Throughout the 15 years she’s been with the Stanislaus County Library, Olga V. Cárdenas has done a variety of things from managing branches, to serving as a Regional Children’s Librarian and to her most recent position: Service Outreach Librarian.
“With my job, I provide services to those who can’t come to the building. It’s a brand new position -- it started about a year ago in July. For the first time, we are able to go outside of our buildings to serve the underserved,” said the 43 year-old Cárdenas.
Even though her passion is palpable when she talks about her job, working for the library was never in Cárdenas plans.
Did she enjoy reading?
“Even though I am now a librarian I didn’t always enjoy reading, I started reading for pleasure in my 20s when I was going to college,” she said.
In fact, Cárdenas never even used the library until months before she was hired to work there.
Ironic isn’t it?
Cárdenas graduated from CSU Stanislaus with a Bachelor’s in Business Administration with a Finance concentration. But after working in the business world for a few years, she realized it wasn’t for her, she said. Cárdenas went back to school and earned a teaching credential. She taught Kindergarten for three years.
One day, a neighbor invited Cárdenas, who at that time had a 2 year-old and a newborn baby, to participate in the library’s ‘StoryTime’ program.
“After that I started coming on a regular basis and I realized how powerful reading really was!” recalls Cárdenas.
A group of professional friends got together and petitioned for the library to start offering ‘StoryTime’ programs for the Spanish-speaking community and that is how Cárdenas became employed with the library. She eventually returned to school and earned her Masters in Library Science.
“That is really how I came to work for the library because of that effort. I can tell you just so many stories about the different ways reading has transformed kids’ lives, adults’ lives, but also about this latent power that libraries have because it is the only institution that provides free access to everyone. It doesn’t matter who you are or what you do, you are always welcomed here,” said Cárdenas, who admits that historical fiction is her favorite reading material.
“It could be a children’s book or even a teen’s book, I just have this hunger for knowledge,” she said, and added that she gets that hunger from her mother.
Cárdenas came to this country at the age of 15 from her native Michoacán, México. Her mother was escaping an abusive marriage and an alcoholic father and settled in the Central Valley.
“We grew up in survival mode but what helped me and my three siblings was my mother’s vision for a better future. In spite of living in this hostile environment, my mother never lost sight of this sliver thread that connected the life she was living to what she wanted for us. She led by example,” Cárdenas said.
She recalls that while they lived in México, her mother would come home — after working long hours — to teach other women how to read and write. She also put herself through night school to get the equivalent of a junior high education.
“When we came to this country, it took us a while to settle, but after that she took ESL classes and earned her GED. She was constantly looking for ways to improve herself. She even became Microsoft certified even though she worked out in the fields,” Cárdenas said. “She just had this hunger for learning and was always leading by example, so I suppose that is why I do what I do.”
Cárdenas said that one of her passions is to empower parents to get involved with their young children.
“Our county is undergoing a severe education crisis. As of last year, some of the schools only have 15% of children coming in ready when they start Kindergarten, so that’s four out of 24 kids. It’s color recognition, shapes, knowing how to count to ten — basic things! When one thinks about it, my goodness they are starting so far behind, it’s going to be impossible for them to ever catch up,” she said. “Experts tell us that if our kids are not reading at grade level, they are less likely to graduate high school. And why should we care as a community? There is the financial cost — the quality of life. There are fascinating statistics by the Department of Corrections that says that for every 10% increase in high school graduation rates, there is a 30% decrease in crime. It is for everybody’s interest to really invest in early intervention and early literacy.”
1. Can you explain how library truly work?
“Here we have a wealth of information. The library is open to each and every member of our community. When someone comes in they are welcomed to use our computers, Wi-Fi, read books, attend programs. We have a variety of programs for children, teens, adults, seniors and they are all free. No one needs anything to use what’s here. When someone needs to borrow, either electronically or from our physical collection, then they do need a library card. Getting a library card is free, however a government issued identification is needed -- it could even be a Matrícula. What’s great about the library card now days is that with the library card — from the comfort of home — you can download e-books, movies, music, audio books and magazines. We have an extensive digital collection too. The only instances when libraries are not free is when materials are not returned on time or when they are damaged or destroyed. Other than that, everything is free. All library locations have a book drop even if the library is closed they can drop off their materials on time.”
2. Can you be more specific with the type of services/programs the library provides?
“We have premiere data bases that help with job readiness. Now days, whenever anyone is looking for work everything is done electronically so here at the library you can scan materials, create your résumé via templates, and have access to a data base that has links to job openings. The program also offers interview tips and an actual coach that can prepare you for interviews. With my job as an outreach librarian, I’m able to conduct early literacy, kindergarten readiness workshops for families and I do book clubs at Juvenile Hall in the Commitment facility. We also visit schools. We are trying to promote literacy as much as we can. Right now, we are working in conjunction with the Stanislaus Reads Initiative and that has opened a lot of doors for us, it has been a mutually beneficial partnership for all of the agencies involved. We also have a satellite library at the WIC office on Hackett Road (Modesto). This allows us to provide parents access to our collection. We read to children and model how parents can interact with them, so it’s been a really successful model. It’s one more way to take the library outside of our traditional settings, out of our buildings. Also as part of our outreach, we go out to businesses and share information about literacy with their employees.”
