& 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 Californias 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 laborerscampesinosrepresented
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 Riversides 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 friends 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 localor not-so-localbranch. 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 librarys 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
It would be interesting to knowthough difficult
to determine without extensive local investigationto what
extent this outreach effort, because of its name and service targets,
perhaps alienated certain segments of the Hispanic population.
Riverside Countys 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
librarys efforts in a favorable lighteven without
a name like Carpintero Program or Albañil Programand 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 institutions
seeming perpetuation of the stereotype that Spanish isto
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
communitiesthat's members, not a memberto
avoid unwitting errors.
It is worth noting that Riversides 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 1960s.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
The Fresno Public Library outreach project described
in Naismiths article adopted a fine-free policy, as did
Riversides 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
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. Riversides 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, Riversides 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 systems 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 years 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 systems 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 programs implementation and
progress. One of the strengths of PFC was its built-in provisions
for local control through community involvement and site-specific
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, "thats
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 LSSIs 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 others work; the
grant administrators were not acquainted, and neither took advantage
of an intermediarys 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 thered been more togetherness, but we couldnt
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 others 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 expensiveand too instructiveto be allowed
to fall from view.
© 2000 Bruce Jensen
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
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):
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.