Monday, October 27, 2008

L.A. Archives

It’s no surprise that my husband Tim and I love Los Angeles. We’re both native Angelenos (Tim from the Valley and me Burbank) and big fans of almost anything related to 20th century Southern California. No wonder, then, that we happily looked forward to attending the 3rd annual Los Angeles Archives Bazaar this past weekend.

Part of the “L.A. as Subject” project, the Bazaar showcases libraries and other agencies that collect various aspects of Los Angeles history. Not only did the day-long event feature well-known speakers, such as Jonathan Gold, the Pulitzer Prize-winning food critic, and artist J. Michael Walker, but also panel discussions on several topics, including how to search digital collections, how to use DNA to augment genealogical research, and what to do with old home movies. Four California Council for the Humanities-supported documentaries were also screened, including the much-anticipated “Chicano Rock! The Sounds of East Los Angeles,” which is scheduled to air on PBS, December 14. (We’ve already marked our calendars!).

But the best part of the day was the exhibit rooms, where more than 50 archives shared information about their unique historical holdings. Participants included everyone from USC's Aerospace History Project to UCLA’s Department of Special Collections, from the Los Angeles City Archives to the LA84 Foundation’s Sports Library. Hundreds of people browsed the displays and discussed research strategies with enthusiastic exhibitors. Tim found a photo of his childhood Little League team on Cal State Northridge’s San Fernando Valley digital archives database, while I gathered brochures and chatted with colleagues, many of whom were former students. It was heaven-on-earth for scholars and amateur historians alike.

As a librarian who periodically conducts historical research, I was amazed at the number of resources I knew nothing about. Who knew, for instance, that Occidental College houses one of the largest collections of detective stories, as well as extensive documentation of the Japanese-American relocation during WWII? I was also completely clueless about the Seaver Center for Western History Research located within L.A. county’s Natural History Museum.

Perhaps the most profound revelation, though, was the “L.A. as Subject” database, which lists nearly 300 historical collections throughout Los Angeles and beyond. As a reference tool, the list brings together primary resources on numerous topics and provides contact info, hours open, etc., for each participating archive. The interface is a little clunky—e.g., there’s no alphabetical list of all the collections and subject access is rather limited—still, this is an excellent start to shedding light on previously unknown archives.

Now, if only I had time to research the countless historical topics I’m interested in . . .

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Living Library

I participated in the most wonderful program at the Santa Monica Public Library (SMPL) yesterday. It was called the “Living Library Project” and is part of an international movement to promote knowledge through conversation. The first Living Library occurred in Denmark several years ago as a way to combat violence and prejudice. SMPL’s event was the first of its kind in the U.S.

So what happens at the Living Library? Instead of learning about a topic through printed materials or websites, patrons are encouraged to “check-out” human experts (i.e., Living Books) with whom they can converse in the library for 30 minutes. Library cards are not required, but patrons do have to sign an agreement promising, among other things, not to damage the Living Book in any physical or emotional way. The experts on hand in Santa Monica included two Buddhists, a cancer survivor, a celebrity publicist, a disability activist, a woman who advocates on behalf of overweight people, a feminist, a formerly homeless person, a woman who works for an agency that helps homeless people, a nudist, an immigrant from Oaxaca, a raw foodist, and two teenagers.

The place was abuzz when my husband and I arrived. Library patrons were jockeying for a chance to speak with an available Book, while volunteers, wearing gray “Don’t Judge a Book by Its Cover” t-shirts, directed participants to conference rooms and tables. I signed up to meet with Rachel, the homeless advocate, at 2:30PM. As I waited my turn, I reviewed a list of suggested questions to ask my Living Book:

Why did you want to tell your story?
What makes you stereotypical/not stereotypical?
How have you been accepted/not accepted in society?
What is the most rewarding experience you have had?
What is your biggest obstacle?
Do you have a defining moment? What was it?

I chose instead to ask whether or not I should give money to street people (the answer: no — it is much better to give food coupons or actual food) and why Santa Monica has such a large homeless population. I also asked what services are available for local homeless folks.

What I learned: (1) many of the people living on the streets of Santa Monica actually grew-up in the area before becoming, for whatever reason, homeless; (2) according to the only two census counts conducted locally (in 2005 and 2007), the number of homeless people is dropping, possibly because of the good work being done by social service agencies countywide; and (3) although no one likes living on the street, it can be difficult to motivate people to change their situation even if that change is for the better — loss of dignity is one of the most powerful barriers keeping homeless people from improving their lives.

The most surprising moment came, however, when I asked Rachel how she had become an advocate for the homeless.

“Do you have a degree in sociology?” I wondered aloud.

She smiled and said that she had started off in banking many years ago, but then, after suffering a bout of severe depression, had become homeless herself. Supported and cared for by several agencies, she decided to dedicate her life to helping other homeless people once she got back on her feet. We then spent the rest of the all-too-short session talking about how rewarding her work is. At the end of 30 minutes, I shook Rachel’s hand and thanked her for sharing her story with me.

What started off as just a curiosity — so what happens at the Living Library, anyway? — ended up being a profound experience where I not only learned more about homelessness, but also met someone who overcame seemingly insurmountable odds to now help others better themselves.

I hope more libraries will consider tapping into the rich depths of their local communities to share the unique knowledge of their own Living Books.