The Circulation of Knowledge, Part Four of Six – Dustin O’Hara

Catherine Steele

At the end of our time together, Bob offered me a glass of water and another chocolate. Between the interview with Bob and the meetings with the current outreach staff, it became clear that Catherine Steele was central to understanding Outreach. Establishing contact and arranging a meeting time with Catherine proved to be much slower then any of the other interviews or meetings – after roughly six weeks of correspondence, we managed to set a time to meet. On my way to her house I suspected it would be an important encounter but I didn’t understand how it would help tease out the many narratives and layers of meaning inherent to outreach and the current situation.

When Catherine was a teenager she had the opportunity to live in Mexico for one year. She spent the year working with an organization (comparable to the Peace Corp) whose main project was to help deal with a rat infestation in a series of villages located along a valley. Over the course of a year, she befriended a group of girls her age and the group of them began a grassroots library project: traveling between village delivering boxes of books and informational pamphlets.

After returning to the U.S., she dropped in and out of university, hitchhiking across the Southwest and Southeast, and eventually completely a degree in Spanish. Within a couple weeks of finishing her studies, Catherine met a librarian and the encounter reminded her of her side project in Mexico. Soon after, Catherine decided to attend UCLA to study library sciences. During her studies, she met a librarian working out of Venice Beach who transferred his desk assignment to his assistant and started walking out into the neighborhoods, noticing all the people working on cars. Statistically, people living in the neighborhood had three to four cars, but in practice most people were piecing together one working car out of a collection of broken cars. So, the librarian started walking out into the neighborhoods with crates of auto manuals, handing them out to the folks working on the cars.

What was really new in that decade [1970s] was going to farm labor camps and low income communities, going to people that were homebound and couldn’t get to a library. It was new, [serving the] …people that were disenfranchised, not part of the system, so that combined with these other things inspired me to go in this direction, to work with outreach and go beyond the walls of the library building. I’ve joked that in another life I may have been a nun or missionary, but in this life I was a librarian. (Steele)

Catherine moved to the Central Valley and redirected the library’s outreach services towards the migrant labor community.

We have these farm laborers that are here for six months, May to October… so I claimed we could start issuing library cards…There was a lot of resistance to it.

Catherine argued,

These families are here…and they are just as much a part of the economy as anyone else. It was our job to figure out how to deliver books and information services to these places.

Catherine explains,

I was not alone in this, there were other librarians and library workers starting to look at the situation where they were. And we actually formed library groups that brought us together to talk about these issues… we’re on the edge defining or redefining outreach. (Steele)

After working in the Central Valley for nearly twelve years, Catherine decided she wanted to live near the ocean again and moved to Santa Cruz and got a job at a cannery. Within a couple years of being in Santa Cruz, Catherine became the director of outreach services in 1984 for the public library. During her first few years of directing outreach for Santa Cruz, half of her time was spent at the Freedom elementary school.

Catherine Steele delivers books to farm labor camps. Transparency from local new paper; appropriated for series of canvas prints.

Shortly before Catherine’s arrival, financial pressures led to the closure of the original Freedom branch, but the community wanted a library so they worked out a partnership between the Freedom elementary school and the county library. Catherine would come and open the library to the wider Freedom community three days a week during the after hours of the school.

[The Freedom Branch] was located in a small community in the outskirts of Watsonville, mostly Spanish speaking. The school was designated as a community school, so after school it was open for English as a second language classes, as night classes for the parents. (Steele)

During the evening classes, many of Catherine’s patrons were students of Freedom Elementary or children of the adults taking classes. Among these young patrons was Veronica, whose parents came to the area as farm workers. Now, as an adult, she is a coordinator in the Beach Flats affordable housing development, working with the current outreach staff to get library services to the children in her after school program.

Veronica’s personal trajectory of growing up in Freedom, moving to Santa Cruz with her parents as child, and returning to the Beach Flats as an adult, illustrates the regional social geography of Outreach’s Spanish speaking patrons.

…Growing up low income you inhabit survival mode,” Veronica said. “When you spend a lot of time struggling to survive you have a hard time stepping back and thinking about what your dreams are… That’s definitely one of the things I’m trying to do more with my children, also with the families I work with here – to dream! Just because we’re still concerned with food and housing and all those things…if you could do anything, what would that be? It’s fine you want to be the astronaut [and] you don’t want to be that person working in the community trying to make positive change – you can go make change in that area. (Lopez-Duran)

Veronica works with Outreach to provide library services for the children in her after-school educational program. The after-school program Imagine is a kind of poetry in practice, where academic engagement attempts to foster greater social imagination and realize education as a way of life.


One comment

  1. Pingback: / Circulation of Knowledge Archive « up the hill & through the woods

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