entailed the formation of what he terms "kind of a mini-board" charged with attending to details of the program’s implementation and progress. One of the strengths of PFC was its built-in provisions for local control through community involvement and site-specific needs assessment.

Resistance to the Campesino Program, according to Rodríguez, came not so much from the surrounding community as from within the library itself. Some staff members were openly resistant to the effort, and it was not unusual for workers to skip the cultural awareness training sessions instituted as part of the program. "You know," laughs Rodríguez, "that’s how some people are."

The bookmobile is still going strong, a well-known local fixture, and Rodríguez is pleased that the state legislature recently appropriated funds to buy a bigger bus. The main concern he expresses about the current state of affairs in his library system has to do with its famous privatization. In 1997 Riverside turned over management of its 25 branches to Library Systems and Services (LSSI) of Germantown, Maryland, becoming the first library in the nation to adopt an "outsourcing" model now being used in several other jurisdictions.7

The economics of the Riverside decision reflect a crisis that emerged a few years after the PFC grant program but certainly exemplifies the rapidly changing weather patterns of library funding and the attendant necessity of knowing how to bring in grant support and other kinds of funding. When the California legislature voted in 1993 to reduce local government revenues and channel funds toward schools, library expenditures were slashed. Riverside was no exception; its $10 million yearly budget dwindled to $6 million. The county put management of the system out for bid and the best offer came from LSSI, a subsidiary of textbook publishing giant Follett Corporation.8

Admittedly, no particularly damning reports have yet been published regarding LSSI’s management practices, and Rodríguez himself exhibits nothing more than bemused skepticism of the concept of private control of a public library. The trend of course bears watching; corporations are not noted for entering into business deals that cannot make them money, and this increasingly entails application of standardized procedures in order to realize economies of scale. Central control and standardization are antithetical to some of the best practices in multicultural library service, such as site-specific adaptation to local community needs, so Riverside becomes an especially important test case for the possible benefits and harmfulness of library outsourcing.

It would be naïve, even dangerous, to leap from an impressionistic description of the Campesino Program to any overall assessment of the effectiveness of one-time grant projects in improving multicultural library services. There are, to be sure, projects that never really take off, and leave behind nothing more than a couple shelves of haphazardly selected books and a photo album full of scenes from the Plaza Tapatía featuring some lucky administrator who squeezed out of the grant budget a trip to the Feria Internacional del Libro in Guadalajara. Conversely there are libraries such as Pío Pico/Koreatown in Los Angeles that used some of their PFC funding to build community consciousness and cultivate support from business and civic groups, significantly and inarguably expanding the scope, reach, and impact of the library and its services.

The question of why some programs succeed where others clearly fail is one that receives far less attention than it deserves. Part of the answer lies in poor communication, one of the heartbreaking ironies of our well-wired age. Recently two libraries in small neighboring counties in the Pacific Northwest, each receiving LSTA funds for parallel Spanish-language outreach projects, reported being unaware of each other’s work; the grant administrators were not acquainted, and neither took advantage of an intermediary’s offer to arrange an introduction. This despite the fact that one of them, a non-native Spanish speaker, was clearly foundering and might have benefited from the insights of her more successful native speaker colleague.

This is perhaps less ascribable to the sins of pride and vanity than to the tyranny of the clock and the calendar. Rodríguez reports being dissatisfied with the contact among PFC grantees, even though the statewide project received a good deal of attention not only here but nationwide. Impressed by what he saw of PFC-related gains in library use by Asians, he remarks that inter-agency information sharing was unfortunately lacking: "I wish there’d been more togetherness, but we couldn’t because we all had to meet the goals and objectives of our programs. It was very intense."

This complaint is notable. Libraries that take on the responsibility of developing innovative multicultural service strategies are engaging in experimentation; they become members of a larger community of inquiry with a mutual obligation to inform and learn from each other’s work. If they will not do so voluntarily, the grantor disbursing public funds ought to stipulate a minimal level of reporting and active communication between the grantees. Failure to do so represents a waste of taxpayer money. A small percentage of what is disbursed for the programs would suffice to fund adequate reporting and retrospective analysis. The results of such programs, whether favorable or unfavorable, are too expensive—and too instructive—to be allowed to fall from view.
© 2000 Bruce Jensen

  • Sources

    1Baker, Ronald J. Serving Through Partnership: A Centennial History of the Riverside City and County Public Library, 1888-1988. Riverside, CA: Riverside City & County P.L.

    2Reynolds, Mary. "La Bibloteca Ambulante." Wilson Library Bulletin. 44.7 (March 1970): 767.

    3Williams, Martha. "Doing It: Migrant Workers' Library." West and Katz 63-67.

    4Varlejs, Jana. "Continuing It?" West and Katz 67-68.

    West, Celeste and Elizabeth Katz, eds. Revolting Librarians. San Francisco: Booklegger Press, 1972.

    5Naismith, Rachel. "Field Work: Outreach to Migrants." RQ. 22.1 (Fall 1982): 33-35.

    6Rodríguez, Miguel. Personal interview. January 27, 2000.

    7Glass Schuman, Patricia. "The Selling of the Public Library." Library Journal. 123.13 (August 1998): 50-52.

    8Gerber, Larry. "Private firm runs Riverside Libraries." Orange County Register. August 24, 1997: p. 1.


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