Jefferson Branch Library: Never judge a book by its cover

By Alex Abels

The third of a four-part series on Jefferson Park and the changing urban neighborhood.

The Jefferson Branch Library, open for nearly a century, is a building that has witnessed the changing landscape and make-up of the Jefferson Park community. It is one of the few buildings in the neighborhood placed on the National Registrar of Historic Places, recognizing its early 20th century Spanish-style architecture.

Over time, the functions of the American public library have changed, particularly found in urban communities. In some locations, patrons use the library’s computers to look for jobs. Homeless people use it as a respite from the elements. Some locations increasingly use it as a community center. Virtually all libraries have expanded their scope in one way or another, and the Jefferson Park branch is no exception.

Named in honor of Vassie D. Wright, founder of the first Black History celebration in Los Angeles in 1949, the library has long offered the surrounding community a rich menu of activities. Wright began the Our Authors Study Club, devoted to studying Black History which later launched California’s first Negro History Week, later transformed into the Black History Month that is nationally recognized today. The Our Authors Study Club still meets at the Jefferson Branch Library the third Saturday of every month, often working to raise money for college scholarships for students, one of a library’s newer functions in a new century.

Helping teenagers get on track to attend college or get a job is, in fact, one of the main goals of the library. Nailah Malik, the young adult librarian at the Jefferson branch, says she spends a lot of time gathering materials for scholarships and job opportunities to help them move seamlessly to the next steps of their lives. “I don’t like just helping them get their homework done, I try to help with their long-range planning,” she says.

This can be a challenge, especially in a neighborhood where the typical high school graduation rate is about 40%. But her works often pays off. In 2009, Malik flew up to Berkeley to see one of the library’s “bright stars” graduate with a double a major, and Malik can’t help but smile and clap when she thinks of an old student dubbed the “diamond of Jefferson Park” who also graduated from Berkeley with a law degree.
But before she can help them with their college applications and job resumes, she has to help them stay off the streets and learn how to read. “The library is a safe house for kids at school, and you can see that’s pretty apparent here,” says Malik. “The thought of kids getting hurt out there because they have nowhere safe to go, it’s awful.”

So Malik has helped to set up programs for children after school. Every Thursday, high school students come in to engage in a Teens Reading to Children program. “My main mission in life is to connect people with books,” says Malik. “And it’s so cute, because I see the little children mimicking the teens after they leave. The ones who are 7 or 8, they get their little group of smaller kids and they’re reading stories to the children. I just love it.”

The library encourages children to read indirectly with its adult literacy program, one-on-one tutoring for adult learners who still have reading deficiencies. Malik helped introduce many of these adults to reading children’s books that they would in turn be able to read to their pre-school aged children. “Kids need to get acquainted with a reading experience early on so that they are on track by the time they go to school,” says Malik.

In general, Malik, a USC graduate who authored a story in the “Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul” series and is a storyteller when she’s not a librarian, believes that the library system is the most important factor to starting kids at this early age. After traveling to underdeveloped countries, Malik saw how not having a public library could hinder a population to gain access to information. “When you see that, you see how much of an advantage it is to have a library in the United States. We can’t lose a library,” says Malik. “If you cut off that flow, that circulation of energy, you don’t allow people to develop themselves.”

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