Eva Mitnick: Teaching Without a Classroom

UCLA IS alumna directs Engagement and Learning Division of the LA Public Library.

As the daughter of a librarian, Eva Mitnick says that she was “a bit spoiled” with the books that her mother brought home. 

“My mother started her career as a children’s librarian and retains an interest in children’s literature,” says Mitnick, who is the daughter of Virginia Walter, professor emerita in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. “She would bring my sister and me giant stacks of books on a regular basis and I read everything that she brought home. We started with picture books, then graduated to all the chapter books. I had the best private librarian.”

Another aspect of her work that Professor Walter shared with her family was the idea that the public library is a place for communities to gather, to seek education and inspiration, and to flourish. While growing up, Mitnick spent many Saturdays at the various L.A. branches where Walter worked, and visited library workrooms, chatted with staff, and explored local communities like Boyle Heights while taking part in LAPL activities.

Today, Mitnick (’89, MLIS) serves as director of the Los Angeles Public Library’s Engagement and Learning Division, creating, overseeing, and supporting a wide range of LAPL programs throughout the system’s 72 branches and the Central Library on 5th Street. These programs include local maker events, the Summer Reading Challenge, and the New American Centers that support immigrants through processes like naturalization and learning English, located at seven branches throughout Los Angeles.

Mitnick earned her B.A. in Philosophy and German Literature from UC Santa Cruz. Her career at the LAPL began when she served as a children’s librarian at various branches from 1989 to 2005. Since that time, she has held the positions of branch manager at the Robertson Branch, senior librarian in Children’s Services, acting manager of Youth Services, coordinator of Children’s Services, and Director of the Central Library. 

Mitnick is an adjunct lecturer in the UCLA Department of Information Studies. She has reviewed children’s books for School Library Journal and served on various awards committees including Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) – Notable Books, Caldecott (2000); ALSC Publications, Arbuthnot, Newbery (2013); Nominating Committee (2015); and the Pura Belpré Award as chair (2017). She has also served on the California Library Association’s (CLA) Beatty Award, California Young Reader Medal committee and the award committee of theFriends of Children and Literature (FOCAL). 

Recently, Ampersand had a conversation with Mitnick at the Central Library in downtown L.A., discussing what besides her mother’s illustrious career brought her to librarianship and to making the LAPL much more than a repository for books. 

Ampersand: What are you working on right now?

Eva Mitnick: When people ask what the Engagement and Learning Division oversees, I tell them, “Not the buildings, not the books, not the technology infrastructure, but rather all the systemwide programs and services that we coordinate for the branches and for the Central Library.”     

We work closely with Branch Library Services, Central Library Services, and all the different sections of LAPL, as well as with other City departments, many organizations, and our Library Foundation in order to create, fund, implement, and evaluate our programs and services.

Outreach is part of it. Although every one of our libraries reaches out to its community, the E & L Division has seven Bilingual Outreach Librarians, one for each of our six geographical areas, plus one in the Youth Services Department. All of the library volunteers are coordinated out of this division, as well as the Friends of the Library groups. 

We have a new program called Neighborhood Science. It’s “citizen science,” where people can actually gather information on water quality or mosquitoes. They go out using scientific tools to collect this data and share it with the scientific community, which is not only really funbut also increases awareness of environmental issues. Fifteen branches are circulating these kits to check out.

The LAPL has seven New American Centers, first established in January 2018. There’s one here at Central Library and six in branches. We contract with experts from different organizations specializing in immigration services. These folks come in and help people one-on-one for absolutely free through the immigration process: naturalization, green cards, DACA, and all the rest. 

The Engagement and Learning Division coordinates adult literacy  – teaching adults to read but also helping them break the cycle of illiteracy by working to make sure their children are readers. It’s for English-speaking adults who went through the educational system but sometimes never really gained a fluency in reading. A lot of times, it’s people who dropped out for whatever reason. We match students at various levels, from [those who] can’t read at all to those who can read fairly well but want to get better, with [volunteer] tutors. We’re always training and looking for more tutors.

