Growing up in Southern California, Michael Jimenez went to the library just twice: once in elementary school class and once in high school, with his parents.
“It was an intimidating experience, I remember, as a kid,” Jimenez says of visiting the library with his parents, who are Salvadoran immigrants. “I didn’t know what to do. My parents didn’t speak very good English, so trying to translate with the librarian there....” He pauses. “We didn’t go back.”
It wasn’t until college that he began to read with gusto. Two years of remedial English classes helped foster an abiding love of books, leading to a bachelor’s degree in psychology and a master’s in library and information science.
In 2007, he began his career at the as a young adult librarian. Just 10 years later he was appointed to the system’s highest administrative position, County Librarian.
“It’s amazing what a public library can do for a child,” he says. “If they start coming when they’re young, if they attend summer reading programs, if they learn to read for pleasure, that translates directly into success in school. Had I had that opportunity when I was younger, I would have really enjoyed it. My passion in this role is being able to share that with others.”
Today, Jimenez oversees 32 branches scattered across America’s largest county (22,000 square miles), with locations ranging from small outposts in the San Bernardino Mountains and the Low Desert bordering Arizona to the 90,000-square-foot Lewis Library & Technology Center in bustling Fontana. He heads an enthusiastic team that works long hours, and often after hours, to ensure they engage as many patrons as possible.
And they do so with just a fraction of the staff San Bernardino County Library had when he was first hired. 2010 budget cuts, resulting from the 2008 financial crisis, eliminated many positions systemwide. Their large collection development team, tasked with buying books and materials for all branches, was winnowed down to just one person. While he commends librarian Andrew Mills for working hard to remold the unruly collection that reflected former colleagues’ divergent personalities and pet projects, it simply wasn’t a one-person job.
That’s why they relied on partners, including Baker & Taylor, a Charlotte-based distributor of books and entertainment, to transform their collection, on a budget, into one that’s current, compelling, and well-circulating.
“One of the things Baker & Taylor helps us with,” Jimenez says, “is purchasing not just popular materials, but popular to our customers, which I feel is a little bit different. A customer may notice, coming into our facilities, be they big or small, they’re able to find what they want and what they need. Regardless of the location…there’s something for everyone.”
To complement the new collection, Baker & Taylor’s Customized Library Services helped reconceptualize the look of the system’s branches. By adding bold displays buttressing easily accessible checkout stations, SBCL created consistency among branches, making the materials patrons want even easier to locate and borrow, during standard operating hours and special events alike.
“When we have a big event, we have books available,” Jimenez says, “and we make sure people know that they’re there. We display that; we make it easy for them. We’ll add several stations throughout the event where people can go sign up for library cards and additional checkout stations—we do mobile checkout stations—to make it easier for people to take things home. Those are the [practices] that, unfortunately, a lot of systems don’t invest the time into, and that’s why they struggle.”
Thanks to a modern, streamlined approach, circulation has soared: In 2011, SBCL branches circulated 2.4 million items, roughly on a par with Riverside County Library, a neighboring system of approximately the same size. While both systems have since grown, Riverside circulates approximately 3.5 million items, while San Bernardino is on track to hit 5.8 million this year.
Their next goal, Jimenez says, is to be on a par with San Diego County, a system with two to three times San Bernardino’s funding that circulates 8 million items per year.
“There’s this social stigma that libraries are on their way out and nobody’s checking out books like they used to, but it’s very much the contrary,” he says. “People still need the service, especially in underserved communities, and it’s not that hard to really push the envelope. It requires a great deal of work, but the components are simple: offering items that people want to see, quality programs, and good customer service. That’s the formula to make sure we succeed.”
Megan Labrise is a staff writer and co-host of the Fully Booked podcast.