“I don’t do much shushing. In fact, patrons ask me to turn down the volume; I have a strong voice.”
So says Cristina Dominguez Ramirez, an exciting new face at Richmond Public Libraries. She’ll be managing the renovated Broad Rock branch, which reopens next Tuesday.
Ramirez, recently of VCU Library systems, also has a strong vision. The daughter of two retired academics, she brings to her new job hopeless curiosity and a rich cultural background that includes Jewish, Moorish, Basque, and Visigoth blood on one side, and Spanish and American Indian ancestors on the other. More important, she also brings her dream to make our whole community a living library.
I chatted with Cristina via email about books, Richmond, and the role of libraries in the lives of Latino families.
What appealed to you about the position at Richmond Public Library?
It was a perfect match for me. I will manage one of the busiest branches in the Richmond Public Library, and I will get to work directly with community partners and leaders to create programming and events for a large number of underrepresented groups in Richmond. My passion ever since entering the profession has been to reach out to and encourage Latino and African American youth to stay in school and pursue their dreams. I feel very fortunate that I had parents that encouraged my learning so I want to pay it forward for other children and youth. Finally, I love the mission of Richmond Public Library-Inform, Enrich, Empower. This position allows me to work with the other branch managers, library administrators, and community partners to carry out the mission.
The heroine of Latina librarians: Pura Bulpré
It could be said that you’re a minority. As a Latina (although, as we all know, census predictions tell us it’s not going to be long before minorities are actually the majority.) But you’re part of only about 3% of librarians that identify as Latina. First, why aren’t there more Latina librarians? And second, why does it matter in your view?
I think that there are very few here regionally, but this is more a function of history and demographics. If you were to visit public libraries in California, Texas, New York or other states with a long history of Latino residents you would find many more Latino librarians. Virginia has a very young and emergent Latino population. I hope we will see more in the coming years but it is a pipeline issue. You have to convince them to go to library school to get their MLS degree to become professional librarians. Currently, Virginia does not have a library school so many have to go out of state or enroll in an online program.
I also think that it is not a profession that immediately comes to mind to many Latino youth. When they think about possible jobs, careers or professions, librarian does not seem to be on the top of the list. I hope that as the nature of libraries changes and the profession evolves, library schools and professionals can reshape how they conduct outreach. Planting the seed early that this is a noble and worthwhile profession can help encourage more Latinos to enter the profession.
[Having Latina librarians] does matter! When you have faces and names that you identity with when you come to a reference or circulation desk you feel more comfortable asking for services. And when you see a Latino surname and hear Spanish, you feel an immediate connection with the library and the staff.
You have such a varied background, which is really exciting to find in a librarian. Before joining the Broad Rock Branch of the Richmond Public Library as the manager, you were formerly at VCU, where you were the Collection Librarian for Social & Behavioral Sciences. You also have degrees in Philosophy and Religious studies, Middle Eastern Studies and Public Administration. Have you always been hopelessly curious?
I collect books and I collect degrees as well. Once I get interested in a subject I have to keep learning and exploring it, it ends up in a degree. I wanted to learn about different world religions and philosophies so I did a degree in it while I pursued my B.S. in Psychology. Then, fascinated by Hebrew and Israel, I took a number of years of Biblical and Modern Hebrew and studies Israeli politics and culture. I even went to live in Jerusalem for a few months while enrolled at the University of Texas at Austin. I am currently earning a Ph.D. in Education with a specialization in Research & Evaluation. My latest interests are statistics, program evaluation, and research design. I have been buying textbooks on designing quantitative and qualitative studies. I know, light reading. I am hopelessly curious; I am a big believer in lifelong learning.
What’s exciting to you about the Latino children’s literature scene today?
What I find most exciting is the celebration of the stories and storytellers as well as the artists. Latino children’s literature tells the rich and varied stories that Latino children want to hear and need to hear. We all want to be connected to our culture, language, and history. Latino children’s literature makes these stories come alive with the beautiful artwork that accompanies these tales. I am always amazed at the fact that Latino children’s literature has both amazing storytellers and artists. Children are learning history and culture along with an appreciation for fine art.
You’re active with Reforma and other agencies with a mission to engage Latinos in innovative ways. What do you think are some of the mistakes libraries typically make as they try to connect with Latinos in their community?
