A rendering of the new North Branch Library. (Below) A poster of signatures in support of naming it the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library.
The process of naming the new North Branch Library the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library moved forward last night after the city council voted 5-0 to approve the recommendation and to refer it to the council’s Housing and Neighborhoods Committee for further discussion.
The item, which had received plenty of criticism online for its perceived lack of local flavor in the naming proposal, was met with nearly unanimous support from those in attendance. The council’s vote of approval was short of its usual nine votes due to a multitude of issues including illness, a surgery and death in the family that kept council members Dee Andrews, Suzie Price, Stacy Mungo and Daryl Supernaw at home.
Ninth District Councilman Rex Richardson, who brought the item before the council, seemingly laid out a defense to the online criticism the idea had garnered since its announcement about a week ago. In a presentation he showed that of 19 public places in North Long Beach, only 11 percent were named after women or people of color, and of those named after individuals, 63 percent were named after non-local figures.
The last item was the focus of significant dialogue with some feeling that the local library should be named after a historic local figure instead of the First Lady. However, Richardson insisted that in order to connect the youth to the library and all of its resources, it must be named after someone who inspires them, adding that libraries and the functions they serve are changing and so to should the way that cities try to connect kids to them. The original naming proposal was brought to Richardson by students at Jordan High School—also not named after a local figure.
“By changing the way we think about libraries we should also think of the way that we intentionally connect our environment to the next generation,” Richardson said. “I think we can do a better job of ensuring our communities can connect with and identify with our local facilities and infrastructure and landmarks.”
The city currently has a policy on the books that specifies that publicly owned and operated buildings and facilities are to be named after deceased persons, with an exception if a living person has made extraordinary contributions. The council recently exercised this option in renaming the Centre Theatre after former Mayor Beverly O’Neill in September.
Assistant City Attorney Mike Mais said that the move to continue the process of naming the North Branch Library the Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library fit the spirit of the policy and did not deviate from past naming processes of other public buildings.
“The buildings and public facilities owned and operated by the city, that we are attempting to name after a living person, should be named after a person that has made a significant contribution either to the nation, the City of Long Beach or the State of California,” Mais said. “I think that you’ve just gone through and articulated why Michelle Obama would fit in one or more of those categories.”
The public, which had turned up in large support of the issue, carried pink signs reading “Yes! Michelle Obama Neighborhood Library”, celebrated the idea of naming the new library after the First Lady. Several children from schools in the north turned out with their parents to voice their support for the proposal and why they thought it was important to have a figure they connect with be honored above the library's entrance.
“Naming the new library [after Obama] will send a strong message to all of our daughters and future generations of children in North Long Beach,” said Tunua Thrash-Ntuk. “They too, can go to Princeton, they too can have a Harvard Law School degree.”
Thrash-Ntuk’s 9-year-old daughter, Corryn, said that she hopes to be able to finish reading the book she has now in a building named after Michelle Obama, adding that she “hopes to be a boss like her” when she grows up.
Long Beach Unified School District Board Member Megan Kerr said referring this for more discussion was absolutely the right move and that naming the library after the First Lady would serve as a forward thinking way to connect with kids who think Obama is cool, but also see her as someone who speaks to and for them.
“Each generation will define for themselves who they find to be heroic, who they find to be role models,” Kerr said. “And as I stand here as the mother of children the age of those that just spoke to you, they are defining that very clearly as who represents them, who inspires them. I hear it again and again.”
Some in attendance voiced their displeasure for the item coming up just a few days before Christmas and for what they characterized as a lack of process. Those residents who have lived in the north part of the city for decades had a strong feeling that the library, if not named for a local person, should be named after the community that fought to get it built.
“I’ve been looking forward for 15 years for the completion of the North Branch Library to celebrate North Long Beach,” said North Long Beach resident Laurie Angel.
Another resident focused on the city’s naming policy, specifically the portion about naming buildings after the deceased, stating that the history books have not been closed on Michelle Obama yet, and it might be a risky move to bestow her name upon such an important building for children.
“She will have a very long life ahead of her with a lot more history to write,” the woman said. “We cannot begin to predict that a person that is so young will always deserve the designation being proposed here today.”
With the approval, the naming process will be moved to the Housing and Neighborhoods Committee for further discussion and the Department of Parks, Recreation and Marine as well as Library Services have been instructed to conduct outreach campaigns with the youth for the name of the library.
If the name is eventually approved by the city council a request for the First Lady to attend a naming ceremony will be extended to White House.