Why Rancho Cucamonga’s new library director is very, very, very excited

Julie Sowles, the new library director for Rancho Cucamonga, at the Paul A. Biane Library at Victoria Gardens. Of a library at a mall, she said: “It’s genius. … It’s built-in foot traffic.” (Staff photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)
Julie Sowles, the new library director for Rancho Cucamonga, at the Paul A. Biane Library at Victoria Gardens. Of a library at a mall, she said: “It’s genius. … It’s built-in foot traffic.” (Staff photo by Jennifer Cappuccio Maher/Inland Valley Daily Bulletin/SCNG)

When she and her husband were vacationing at Disneyland seven years ago from the Bay Area, Julie Sowles made a day trip out of visiting the Rancho Cucamonga library.

Apparently the twin libraries and the city did not compare unfavorably to the happiest place on earth.

“It’s such a great town. It’s so beautiful. It’s obviously a city that wants to meet residents’ needs. It’s very cohesive and planned,” Sowles said. She joked that she’s been stalking the library ever since.

The research paid off: Sowles is the city’s new library director, starting May 1. She replaces Michelle Perera, who is now director of Pasadena’s public library.

Sowles is in charge of the Archibald and Biane libraries, their 64 employees and $4.5 million budget.

Let others write about new police and fire chiefs. Give me the librarians.

“I knew by the time I was 10 that I wanted to be a librarian,” Sowles, 47, told me last week in her office on the second floor of the Biane Library, which overlooks the entry courtyard at Victoria Gardens.

“I didn’t go anywhere without a book,” Sowles continued. “My parents could not afford my book habit. I found my kindred spirits in the library. Those are my tribe.”

The cheerful, upbeat Sowles worked for libraries in her native Indiana before moving west to spend 15 years in Pleasanton and then under two years as director in Salem, Oregon.

“Someone calculated we had seven days of sun in seven months,” Sowles said. And the situation in Salem wasn’t sunny in other ways either, with volunteers checking out and shelving books to keep the doors open, Sowles said.

(Rancho Cucamonga’s libraries have plenty of volunteers too, about 350, who give nearly 18,000 hours of service a year, but they tutor students and help with events rather than offer core services.)

Sowles is impressed by what the better-funded Rancho Cucamonga libraries are able to provide: a Back to Basics tutoring program to which students are referred by teachers; aid in applying for passports, some 5,500 per year; a bookmobile that goes to elementary schools to offer books for pleasure reading, not assignments; and cultural events, such as the upcoming Big Read of “The Call of the Wild” and the recent Asian and Pacific Islander Cultural Arts Night.

“One of the very first questions during my interview was, ‘How do you feel about Star Wars?’ ” Sowles related in our chat two days before the library’s 10th annual Star Wars Reads event. “I get it,” Sowles added. “This is very, very important to this community.”

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Events like that give people a positive association with their local library and helps “build community,” Sowles said.

The library has the resources to devote one of its storytimes to children on the autism spectrum. The storytime is less stimulating, without noise and music, and has sensory activities, such as shoe-tying toys, or the chance to touch items, like spaghetti noodles, to feel their texture.

To offer such a program is something the library is “really ahead of the curve on,” Sowles said.

There are those who think libraries are obsolete in the age of the internet. But as Sowles points out, “Libraries haven’t been just about books for a very, very, very long time,” as the above services make clear, and many people can’t afford a digital device or internet access. Libraries also serve as a community space and have book clubs where readers can connect about mysteries, fiction, science fiction and more.

The two libraries get a combined 550,000 visits a year and circulate 950,000 items. The collection of books, magazines, movies, compact discs and more totals 393,000 items.

“Most people want to consume it. They don’t want to own it,” Sowles said of physical media.

That was less true during, say, the height of the DVD era, but in the age of streaming and e-books, maybe having a book or movie on loan is suddenly hip, I suggested.

“It’s a culture shift, not owning things,” Sowles agreed. “It’s something libraries have always been doing anyway.”

Along the same lines, she wonders if Rancho Cucamonga could join the “library of things” movement, where such items as seeds, sewing machines and cake pans could be checked out rather than needing to be bought.

“Libraries are great places to house those things and circulate those things,” Sowles said. She has other ideas too.

Could library-book vending machines akin to Redbox machines be placed in busy locations, like the Metrolink station? Could library materials be delivered, if not to your home, then to a book locker at a park near you, saving you the trip?

“It’s a way of putting us where people are instead of expecting them to come to us,” Sowles said.

Speaking of putting the library where people are, she has nothing but praise for the Biane Library’s location in Victoria Gardens, an out-of-the-box idea that seems to benefit the mall and library both.

“It could only be topped by having a library at Disneyland or next to an aquatics center. It’s genius,” Sowles enthused. “This is what every library dreams of, to be an anchor point at a mecca. It is built-in foot traffic.”

She continued: “Coming to the library can be part of your mall experience. Or they can work the mall into their library experience. It creates an experience instead of an errand.”

Just as when she was a girl, Sowles remains an avid reader, usually digging into three or four books at a time: hardbacks on her nightstand, e-books on her phone and tablet.

“I don’t go anywhere without a book to read,” Sowles said. “I might get bored.”

Call me biased, but I think Rancho Cucamonga made a good hire.

David Allen writes Wednesday, Friday and Sunday and reads daily. Contact dallen@scng.com or 909-483-9339, go to insidesocal.com/davidallen, like davidallencolumnist on Facebook and follow @davidallen909 on Twitter.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This column has been edited to correct the number of employees at the two Rancho Cucamonga libraries.

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David Allen

Reach the author at dallen@scng.com or follow David on Twitter: davidallen909.