Downey City Library: more important now than ever before

DOWNEY - If you thought libraries were going the way of the dinosaur, think again. Recently, on a sunny Thursday morning at 9:50, there was a group of about 20 people anxiously waiting for the Downey City Library to open its doors. At 10 a.m., the pacing hordes darted inside, many claiming computers in the computer lab, while the rest headed for the adult and children's sections.Libraries have long been considered an essential part of having an educated and literate population and while library budgets continue to get slashed, it could be argued that they are more essential now than ever before. Many assume that the digital age we're living in will soon render libraries obsolete, but library attendance says otherwise. Last year, 416,605 visits were made to the Downey City Library, which is an increase from 2009. The checkout of library materials also increased by 4 percent, with 491,355 items being loaned out. It's more than a numbers game, however. The services that the library provides to the community are irreplaceable and so are its librarians. Senior librarian Jan Palen has been with the Downey City Library for 16 years and as California's economic climate becomes more volatile, the free programs that Palen and her team provide to the city become all the more crucial. One has to wonder, however: How much importance does the city place on books and reading? Downey's only "major" bookstore is a chain and in February of this year, Borders Books announced Title 11 bankruptcy and is currently in the process of liquidating its nearly 400 stores nationwide. Meaning, the Borders Express located in Stonewood Center is on its way out. What are the chances that another bookstore will replace it? Even slimmer, what are the chances that an independent bookstore will see Downey as a viable place to open its doors? The demise of Borders can be attributed to the growing popularity of digital books and the expansion of online retailers like, but where does that leave the more than 110,000 residents who are interested in browsing an actual bookstore in their own city? "If the community doesn't appreciate the library, they should," Palen said. "Our core mission it to develop our collection of books and we have well over 100,000. We want to help people develop life-long reading habits and help others develop basic literacy skills, but we're not just a source for books. We meet many of the day-to-day needs of Downey residents, from helping people find consumer information for major purchases to offering bus route information, DMV handbooks, and voter registration forms. People should view the library as a one-stop-shop for different services." The Downey City Library shoulders a great deal of responsibility as one of the only institutions in the city offering literary events, reading programs, cultural events, and children's programs. Now with the closing of Borders, the Friends of the Downey City Library Bookstore, located inside the library, will be the city's only remaining bookstore. As a cultural hub, libraries need to be able to shift to meet cultural changes and the Downey City Library is ever-evolving. When the Internet took over, the library created a computer lab and still offers Internet classes, teaching residents not just how to navigate the Web, but how to access information they actually need. When the city's demographics changed, the library began to offer bilingual story time with children's librarian Angie Macias-Mendez. The library also special orders books for patrons, a service that even county libraries do not offer. The Friends of the Library have an Amazon store, selling everything from art and photography books to works by celebrated writers like Kurt Vonnegut. All of this fails to mention the long-running programs in place, such as Tuesday morning story time, one-on-one tutoring, children, teen and adult summer reading programs, and special Thursday events for children, all of which are offered to the public, free of charge. "Public librarianship is the best service you can give the public and we spend a great deal of time familiarizing ourselves with the specific needs of our community," Palen said. "Libraries are vital to people's lives and unfortunately we sometimes have to adapt in a different way because of budgeting constraints, but we have certain priorities, especially as far as our children's programs are concerned. Our story times are crucial to parents and their children. It teaches language development and socialization skills and it teaches children how to relate to others, how to be attentive, and it helps them develop a love for storytelling and illustration. Not every parent knows how to share books with their children, so story time provides a wonderful opportunity to teach parents and give them the confidence to read to their kids." A recent story time featured a packed house with 45 children and as usual, children's librarian Gina Orello, otherwise known as Ms. Gina, was at the helm. In a loud, expressive voice, Orello read the book La Cucaracha Martina to the eager children. According to many of the parents in attendance, the kids adore Orello and they look forward to their weekly visit to the library, with many viewing Orello as their first real teacher. Funny enough, Orello almost missed her calling as a children's librarian. "After going to library school I did an internship in Alhambra and I realized that I was afraid to be left alone with children. After getting hired at the Downey library six years ago I was almost immediately assigned to do story time," Orello said. "I fought it at first, but I've really come to love it and it's a perfect fit for me. Kids are a lot of fun and they're very intuitive. They can tell if you sincerely like them and once they know you do, they come to you because they understand that you care and you want them to learn. I try to make each child know they're important and intelligent and their thoughts and feelings are worth listening to." Orello believes that the city's citizens truly do care about books and reading and points to the cancellation of Family Story Time as proof. The story time, geared towards families with slightly older children, was a beloved event at the library when it had to be cut because of the budget. According to Orello, many parents were upset over the loss, but nothing could be done. "I believe city officials and local schools really try to get the importance of reading across, but I also wish that could be expressed more in terms of support. Unfortunately, libraries and parks and recreation are pretty low on the totem pole when it comes to the budget. I think the people of Downey really appreciate having a library of their own and we're busier now than when I started six years ago. The city's citizens are working within a budget and so are we, but I really get the sense that they appreciate the children's programs we have in place- and it doesn't hurt that they're free," Orello said. Not only do Downey residents appreciate the programs, but they also appreciate the librarians. For almost three months, Donna Kennedy has attended nearly every story time with her 5-year-old son, Sean. Kennedy feels Orello and others like her should receive a "medal of honor" and that the service the librarians provide are invaluable. "There's so much negativity in the world and stepping into the library with my son allows us to do away with all of that," Kennedy said. "Reading with your kids and taking them to story time gives them hope and it allows them to dream. It inspires creativity and creative minds; it gives children new ideas and new ways of thinking. The positive effects are endless. Helping your child develop an early interest in reading will make them a better student, but I also think it will make them a better person. I'm really grateful for this library."

********** Published: August 04, 2011 - Volume 10 - Issue 16