One Long Beach Librarian’s Fresh Take on Summer Programs

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Photos of LBPL programs courtesy of Francisco Vargas

Summer is a busy time for librarian Francisco Vargas. One day, he is at the Main Library, setting up the auditorium for an author talk. Another, he is at Dana Neighborhood Library, assisting volunteers from The Wild Life Center as they show off rescued animals. Then, he’s at the Bayshore Library dancing with kids at a performance of Clint Perry and the Boo Hoo Crew. He is rarely in his office.

“This is our high season,” Vargas says during a rare calm moment between responsibilities and engagements. “The kids are out of school and we want to get them in here.”

Though technically his job title is “Youth Services Officer,” the young Bogotá, Columbia native is actually responsible for all of the programming for the Long Beach Public Library system. And in the summertime, that means going above and beyond the standard summer reading programs and weekly story times.

As the responsibility of the library expands with technology and fleeting revenues at other public-service outlets, Vargas’ job is one that is no longer just about encouraging kids to pick up a book, but about providing enriching services for patrons of all ages by bringing in authors, professionals, artists, entertainers and partner organizations that turn the library into a hybrid space where learning experiences are the norm.

“I believe that the library has more roles than just being a quiet place to read,” he says. “It’s a space for making and creating. It’s a neutral space—like Switzerland—we just bring the information to you and you get to make your mind up.”

With only 12 of Los Angeles County’s more than 200 libraries under its jurisdiction, Long Beach’s library system is by no means the largest in the region, but it is also not the smallest. It’s a mid-sized cluster of both large and small urban and suburban branches that service a diverse community of nearly a half-million residents.

franciscovargasAs a young Latino in an industry more often associated with older white women, Vargas embodies the shifting functions of libraries. He is a major advocate of digital technologies and his contemporary perspective on the library sciences is evident not only in his push for the recent expansion of wi-fi services to all LBPL branches, but also in the ways his programs utilize the library’s website itself.

The “Dig Into Reading” summer reading program, for example, is the meat and potatoes of Vargas’ summer schedule. For the entire month of July, librarians in every branch encourage their patrons to read at least one book with a summer-long goal of five.

Ordinarily, every time you finish a book, you would have to fill out by hand a log sheet that lives behind the reference desk of your local library branch. But starting last summer, the entire program became nested online, where users can check off which books in the library’s system they have read, post anonymous reviews of them and earn points towards prizes. 

Since opening the summer reading program to adults three years ago and moving it online, he says participation has increased exponentially.

“The best part about libraries these days is that you don’t even have to be in one to be using one,” he says. “We have a website and an app. You can check out a book at midnight if you want to. It’s become so much more accessible.”

When summer is over and the instrument petting zoos and teen drawing workshops leave the daily calendar for another year, Vargas will again focus on what he loves most: integrating innovative new ideas into Long Beach’s public libraries.

Next up are the installation of “maker spaces,” labs that Vargas hopes to have installed in every branch in the next five years.

Working with grant money from the Knight Foundation, the Long Beach Public Library Foundation and Long Beach Community Action Project will create digital labs that cater to creation in all its forms. Depending on the needs of each neighborhood library, the maker spaces will be focused on an area of art or science—from robotics to canvas painting—and will have all the materials necessary—from 3D printers to book binders—to let imaginations soar.

The result will turn the library into an open-source internet-like space, where information and culture is not just one-way, but users can also become content creators and give back to the system.

“It’s an exciting time to be a librarian because the gates are wide open,” Vargas says. “Books give you the inspiration for new ideas, but what’s the point of learning and getting inspired if you can’t apply it?”

For more information about events happening at your local library, visit lbpl.org.

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