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Lessa Pelayo-Lozada: Chosen as 2021-22 ALA President-Elect

By Joanie Harmon
Lessa Pelayo-Lozado

Adult services manager of the Palos Verdes Library District will be the first UCLA alumna and first Pacific Islander to assume leadership of the American Library Association.

Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada (’09, MLIS; ’07 B.A., Sociology) recalls that when growing up in Torrance, California, she felt that the public library was a place that made a strong impression on her and where she felt “at home.”

“The library was the only place I was allowed to go by myself after school, starting in fourth grade,” says Pelayo-Lozada, the first UCLA alumna and the first person of Native Hawaiian descent to be chosen as president-elect of the American Library Association. “I’d ride my bike … on the way home to my grandparents’ house, because they took care of us.

“I was allowed to read and do anything - I felt very independent there. I didn't see it as a career path, but I saw it as this place where everyone was [represented]. Growing up in the South Bay, it's a fairly diverse community and as a mixed-race person, I saw myself reflected in the staff and the materials that we had.”

Pelayo-Lozada is the adult services assistant manager for the Palos Verdes Library District, serving two of its three branches. She began her career in libraries as a page at the Lomita Library, which is part of the County of Los Angeles Public Library system. She has also worked as a children’s and general librarian throughout branches in Southern California, including the Glendale Public Library and the Rancho Cucamonga Public Library.

Pelayo-Lozada is also the executive director of the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association (APALA) and served as its president from 2016 to 2017. She has served as a member of the Steering Committee for the 2018 Joint Conference of Librarians of Color. She will assume the ALA presidency after the organization’s 2022 annual conference.

In a recent conversation with The Latest, Pelayo-Lozada shared her vision for ALA, the resilience of the public library in the midst of a pandemic, and the hallmark advantages of a MLIS degree from UCLA.

What compelled you to run for ALA President?

Lessa Pelayo-Lozada: COVID and the challenges that our libraries across the nation and the world compelled me to run for ALA President. As a frontline library worker and as someone tuned into the community, I saw the disconnect in communication and expectations between library workers, administration, and the community, not just in public libraries, but in libraries of almost every single type. The creativeness and innovation that our library workers employed inspired me to want to continue improving ALA to create safe and supportive work environments for them and thriving libraries for our communities.

I have been out of library school for just over 10 years now. I graduated in the middle of the last recession, so jobs were a little bit scarce, and I dedicated a lot of my time to the American Library Association and to the Asian Pacific American Library Association to help to develop the leadership skills that I wasn't getting because I wasn't working full time. But, as I did that for a very practical reason, the mission of the organizations really called to my sense of service and to giving back and to improving librarianship as a whole. So, I took on leadership opportunities very quickly within [ALA]. I had just finished a term on the ALA Executive Board and during my term, I had started a lot of work to improve and reorganize ALA and its governance structure and to develop and increase membership engagement, and I felt like that work wasn't finished.

That same summer that I officially decided to run was also the summer of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter and the protests. I saw all of that work that also needed to be done within our profession. I felt like I could be, at least for one year, a person to help bridge librarianship into the profession that we need it to be today for our communities that are hurting and changing at rates that our profession is not keeping up with. I also wanted to help with recruitment and retention and show how we can change and be the anti-racist profession that our communities need us to be.

How were your libraries in the Palos Verdes Library District affected by the pandemic?

Pelayo-Lozada: When we first shut down, our library actually kept all staff, regardless of full-time or part-time status on the payroll for a full month because we had already made all of our schedules - if you are scheduled you get paid for all of those hours. And then in the spring [of 2020], we just kept our full-timers. Our part-timers were furloughed and then we started bringing them back very slowly starting in March or April of 2021 as we reopened for interior services.

We were open in June of 2020 for curbside service, running books out to people's cars. They would put the books on hold, and we had this massive space [for] schlepping books, so we did that for a number of months. When we started to to reopen, we brought back most of our staff so far. We did have a number of retirements and folks who found other opportunities and other jobs, but we're coming back at 90% staffed to what we were pre-pandemic.

We were very fiscally conservative in the beginning. All the full- timers took a week of furlough leave to be cautious, because we're a special district. Our [funding] comes from lots of different areas. We’re primarily funded by property tax, but we also do meeting room rentals and weddings, and all of that had had stopped. So, we had to make up for some of that revenue, but our finance team has been amazing to be able to bring us back almost entirely staffed as we go back to close to regular hours.

Have in-person events resumed as part of the library’s programming?

Pelayo-Lozada: They have not returned. Meeting room rentals are being allowed for groups to hold private events. But as a library, since we're open to the public - vaccinated and unvaccinated - and a large population of our patronage are children between two and 11 who cannot be vaccinated, we've been very cautious in bringing back in-person events.

I coordinate an art reception and annual community art show, so we're hoping that at the end of 2021, depending on what happens with the Delta variant, that will be our first in-person event, but we're holding off on announcing most of that until at least fall begins, so we can get a better sense of what the world looks like.

All of our storytimes are still online. We still have regular virtual programs: book talks, author’s lectures, and even art programs where folks can come pick up a little art kit and then they go home, and we show them how to do it virtually.

What has been the community’s response to continuing virtual events?

Pelayo-Lozada: It has been pretty good, and even as both as things have opened back up, our programming numbers, at least in adult services, have held steady. In youth services, it's a little different because [of too much] screen time and a lot of factors [like] the children are younger, but [attendance] has been very strong.

A lot of folks are asking us to consider a hybrid model and/or virtual programming even after we open back up 100 percent, because of the accessibility [of] a lot of things that we were not able to do before for those communities that were unintentionally disenfranchised. Now, they are able to participate. We’re trying to figure out how we can make sure that we're being as inclusive as we can be and getting all those populations who may not be able to come for in-person programs.

How did your education in the UCLA Department of Information Studies prepare you to see the needs of equity, diversity, and inclusion in librarianship?

Pelayo-Lozada: I really appreciated my time at UCLA, its focus on ethics, diversity, and inclusion. We're one of the few programs that had a class [on] that. It really set the expectation and model for how a lot of programs should be in order to make sure that we're preparing our library professionals.

I’m really excited that the class has continued and excited to see how UCLA supports future public servants and public librarians, especially because there's a really strong academic and archival track there and I know that there can also be a really strong public services [component] as well.

My cohort at UCLA … were a fairly tight-knit bunch. We were lucky to be able to do lunches and that networking aspect that really prepared me for the kind of work that I'm going into as ALA president, so I was really fortunate there. And we had really supportive faculty Clara Chu was my faculty advisor and she was amazing, exposing me to what equity, diversity, and inclusion meant in libraries, and Ginny Walter gave me my foundation in youth services. And then, at that time, also there was Eloisa Bora, who was a librarian at the Anderson School of Management, and she would get all the Filipino library school folks and librarians across campus together to have lunch and mentoring opportunities, so that was a pretty cool experience as well.

[Before the pandemic], UCLA was one of the few MLIS programs that was still entirely in-person and I feel like I really benefited a lot from that, to be able to have that direct mentorship and relationship with faculty as well as with my peers. I think that a lot of those relationships and meeting diverse folks who are into libraries across the [professional] spectrum really helped to develop my advocacy work, as well as my leadership skills. Being exposed to…  different leadership styles and different missions within libraries, but with that overarching [ethos of] information access for all was really important.

What do you look forward to the most in your upcoming term as ALA president?

I am so excited to amplify the voices and work of our libraries and library workers nationwide. There is so much that goes unrecognized that I hope we can highlight the everyday successes while advocating for funding and support, demonstrating the need for libraries, information literacy, and access to broadband for all in the 21st century.