“Everybody always asks me the same questions,” David Lopez says of his profession. “It’s hard to not look at me and say I’m a sexy librarian!” If the 32-year-old senior librarian at Santa Ana Public Library had to catalog every stereotype about librarians and the city he gets, it’d take the Dewey Decimal System to do it. People regularly ask Lopez if libraries are still around, if they’re even needed anymore or if he’s an antisocial bookworm. (Yes, yes and no!)
So what kind of librarian is Lopez really? An accomplished one. In 2014, he received a Carnegie Corporation of New York/New York Times “I Love My Librarian” Award. Just this year, Library Journal named him one of 2018’s “Movers & Shakers.” And he’s helping to take the Santa Ana Public Library international in September as an Emerging Leaders Fellow at the Next Library Conference in Berlin. “I’m not the best librarian in the world,” Lopez says. “But as a queer person of color, I need to show that we’re worth it, and when I can put Santa Ana on a map, it’s a big deal.”
For Lopez, the Santa Ana Public Library system is sort of a family tradition. “I essentially grew up going to the library,” he says. His tía started working there in the 1970s, retiring as a circulation supervisor when McFadden Library closed down in 2004. Lopez’s sister followed at the same branch out of high school. While a Roadrunner at Saddleback High School, Lopez tried to join the library lineage by applying to be a page, but he didn’t get the job.
Instead, Lopez earned a screenwriting degree from Chapman University while working retail. Along the way, his sister resigned from the Newhope branch. He interviewed for and got some hours left by her vacancy. “I never had intended to become a librarian because I was going to make it big!” he says, laughing. Lopez enrolled in UC Riverside’s MFA creative-writing program and took classes with former U.S. poet laureate Juan Felipe Herrera.
After a post-graduation trip to Peru, Lopez realized he didn’t have to choose between library life and his writing aspirations. “I need to be that connection for people who don’t have aunts or sisters who work for the library,” he reflected. Lopez began working full-time in 2014, the same year his MFA thesis The 41 became an award winner at the Oaxaca Film Festival. When the Santa Ana Register briefly revived, Lopez also authored the “Life In the Golden City” column, which helped him network with local newsmakers he later brought into the library for events.
Santa Ana’s library reflects a community facing different challenges than many others in the county. “We’re not just a place for books,” Lopez says. “We have people who come in and use Skype to talk to relatives whom they can’t go see because they’re undocumented.” And, until recently, the main library has been across the way from the civic center’s now-evicted homeless encampment. “In the past couple of years, we’ve done our best to reorganize ourselves,” Lopez says. Policies have changed, and security guards are present. “It’s about showing people in a humane way homeless people are also entitled to be here.”
Santa Ana Public Library isn’t “unsafe,” as misguided detractors claim; two years ago, it even claimed a National Medal for Museum and Library Service during a White House ceremony. And in a few months, the library is headed to Europe. “I’m a Santa Ana resident, and I love Santa Ana,” Lopez says. “It’s a chance for people to understand that as a community, we’re all worth something.”