When Governor Jerry Brown nominated journalist Greg Lucas, as state librarian there was an immediate backlash from some in the library community. They charged that Lucas was unqualified for the job. However, in this corner, Brown’s nomination is an inspired choice. Lucas will bring uncommon insight and a fresh perspective to the job.

greg lucasLucas served as reporter and Sacramento bureau chief for the San Francisco Chronicle for two decades. More recently, he continued writing about politics as both a reporter and political satirist on his website California’s Capitol.

Not all reaction from the library community to Lucas’s nomination was negative. Gary Kurutz, Special Collections Principal Librarian Emeritus, told me, “I think having a veteran wordsmith and a person experienced in public relations will get out the message of the vital importance of the State Library.”

I asked Greg Lucas for his insights into the job of state librarian. Below are his answers to my questions.

What in your experience could help in performing the job as state librarian?

I’ve been writing the first draft of California history for 30 years. I appreciate and value the role libraries and archives play in preserving and presenting that history in ways that inform the decisions we make today. Over those 30 years I’ve developed unique relationships with lawmakers and decision makers at the Capitol and around the state. Together, I think we can articulate what a 21st Century library is and should become and then invest the time and money to make that happen.

What is your vision for the job of state librarian?

A major goal is to get more people to understand, as Harry Truman says, “the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.” Gov. Brown has a passion for California history – maybe because his family is such a big part of it – but whatever the reason he gets that wherever we’re going as a state is rooted in where we come from and that past mistakes can’t be taken back but can and should be taken to heart so they aren’t repeated.

In the immediate future, my primary focus is approval of the governor’s $2.25 million budget proposal to link public libraries to the not-for-profit Corporation for Education Network Initiatives in California who members already include UC, the state university system, California’s community colleges and public schools. A needs assessment done by the State Library finds that 70 percent of California’s nearly 1,200 public libraries have connectivity that is more limited than the typical American home. That hurts a lot of Californians in libraries all over the state, particularly in underserved communities and rural areas, who receive vital information through those connections like job applications, tax forms and medical information.

Longer term, I’d like more of the state’s treasures to be experienced by more Californians. Maybe that’s through traveling exhibits or a bigger digital presence on the Internet or both. Like I said earlier there needs to be greater commitment to maintaining the vitality of this multi-billion-dollar network of “civics centers” or “community family rooms” or whatever you want to call them.

How do you respond to some of the reported negative comments from some in the library community that you are not a trained librarian and therefore not a qualified candidate for the job?

I’m focusing on doing my best at the job at hand. California and its state library are full of top drawer, hard-working librarians that are passionate about what they do and the people they serve. I recognize and appreciate that – even without as deep an understanding of the technical aspects of their work. That said, I’ve applied to San José State’s masters program in library sciences because gaining more knowledge does nothing but help me carry out my job even better.

You’re the reporting pro; let me know what I should have asked, then supply the answer. 

I think many people would be surprised to learn about our service to the blind and visually impaired. The Braille and Talking Book Library has 1 million items in its collection, including movies, newspapers and magazines as well as books. More than 600,000 items circulate annually.  The State Library directly operates the program in Northern California and contracts with the Braille Institute to cover Southern California. We work with the Library of Congress, boosting the number of available titles. Last fall, an app was added to allow direct downloading of braille and audio books on iPods, iPhones and iPads. Also new within the last six months is a Facebook page. The timeline goes back to the Braille and Talking Book Library’s founding on December 25, 1904

Do you pledge not to mess with or hide the Joel Fox collection in the library? (Yes there is one, recently being assembled.) Forget it, I don’t believe in pledges either!

There’s a special state-of-the-art exhibit space being built for it as we speak.

In truth, I’m eager to see the collection and more eager to hear you tell me about it. I wish more of the Californians who’ve entrusted their papers and memorabilia to the state were still around to, first, thank for their gifts and, second, get to know better. I’d give anything to chat with Gov. George Pardee, a Teddy Roosevelt Republican, who later created the Progressive Party of Hiram Johnson fame. Pardee was the first governor to live in the mansion on H St. and coordinated relief efforts for San Francisco after the ’06 quake. No media tours of the devastation to show he was on the case. He just hunkered down in Oakland where reliable telegraph service ended, made telephone calls, wrote letters and sent telegrams around the world to ensure that everything that could be ferried across the bay to help the stricken city got sent as quickly as possible. Pardee is also the only governor who was a physician. He’d grab his black bag off a table in the mansion’s front hall and make house calls.