Some libraries know that there is a Latino population but do not have the staff or resources to effectively reach out to them. At conferences I have met many librarians and library staff that are aware of their communities but are hesitant to engage due to a lack of cultural competence, linguistic ability, or not knowing how to relate to the community.
The issue probably lies more in the library school graduate programs that should include coursework and field experiences in working with diverse and underserved populations. Creating these experiences for librarians in training is very important. The creation of library Spanish course (like the medical Spanish courses you see in hospitals) would be useful to those who need to learn common expressions and terms to better relate to their patrons.
I also think that having programs and events that showcase elements of Latino culture and history are very important when connecting with a community. When your culture and history is recognized you feel that you have a stake in that library. Bringing in speakers that can connect with the parents and children will also form strong bonds with the community.
What are some of your favorite ways to make the library a cool place to be as well as an inviting place for Latinos?
To be a cool place you need to offer a clean, inviting environment with the resources that benefit the community the most. Today that is a mix of current technology and applications as well as popular fiction, nonfiction, and pleasure reading for youth. We need to offer current titles that cover a range of topics and genres. Series, for example, are very popular among teens. Given the economic climate, we also need to offer a number of resources to help people find and apply for jobs, create resumes and cover letters and to better their technology skills.
Having a library that has a welcoming and caring staff is one of the most important aspects of creating a cool place. Richmond Public Library has a very caring and dedicated staff. They will go out of their way to help patrons.
Finally, creating displays of titles and collections that will appeal to Latinos is crucial in making the library space itself feel welcoming to families. A display during Hispanic Heritage Month, bilingual posters and flyers to promote a cultural or programming event, and adding items or objects from the Latino culture during the holidays help to engage Latino families.
I know you’ve done presentations about the role of libraries in communities, specifically “libraries without walls.” What does that mean, exactly, and how will you make that idea grow legs in Richmond, VA?
Libraries are not just the physical buildings that house the collections and resources; they are also the staff and community. We all are ‘libraries’ of information, experiences, history, and culture. Having librarians take the library outside of the walls into the community is to network and engage with the community. By tapping into the collective knowledge of the community, we strengthen the library as an institution and make it stronger for others.
For me that means identifying key community members that I consider ‘gatekeepers’ of knowledge.’ They may have key contacts, serve in important positions and understand the community at the ground level. By taking the library outside the walls you tap into all of these mini libraries in the community. They can help you develop a deep knowledge of the needs and wants of emergent communities.
I hope to make this idea grow legs here in Richmond by reaching out to many key community players, agencies, nonprofits, organizations, boards, and religious groups. They all form part of the fabric of the community and hold pieces to the puzzle. I want to create programming in Spanish that taps into the expertise of our business community for money management among Latinos. I want to develop basic computing courses in Spanish and bring in speakers and authors that will inspire and educate our Latino youth.
Your branch is just about to reopen on July 24th after a six-month renovation project. Your days must be packed with getting ready. Any secrets you care to let slip about the grand opening events?
The library under construction last March.
I am so excited about the renovation. We have both a children’s and teen area. The teen area has a nice reading space and is surrounded by graphic novels, comics, teen series and novels. The computing area has increased and we have many more workstations. There are also tables with power for laptops. The lighting and furniture is very colorful and the carpet is bright. The meeting room has and audio-visual and sound system. When you come in, the space is open and inviting. It is so comfortable that you won’t want to leave.
Any plans for maximizing on the fact that the new Latin Farmers market, La Plaza, is right next door?
Absolutely. I want to get a table at the Latin Farmers market and promote Richmond Public Library and Broad Rock branch in particular. I also envision creating a number of tie-in events that will bring the customers of the market into the library for literary events. By creating programs and events with an emphasis on healthy foods and ethnic cuisine, cooking, and arts and crafts, I think that the Broad Rock branch is an ideal location for community engagement. I hope to reach more children and community members that have not previously used the library or resources.
Finish this sentence for me. Really great bibliotecas…
son como un paraíso para la mente y para la gente.
(translation: “are like a paradise for the mind and for the people”)
Looking for a good read? Some recommendations from Cristina:
- Ready Player One by Ernest Cline.
- Hull Zero Three by Greg Bear.
- Pattern Recognition by William Gibson.