A Vital Link to History, Culture, Memory: Library Programs in California Threatened by Budget Crisis

Elise Kalfayan


Libraries are quiet places; perhaps that is why the news hardly mentioned that in addition to slashing funds for higher education and home health care, California’s recent lower revenue report triggered $16 million in cuts eliminating all funding for the California Library Services Act, the state literacy program, and the Public Library Foundation.

As a Board member of the Friends of the Glendale Public Library, and a bibliophile, I’ve gotten to know several librarians. They all feel their career institution is in the midst of great upheaval, not only from the economic crisis, but also from digital technology and social trends. But no matter how the trends play out, Armenian-American librarians are determined to preserve their cultural history and to make sure it will be accessible and meaningful to future generations.

In Glendale, the public library system has struggled through several years of budget cuts, reduced facility hours and threatened branch closures. Hearings this summer showed that the public and city council  were unwilling to consider further cuts, and proposed closures of two branches were rejected because of citizen outcry. However, Library Director Cindy Cleary continued to worry about $45,000 in state funding for the inter-library loan program. Governor Brown’s trigger cuts in response to lower state revenues have now eliminated those funds entirely.

Staff decided to investigate local taxes for the library and put together a plan for a telephone survey, funded by donations, of support for a parcel tax. Cleary appeared before city council in November with the proposal, but it was rejected 3-2 with council members Rafi Manoukian, Ara Najarian, and Frank Quintero voting against it, reasoning that any new tax would place an unwelcome burden on city residents.

Disappointed, Friends of the Library Board President spoke at a city council meeting two weeks later, urging them to reconsider the survey. Community Events chair Leon Mayer, who organizes programs at the main library featuring authors and artists, also spoke, dwelling on the many free programs supported by library funds and offering great benefits to the community.

While the Friends Board has worked to bring some noted Armenian authors to the library as part of its outstanding programming, Glendale Library’s Elizabeth Grigorian has focused exclusively on Armenian programming for more than 20 years. This fall, she organized a retrospective of Leonardo Alishan’s work; and a showing of “Grandma’s Tatoos” which had an overflow crowd, according to my fellow columnist Catherine Yesayan. Grigorian notes that the film “Aghet” was also so popular that another screening had to be scheduled to accommodate the overflow demand. Lecturers such as Professor Richard Hovannisian attract large gatherings, and Grigorian has brought speakers from Armenia such as Hakob Sanasaryan, Tigran Mansourian, and Vache Sarafyan. Anyone reviewing the very long list of programs she’s organized, with speakers from Paris, Germany, New York, around the world, and of course locally, will see that Grigorian through the Glendale library is offering programs of consistent quality for the Armenian community.

Since 2008, she has organized and gained sponsors for more than 43 programs at the library. She also evaluates and develops the library collection to meet the needs of Glendale’s Armenian community, selecting and purchasing books and determining their cataloging. She has authored “How to use the computer,” a 126-page booklet in Armenian and English, and conducts computer workshops in the Armenian language for patrons.

In contemplating what the library offers to the whole community, and to patrons of Armenian heritage, Grigorian worries: “I hope the budget cuts will not affect our events,” she says.

Grigorian continued, “For the last three years the City has experienced budget cuts that have in the case of the library resulted in close to $1 million in reductions.  To date the library has lost hours and staff, and our capacity to provide services has been diminished.  Our desire to move forward with a community survey in order to consider a parcel tax is not as much about what we’ve lost but more about how we can do a better job in serving our community.”

In the coming year, she has already booked One Life, Three Cultures: An Iranian Armenian Odyssey, book signing and lecture with Elma Hovanessian (January 12), and the Friends of the Glendale Library are featuring journalist Maria Armoudian on her new book Kill the Messenger: The Media’s Role in the Fate of the World (March 8).

If trends continue, libraries may not be able to offer such outstanding programs free of charge. In fact, national news articles have hinted that bookstores and libraries are starting to charge for author events and programs. Will a “pay wall” become standard and change the dynamic of free access that libraries have always offered?

The essential services librarians provide, also free of charge, cannot be replaced by the internet.  Ardem Tajerian, who has worked in the LA Public Library system since 1998 and specializes in teen literature, says one of his main concerns as a professional is students’ information literacy. “Do they know how to evaluate the accuracy of the information they are getting, whether print or digital?” he asks. He sees the current economic and digital upheavals as an extension of the traditional challenge for archivists. “In some cases, the dangers for libraries are temporary, but not in all. The library system that wants to survive must embrace new technology to maintain the age-old reasons for its existence: to store and disseminate information and to instruct users in accessing that information.”

What about obscure, privately published, or forgotten texts? I asked him this question because the two of us addressed it when we worked with a committee updating a private library collection. Before we volunteers could retrieve and sort through them, stacks of obscure Armenian books stored in cabinets and exposed to water leaks were thrown out by an overzealous secretary. We’ll never know what we missed. Tajerian says, “I would like to see the privately published memoirs of genocide survivors digitized before we lose them.”

He would also like to see more Armenians entering the fields of library and information sciences. “We need to outreach to the almost continuous influx of literate Armenians. We need to outreach to those Armenians who do not read the language, and we need to outreach to non-Armenians who are interested in Armenian subjects. If we do not preserve the information and teach how to access it, we will lose culture and heritage, our Armenian-ness, if you will.”

Grigorian, Tajerian, and their fellow Armenian and American professionals in California and around the world, are engaged in organizing knowledge and materials so that they are accessible and meaningful to all. Local, state, and national elected leaders need to hear from Armenian community members that this work is vital to our future as well as to our past.

Elise Kalfayan is a Glendale resident, a native Southern Californian, and a combined first/second generation Armenian-American. She has produced or edited print and online pieces on topics ranging from urban development to Armenian Church history. She is the publisher of a Glendale community news blog  http://sunroomdesk.com, and works as a contract writer, editor, and publishing consultant for clients including businesses, entrepreneurs, nonprofits, and memoirists.


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