Seeing California Through the Eyes of Its Most Important Librarian

The California State Librarian talks about the most surprising things you can check out of a library, cool road trips around the state, plus the best local libraries to visit in California.

Seeing California Through the Eyes of Its Most Important Librarian

The North Beach Library in San Francisco is an architectural gem.

Photo by Bruce Damonte Photography

Greg Lucas, the California State Librarian, is a lifelong Californian—in fact, one of his first jobs was as a ride operator on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland. (Try to get that song out of your head after working there!)

As the state librarian—a role appointed by the governor—he believes local libraries and librarians should be storytellers for the diverse history and current times of California. “What’s been a delight, but also a challenge,” he says, “is to make sure we’re talking about all the different threads that go into weaving this incredibly colorful and rich tapestry that is the state of California.”

Prior to being appointed to his current role in 2014, he spent 20 years as a reporter covering state politics and policy for the San Francisco Chronicle. His office is in charge of about $30 million of state and federal money that is funneled to local libraries each year. They try to solve the biggest needs—like bulk purchasing of bilingual books and improving connectivity and Wi-Fi in local libraries—first.

But he also spends a lot of time on the road visiting local libraries and as a result, knows its most beautiful roads and unique libraries to visit.

If you’re traveling to California, you’ll want to put these special libraries on your list. As Lucas says, the “nice thing about libraries is how reflective they are of their communities.”

In this series, we are spotlighting a destination we love—California—through the experiences of people we admire who call it home.

Greg Lucas hiking in the Capay Valley, northwest of Sacramento

Greg Lucas hiking in the Capay Valley, northwest of Sacramento

Courtesy of Greg Lucas

You’ve talked about your job as a “California storyteller.” How do you tell the stories of California through being the state librarian?

The state library is an information hub, both for the state government and as a cultural heritage institution. We were created as one of the first three pieces of California legislation from 1850. Our charge and our mission, as we see it, is to be reflective, to be a library that reflects California. There are around 300 languages and dialects spoken here. Forty percent of the population speaks a language other than English at home; 30 percent were born in another country. California has one of the most diverse groups of people ever brought together as equals.

You told me that you visited around 230 out of California’s 1,100 libraries. Are there specific libraries that are worth a trip? I loved the Mill Valley Public Library when I visited. It was so beautiful, with this incredible vaulted ceiling, shaded under the redwoods, and within a short walk to the center of town.

There are definitely libraries that are architectural delights. The North Beach Library in San Francisco is on this triangular lot, and you think you’d never be able to build anything on there, but it looks like the bow of a ship. You go inside and they’ve used the space in this really smart, kind of open, but effective, way.

If you’re coming in the back of Yosemite from Highway 395, there’s a teeny, tiny library near the Wawona Lodge. The library isn’t much bigger than my office, but there’s a nice selection of books for tourists renting a place in the summer. There’s also this unbelievable desk that used to be where you checked in at the [historic] Ahwahnee Lodge. Somebody donated it to the library.

Libraries really are gathering places for the communities. Do you see that when you visit them?

Governor Newsom put out a proclamation at the beginning of April declaring California National Library Week. The thing that stuck with me is he said, “They’re the hearts of their communities.”

I think people want to go to the library. It’s not like you have to go to the doctor, or the DMV, but people like to go to the library.

There have been a number of challenges libraries have faced over the past year trying to maintain relationships with older customers, and they’ve used all sorts of really creative techniques. Some libraries would bring books or call people on the phone so the relationship was still there, like, I know you got that new detective novel you wanted, how is it? It addressed the isolation in a safer way.

Wow, that’s great. I think that’s so important and will continue to be with this kind of mental health crisis coming out of this year and missing those connections with people.

Well, we actually do spend a fair amount of money on mental health training for librarians, so they can help identify potential issues. And there are around 16,000 people working in California’s library system.

You’re a former journalist and a big traveler yourself. What are some of your favorite, lesser-known spots in California that you like to visit, whether or not you’re checking out a library?

Taking the Sonora Pass from Highway 99 up and over the Sierras and coming down into Bridgeport is the most beautiful highway I’ve ever seen in California. It’s only open part of the year because of the snow and everything else. One of my favorite journeys is to Arcata—you take Highway 299 and it sort of snakes through this river canyon.

I love Highway 89 above Tahoe. Everyone goes to Tahoe, but if you take 89 above it, the first place you come to is Sierraville, where if 200 people live there, I’d be surprised. It’s in the center of this basin, this enormous bowl, one of the biggest valleys of its kind in the continental United States. There’s a lot of ranching there, so for whatever reason, every third fence post has a red-tailed hawk sitting on top of it. You’re driving along and they’re kind of looking at you, that great birds-of-prey look, like you’re not going to mess with me.

If you keep going up 89, you eventually connect with 49, which is the highway that goes through all the gold country, the spine of the foothills of California, which is another terrific drive.

And if you keep going, like towards Alturas, which is Modoc County, you’ve gone through all these pine trees and forests, and you’re still at 6,000 or 7,000 feet, and you see something that is kind of like a desert. It’s not exactly a desert, but it’s certainly not a pine forest. There are all these different microclimates scattered across the state.

What are some of the more surprising things that libraries offer?

You can come to the library and check out sewing machines, or tools. Like in Berkeley, there are these craftsman houses from the 1920s and ’30s, and a lot of the work you need to do on these houses requires specialized tools, and they’re very, very expensive. At the Berkeley Public Library, they have a tool lending library of all of these special tools if you’re fixing your house.

The public library in La Jolla has a biotech lab. They advertise what they’re going to do on events pages and it’s sold out within five minutes. They changed the DNA of a jellyfish in one of the lab rooms to red, white, and blue for July Fourth.

>>Next: A California Family Travel Guide From AFAR’s Editor in Chief

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