Virginia Walter: Beyond the Books

Inducted this year to the California Library Association’s Hall of Fame, the UCLA emerita professor and former children’s librarian shares her hopes for the future of libraries.

Newly inducted to the California Library Association’s Hall of Fame, the UCLA IS emerita professor and former children’s librarian shares her hopes for the future of libraries.

When Virginia Walter served as a public librarian in Boyle Heights in the 1970s, she took part in making the neighborhood branch more than just a repository for books. She and her staff worked to create a hub for their largely Latino, Spanish-speaking community, with services and enrichment opportunities for every member of the family. The emerita professor at UCLA’s Department of Information Studies – who created the annual Frances Clarke Sayers Lecture in honor of her late colleague and prominent children’s librarian  – continues to teach a course in children’s literature. Professor Walter was inducted into the California Library Association’s Hall of Fame in November. 

Walter has worked with California libraries and their communities since 1966, when she received her master’s of library science degree from UC Berkeley. She began her career as a children’s librarian in Sunnyvale before moving on to San Francisco and then to the Los Angeles Public Library, where she ultimately became coordinator of children’s services. 

Professor Walter joined the faculty of the UCLA Department of Information Studies in 1990 and served as chair of the department in the early 2000s. She has been president of the Association for Library Service to Children (2000-2001); and a representative of the American Library Association to the International Federation of Library Associations’ standing committees on Libraries for Children and Young People (2001-2005) and Reading and Literacy (2007-2011). Throughout her career, Walter has authored and contributed to sixteen monographs, including “Outcomes + Outreach: The California Summer Reading Outcomes Initiative” for Public Libraries (with Natalie Cole and Eva Mitnick); “Sowing the Seeds of Praxis: Incorporating Youth Development Principles in Teen Employment Programs,” for Library Trends; and “Teens and Libraries: Getting It Right” for the American Library Association. Throughout her career, Professor Walter has mentored hundreds of children’s librarians.

Walter served as president of the California Society of Librarians (1988), and a CLA council member (1985-88). She is a renowned expert on children’s literature, youth services, library management, and outcome-based planning and evaluation. Her work has improved the way youth services librarians understand and serve children and teens and how libraries evaluate and demonstrate their impact. Walter currently serves as a consultant for the California State Library, mainly evaluating its Lunch at the Library program for underserved communities. 

Professor Walter shared with Ampersand her perspectives on the library as both intellectual institution and community builder; its role in expanding diversity in literature, and how graduates of the UCLA Department of Information Studies make libraries better.

Ampersand: What have been the greatest changes to public librarianship during your career?

Virginia Walter: When I started, [librarianship] was almost entirely book-focused. And I I was a children’s librarian, so that was particularly book-focused. We did storytelling and that kind of thing.

The first thing that changed was a big new focus on diverse literature – multicultural literature. In the late 1960s, there was this famous article in The Saturday Review called, “The All-White World of Children’s Books” that called attention to this problem. I was working in the Western Addition in San Francisco and most of my kids were African American and some Japanese. I had two books to give the African American children [that they could identify with culturally] –  it was really sad. 

I was happy to see the “We Need Diverse Books” movement. It took a while, but now there are [more culturally diverse] books. I’m teaching whole courses on multicultural children’s literature. It’s still not perfect, but it’s much better.

The other thing that changed was a new focus on very young children. When I started, kids had to be three before they could come to a story time [at a library]. They had to prove they could sit without their mothers and listen to a story. And that changed… we went younger and younger with “Toddler Time,” or we’d have whole families come, or even baby “lap-sits.”

&: How else did libraries work to become more relevant to the communities they served?

Walter: Outreach has been an issue at least as long as I’ve been in the field. The war on poverty in the 1960s really pushed it and libraries got behind that. 

I love this city so much, and the library is such an important part of communities – it often is the central place in a community where everybody can go. In the 1970s when I came to Los Angeles and started working for LAPL, my job was in Boyle Heights at the Malabar Branch, which was an almost completely Latino community at that time. 

Outreach was … to promote library service as relevant to people who in many cases, weren’t familiar with library service. If they came from Mexico, they didn’t have free library service there. So, we did all kinds of things to try to be relevant to the community.

We didn’t charge fines – even though that was not an official policy – we just didn’t. I started a mothers’ club at the Malabar Branch Library. I was the only one on staff who didn’t speak fluent Spanish, so I tried to look for commonalities – things I had in common with the community. I was the adult services librarian as well as the branch manager, so I started the mothers’ club. We met every Friday. I taught them how to make piñatas, which they sold at a local fair. We were able to get a van from the [L.A. City Council] and took field trips to places that they would never have gone otherwise – including Venice Beach one summer, when it was [still] a nude beach. The museum, the L.A. Arboretum, so many places. It opened up Los Angeles to a lot of these women who had never seen it before, and it was really fun.