3. What are the most popular programs at the library?
“That would be ‘StoryTime.’ Traditionally we have been offering this program for children ages 0-5 since the library was founded. It is our most popular program. Secondly, it would be ‘Summer Reading’ which is geared towards 0 to high school seniors during the summertime to prevent summer slide. We also do encourage the community to read. And most of our family programs are extremely popular. Anything from magic shows to reptile shows. Also our ‘Día del Niño’ (Day of the Child) are starting to become really popular. We celebrated our 10th anniversary here at the Modesto Library last year. What was special about last year’s event was that for the first time in the history of the Stanislaus County Library we celebrated Día del Niño at all of our 13 branches, so that was pretty spectacular. That was a huge milestone for us because there is still a lot of resistance and misconception about what the event is about.”
4. Has technology affected the library’s turnout? And how many visitors do you get?
“It has changed slightly. We are still buying physical books and all of that. Most of our budget is still dedicated to the physical collection and as far as programs, we do offer a lot more programs that we did. Traffic-wise, we are getting a lot of visitors. As far as our circulation statistics they are not as high but they are not necessarily being affected by our electronic resources. I think it’s more of a reflection of society. For example, now you don’t need a physical encyclopedia because you can just Google different things. The way that information is being accessed is a little bit different. I think because we are still in a semirural area, most of our customers are still not super techie, and many people just prefer a physical book. As far as numbers, the Modesto library gets an average of 2,798 daily visitors. While all 13 of our braches have a total of 8,712 daily visitors.”
5. Some people believe that one day libraries will no longer have physical books due to technology, what do you say to that?
“I say that they will never go obsolete. The experience of sharing a physical book with a child will never compare to sharing a digital book. Even if it’s the exact same version of the book in a different format. There is something about a physical book that engages many more senses than a digital one.”
6. Are there any misconceptions you’ve heard regarding the library or about reading?
“One of the biggest one, especially from the Latino perspective, is that we are perceived as a government agency; therefore, we are feared. Many people don’t use the library because they think, ‘I’m going to get in trouble’ or ‘I’m undocumented and they are going to share my information with another agency.’ To the contrary, libraries so fearless protect a person’s right to read, whatever they want to read, to privacy. The way that we guard our customers’ privacy is that whenever anything is borrowed and returned, it gets deleted from the account as soon as it’s returned, so there is no way to track down histories. Also, parents have been told that they must read and write in English in order to help out their children. That is a myth.
“We have moms coming in worried because they’ve been told that they can’t help their kids because they don’t speak the language. We reassure them that there is enough they can do by just having conversations, singing to them, sharing books, even if it’s not reading word by word. There are so many things that even parents who don’t know how to write and read can do for their kids. That’s something that is so very important for them to understand.”
7. Any tips for parents to help interest their children in reading?
“One would be that it’s never too late to start and I am an example of that. The earlier you start, the better it is. The reason why reading is important it’s because our spoken vocabulary is so limited. When you read, you not only expose them to a rich vocabulary — which is needed to decipher words whey they are learning to read — but also they learn about the world that we live in. It could be in the way that things work or places. Many of our Latino families can’t afford to take a trip to the beach, and through a book you can expose them to a visual idea and a word that goes with it.
“Second, sing to your children. Why? Singing is another way to expose children to new vocabulary. It exposes them to patterns and patterns are the basis for language and math. It also helps develop memorization skills because most music is catchy and it also helps children develop their listening skills. When we sing, vocabulary slows down and we are able to pick up smaller chunks and that is what is needed when you are stretching out sounds when you are deciphering a word that you are wanting to read.
“And third, talking. Why talking? I have colleagues that are Kindergarten teachers and they tell me that the biggest change that they’ve noticed is how kids are coming in to Kindergarten and not knowing how to hold a conversation. Why? It’s partly because our electronics are designed to throw information at you, so it’s not interactive. Phones and tablets are being used as nannies, parents hand it over so their kids are off their hands and entertained. Electronics could be great tools when you are interacting with your kid and answering questions. When they are babies talking to them about their body parts, when they are a toddlers talking with them about what you are doing, when they are older about their experiences and trying to make sense of their emotions and the way they view themselves within the world. It changes, depending on the age of the child, but it’s a way to keep the connection of families strong.”
8. Are Latinos using the library as much as others?
“They are not. One big reason is the lack of transportation. And even if they could get here, maybe our hours of operation are not ideal for their family situation. Also, I attributed it to them not knowing about the library’s services and programs. I lived here for several years before I knew what the library had to offer me. Not knowing is probably one of the biggest ones and it’s not part of our culture. It wasn’t a place where you would take your kids to do fun things. My supervisor shared with me that there is this product that shows who our library customers are and we have none from the West side or South Modesto. So the next step is we are going to apply to get a grant for a Bookmobile so we can go to these communities where families do understand the importance of reading but it’s very difficult for them to come to our buildings.”
9. What are your thoughts on the Little Free Libraries popping up in neighborhoods?
“It is a fabulous concept. It is a way to provide access to families who lack transportation. It will take a while, especially for our communities to learn how to really use them —taking some books and leaving some so everyone can swap a book. It’s a great way to help with literacy and the enjoyment of reading but it is also a way that helps people within that community to connect with one another.”
10. What is the most rewarding about your job?
“Looking at children and parents’ faces when they discover something about themselves or something through books. During these workshops you can see when parents are making connections and now have this new sense of power because they’ve acquired new knowledge or a skill. Sometimes they realize and say, ‘wait a minute this is something that I could do or this is how I can help my kid.’ Just observing the physical transformation is really exhilarating. The same thing goes for kids when you are sharing a book with them and you see a physical transformation. That is the best feeling ever.”