Cristina Ramirez is the Assistant Library Manager at the Varina Area Library in Henrico County. She was due to receive Virginia Commonwealth University’s Unsung Heroes Award during the 14th Excellence in Virginia Government Awards ceremony, originally scheduled for April 15. The event has been postponed until the spring of 2021 in light of coronavirus concerns.
Varina Branch of the Henrico County Public Library
How did you get interested in becoming a librarian and how did you go about making that happen?
I was raised by two professors and lifelong teachers who spent a lot of time in libraries, bookstores, archives, and museums. I would accompany my father to pick up books at the university library and my parents to a fantastic bookstore in Madrid called Espasa Calpe for them to peruse and buy textbooks from Spain to bring back to the U.S. for their classes (my father was a linguistics professor and my mother a professor of history and Spanish language). So, I was always surrounded by books and reading and the values of lifelong learning. One day I was trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my education and my father said to me, ‘why not become a librarian?’
That question began the process of finding a library school, moving to D.C. to attend The Catholic University of America and then moving to Virginia where I have been a professional librarian since 2005. Once his question had been planted in my head, then I knew that is what I wanted to do. At the time I thought I did not want to become a professor and teach and publish like he did. However, I ended up doing that as well and am in fact a professor and teaching library science and have published in several academic books on issues of diversity and inclusion in libraries.
What is your favorite program that you have hosted at your library?
Two programs come to mind immediately that are very different. While at Richmond Public Library I worked with several staff and author Meg Medina to bring a first of its kind art exhibit called Paint Me a Story that showcased Latino children’s book illustration featuring the work of three award winning illustrators: John Parra, Lila Quintero Weaver and Joe Cepeda. The second program that I helped to design and implement was a staff-only, internal training on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion training for Staff Development Day at Henrico County Public Library.
Have other libraries adopted some of your projects/programs?
These two programs are so unique and tailored to the community that they have not been adopted as is; however, many libraries serve similar populations and demographics so there have been similar programs at libraries across the country. Many libraries have incorporated cultural competency and diversity training but I can’t take credit for that. While I have been championing the value of such training in Central Virginia, many libraries around the country are seeing the value in offering such training for their staff to better serve their changing communities.
You have worked in both academic and public libraries. What are some of the differences? Which do you prefer?
I prefer the work of public libraries when it comes to making a clear, direct, and immediate impact on people’s lives and experiences. Public library staff work to offer high quality programs, services, and resources that aid with lifelong education, workforce development, creating community spaces, and help offer wraparound educational experiences to supplement what schools offer such as digital media labs and technology training. You also get to create with relationships with families and patrons who come back and share the excitement with you that they landed a job, or finished a class, or even helped their child graduate school. All of these experiences are what drew me to public librarianship. Academic libraries are great for focused and long-term research on particular topics and helping your faculty and students succeed. I still keep my foot in the academic world as I have continued my lifelong learning experiences and have taught courses.
You have degrees in other disciplines in addition to your MLS. How do you think those disciplines inform how you work as a librarian?
Because I consider myself a social scientist by training and previous appointment as the social sciences bibliographer in an academic library, I look at many issues around management, leadership, and human interactions through that lens. Having a degree in Middle Eastern Studies with a focus on Hebrew language and Israeli politics seems esoteric but it has given me a foundation in understanding geography, languages, politics, histories and cultures of other parts of the world. We continue to become more interconnected as a planet and being able to work with patrons, staff, and community partners who come from many parts of the world is invaluable. Having an open mind and heart are what helps us to connect to others. My third masters, after the MLS and the MA is the MPA. That degree in Public Administration has also been incredibly helpful in understanding many facets of how public organizations work and issues ranging from budgeting to human resources to public policy and research.
What do a lot of libraries get wrong about diversity and inclusion?
A lot of libraries, like many institutions, are playing catch up on many levels and fronts with the large umbrella topic of diversity and inclusion. Localities nationwide have found themselves seeing large demographic changes and shifts that were not anticipated to due immigration, refugees, children being born in the U.S. to immigrant parents, and growing minority communities. There is also a reshaping of how we view services to communities and populations that had previously not had much attention paid to them or are asking for more equity in services such as the formerly incarcerated, persons experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities. Many libraries are seeing more patrons and community members they want to help and who have not previously come into the library for resources. So, libraries are trying to find the best ways to integrate programming, outreach, services, and resources to meet more diverse community needs than ever before. It is not a one-time, single-shot program or training and you are done. I consider the work around diversity and inclusion to be a conversation between your communities, your library staff and administration about how best to continuously offer more responsive service.
What can a state-wide organization like LVA do to help foster diversity in public libraries?
That is a great question. As the state library, LVA is uniquely positioned to be both a clearinghouse of DE&I resources and information that all public libraries can have access to, and to be able to coordinate regional training, programming, and outreach to suit the very diverse needs of the different regions of the state. Through public programs and exhibition, LVA can showcase materials and people who have contributed to the rich diversity of the state and who continue to shape our history.
What makes you excited for the future of libraries in this country?
I am excited when I see libraries change their focus to being community driven and specific while at the same time sharing best practices and lessons learned with other libraries and systems. Seeing more staff being attracted to the profession and seeking employment in libraries where they will be able to bring their cultural and linguistic competencies and skills is exciting as I can envision more staff learning the ropes of the profession and their organizations while serving their communities. Finally, as we become more valuable to the communities we serve as a third space and community hubs, I see more creativity not less and the public always has great ideas that spark innovation in our work.