We did anything we could to try to be relevant [to the community]. We got lots of Spanish language books, but oneof the most popular books was an ancient Ford truck manual in English that the men would come in to borrow so they could fix their trucks.

That was just a wonderful experience. I’ve never felt so welcome in a neighborhood that wasn’t even my own. My kids would come in when I worked on Saturdays, they went to a summer camp with the [neighborhood] girls. My father made this giant “Frankenstein” monster for the summer reading program one year when we had a monster theme. Because family was so important, I tried to integrate my own family into [the community] as much as I could.  I loved it. Those were probably the best years in a library I ever had.

&: How has the role of libraries evolved from merely being a source of reading material and information?

Walter: [Libraries] have a really important function, I think, and that has just increased. 

During the 1980s … there was a big fear that digital resources were going to displace public libraries. It was framed as “books vs. bytes.” And that didn’t happen. What happened is that libraries reinvented themselves as important community places. They discovered that people still wanted to come in, even though they could look things up at home, there were things were a human touch was needed, as well as coming together with other people. 

I’ve seen family storytimes that were really places to build community – where parents could meet other parents and arrange playdates and talk about where they were going to send their kid to kindergarten. 

The latest innovation that just makes my heart sing is “Lunch at the Library.” It’s completely funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Kids get school lunches during the year if they’re in low-income communities – and that’s almost every community in Los Angeles, by the way. There are a few little pockets where [kids] don’t qualify, but many places do.

In the summertime when school isn’t in session, there is no free lunch. And so libraries [throughout California] have taken up the gap and are serving lunch at the library. It started about five years ago and it’s grown tremendously. It started with 17 [branches] and now [the number of libraries participating] is up in the hundreds. 

Mothers come in with their kids and what they tell me is that maybe they could go to a playground or something, but the library offers enrichment for the kids that the other places don’t. The librarian will often tell stories or have activities set up for the kids – it’s just a better environment. 

&: How has the digital environment affected or enhanced libraries?

Walter: We’re seeing these studies of what we’ve always suspected: Children and teens like the information sources they can get online, but they would actually prefer a book if they’re going to read.

For people who don’t have computers at home – and there are a lot who don’t, who don’t have high-speed internet, [or have] kids competing for the one computer in the home – the library provides a place for people to come and use [online] resources. For homeless people, it’s an absolute lifeline – it’s enabled [libraries] to provide another service. 

And I think what we used to call reference service – where people would come in with a question and you would look it up and give them an answer – is much less important than it used to be, which leaves librarians freer to… just help people to find a good book or do some of that community-building [and doing] outreach to other places. 

&: What is the value of a MLIS from UCLA?

Walter: I don’t see the master’s degree going away as the basic requirement for becoming a librarian and working in the public library, and I hope that UCLA can be a leader in that. Many of the leaders in the field have come from UCLA. An online program can produce leaders… but I think the face-to-face network [has value]. 

People graduate from UCLA with a sense that by going into the public library field, they are supposed to be leaders. We expect itand they’ve lived up to it. One of our recent graduates, Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada is not only on the ALA Council, she’s on the executive board of the council. Mario Ascensio was the president of REFORMA, and he’s been very active in ALA. Hillary Theyer is now the county librarian in Monterey.

They’ve made an impact and I’m so proud of them. Even the children’s librarians – when I see them in the libraries, you can tell they’re doing something a little different. There’s more commitment, there’s more of a sense of professional obligation to the community that I see [in UCLA graduates]. I’m proud of them, they’re doing wonderful things.

&: What are your hopes for the field of public librarianship?

Walter: I hope children’s librarianship continues to attract committed people and I hope that it gets to be increasingly diverse. Look at our kids. It’s so important for them to see a face like their parents and somebody who speaks their parents’ language when they come to the library.

I hope more men consider children’s librarianship. There are some, but not many. Roger Kelly, one of my first students, went on to become the children’s library coordinator for Santa Monica. He just retired and he’s teaching for us right now. [Another student who went on to become a children’s librarian had a “Guys Read” book club especially for boys.

I don’t see reading disappearing – they’re still publishing great books and people of all ages are still reading. I hope that [libraries continue] to be an important civic institution, and I think they will. The days of just being a cultural, book-oriented place are gone. That’s the way of the future – to be a community hub, extending the [library’s] mission as much as it can to be relevant to the community.

Above: Virginia Walter, emerita professor of information studies at UCLA (at right), was inducted into the California Library Association’s Hall of Fame in November. Her daughter, Eva Mitnick, director of the Engagement and Learning Division of the Central Library, Los Angeles Public Library, and a UCLA alumna (’89, MLIS), had the honor of inducting her mother into the CLA Hall of Fame.

Courtesy of Eva Mitnick