We also offer classes and software that help Spanish speakers learn English, as well as to become more fluent in reading Spanish. It really helps to be literate in your native language first, before trying to become literate in another.

We also have an online high school that we offer scholarships for and [individuals] can get a fully accredited high school degree through this program. It’s one of those unknown, unsung programs that changes lives. Over 300 students have received their high school diplomas so far.

Full STEAM Ahead is our science program, [which is] mostly for kids but we’re branching out to adults. It started in 2013, when we got a Library Services and Technology Act grant to pilot science programming. We worked with organizations and science education organizations to help us produce these because we’vehad never done any kind of science in the library. We also use the grant to offer training to librarians to do this.

What we’ve discovered is that kids and teens love the science programming – building robots, doing some coding, using games like Scratch, learning about electrical circuits by making light-up jewelry, that kind of thing. We learned that not only the kids and teens love it, but the librarians love it. There was a huge demand from librarians who weren’t part of the pilot who wanted to come onboard. We got a much bigger Institute of Museum and Library Services grant the next year as well as a Keck grant – things have just mushroomed. So now, science has become a core service here at LAPL. Every single branch offers it and the Neighborhood Science program is an offshoot of that.

&: What about the new mobile outreach program? Will these be similar to bookmobiles?

Mitnick: We don’t have bookmobiles per se, but in about a month or two, we are going to launch these outreach vehicles – what we call our street fleet. They are three very large vans that will be beautifully branded, they are very colorful. They will be stationed in the community and will be driving around every single day to parks, pre-schools, senior citizen centers, and neighborhood events. Each one will have one librarian and one clerk and will offer technology, activities, crafts, story times. They’ll be helping people to digitize their photo collections, that kind of thing. We’re keeping things very open and not defining what kinds of services because we’re going to discover the needs of all the different communities as we drive around. 

&: What are the challenges of serving a city as diverse – not only ethnically but in terms of social, economic, and philosophical differences?

Mitnick: I think that it’s making sure that we’re not having a cookie cutter approach. Our communities are so varied. What I’ve found from working at all these branches is even a [local library] that is only a few miles from another branch is completely different. When we pilot a program [we try] to pilot it in all different kinds of neighborhoods, focusing on communities that have low socioeconomic status. There aren’t a lot of places in their neighborhoods that offer these kinds of [enrichment programs], or if they do, they charge a fee. 

We rely on feedback from the branches and from our outreach librarians. In my division, we have seven outreach librarians. They are all Spanish speakers. Their job is to have contacts with stakeholders so they can come back to us and tell us what their communities need. We try to let the branches [be] the ones to determine what kinds of programs they want and how they should be offered. We’re hoping that if there isn’t a kind of programming available that [a branch feels] their community needs, they will let us know. 

For instance, there has been a need welling up all over the city for programs for older adults. It’s up to us to talk to the branches about what their seniors need and what they are saying: Do they want creative programs [or] more specific skills, like online banking or something to stave off Alzheimer’s like memory building? Then we work on developing an initiative.

We need more librarians who speak a variety of languages – not just librarians, but staff members of all sorts. That’s why local hiring is so important. Luckily, the city has a local hiring program so that we’re able to hire folks who speak the languages we need spoken and who have ties in the community. 

&: To call the Central Library a “library” is kind of an understatement – it’s really sort of a museum about what the LAPL is all about…

Mitnick: Right, it’s our showcase, really. We used to consider it more of a destination because so many people work downtown and use the library during their lunch break or as part of their work. It would become pretty dead after everyone left for the day and on weekends. But now, so many people live downtown that actually we’ve got families and millennials who live in the lofts coming in. It’s really become a community library.

Part of our bread-and-butter services is handselling books. We still do that in the branches and here at the Central Library, when we can [make a recommendation] when a patron is looking for a good book to read. Youth librarians do this in particular, because often a child has to read something for school and that’s our chance [to say], “You’re going to love this book.” Social media has been huge for us to recommend booklists and individual books and link to great book lists. That gets a lot of readers, because they can just link to our website and put a hold on a book that intrigues them. 

E-media has been huge for us. Our circulation of e-books and e-audiobooks, as well as streaming services… has skyrocketed over the past five years. We put a lot of our budget toward our e-books so there isn’t a super-long wait.

&: What have been the best parts of your career?

Mitnick: My first gig as a librarian was the West L.A. library, a regional branch. This was pre-the internet, and it was a very busy library. A lot of our reference was business-related, very in-depth stuff which was a real trick to answer, given the resources we had back then. 

There were really intricate questions, and in those days, we had a real reference desk. We used the World Almanac – that was a staple. Every reference desk used that multiple times a day, because it answered questions like, ‘What’s the capital of Bhutan?’ We had some very technical reference books on business, science, biographical reference books – all of that stuff that you don’t need now. You felt a bit like a detective – it was exciting, it really was.

I didn’t even think about the fact that being a children’s librarian meant [doing] story time and visiting schools and doing craft programs and puppet shows – that did not occur to me until I became a student librarian. I’m really shy, or at least I was at that time. I became a children’s librarian several years before I had kids of my own, and I quickly found that [what] got me addicted to story time was interacting with the kids [and] sharing my love of books with children and their families and teachers.

What’s great I think about the profession is that it’s so varied. You can follow your passions; I think it’s really important to do what you love. Within a public library – especially a big one like the L.A. Public Library – whether you’re interested in doing in-depth business reference or you love children’s books or want to work with the community, there’s a way to do that. 

I have been learning more about other types of librarianship because I’ve been on the Professional Concerns Committee with the UCLA Department of Information Studies, helping to examine the curriculum and the program to make sure that the courses that are offered really back up the mission of UCLA IS and meet the needs of the students. I’ve been learning a lot from my colleagues who work in other kinds of libraries or who don’t work in libraries at all. Library studies is only one of five areas of specialization, along with two kinds of archival studies, informatics, and rare books. [Graduates of UCLA IS] use their library degrees now toward all kinds of information-based careers – it’s fascinating. 

&: How does the LAPL embody that kind of social and cultural center that is so necessary for the personal enrichment – and for many in our city, the survival – of Los Angeles and all of its communities?

Mitnick: We serve as a hub for many different kinds of resources, including social services. For instance, we have a program called The Source, which we offer at nine of our libraries, where we bring together organizations that serve the unhoused once a month, so that folks who need housing and other related things can come in and do one-stop shopping. They can come in and get a haircut or mental health advice, and sign up for housing lists, all the rest.

This past December, we filled the entire Central Library plus 5th Street with 120 Makers and 10,000 attendees at our 4th annual DTLA Mini Maker Faire.  Despite the threat of rain, families and science fans of all ages came to interact with Makers and marvel at their inventions. There were robots everywhere you looked!

Public libraries excel at that sort of thing: bringing people and the information and resources they need together, whether it’s about becoming a citizen or finding a job or succeeding in school. And of course, reading. We’re still all about reading. Children’s and YA Librarians still connect kids, teens, and their parents with books every day.  Storytimes are offered at every library.  My division partners with the L.A. Cultural Affairs Department to promote LA City’s Big Read.

But people also have needs that are about personal self-expression and exploration, creativity. And that’s why we have programs for adults like LA Made, with cultural performances, food, crafts, gardening, and plays that originate in L.A., which is just pure fun. And kids and teens will find a huge variety of free activities that inspire and entertain. Joy definitely has an important place at the library.  

Above: UCLA IS alumna Eva Mitnick (’89, MLS), shown at her favorite spot in the Los Angeles Central Library, near the branch’s iconic Statue of Civilization and sphinxes. Mitnick directs the Engagement and Learning Division of the entire Los Angeles Public Library system.