Crossing the border for hard-to-find books
Wilsonville Public Library Outreach Coordinator Deborah Gitlitz talks about the Guadalajara International Book Fair with an air of wistful excitement.
She revels in the eclectic variety of books in Spanish and other languages, the cultural performances, the parades, the activities for children and the sheer magnitude of the event.
But Gitlitz doesn't primarily attend the event for pleasure. She's there to bring Spanish books that are scantily available in America to the Wilsonville Library and help other Oregon librarians do the same.
"I feel lucky to attend in a way that helps my community and also get exposed to this marvel," Gitlitz says. "It's really extraordinary."
Gitlitz has long had an affinity for Mexican culture. Her father and stepmom retired there and she has spent many vacations camping and traveling through the mountains in the central part of the country. And once she became a librarian, she began to figure out ways to connect her love for books and Mexico.
"It's this intersection of Latin America and children's books and my innate passion to connect people with books in a joyful way," she says. "This seemed like a good way to do that."
Gitlitz first attended the book fair, which features thousands of books from publishers across the world and especially Central and South America, while working for Multnomah County Library in 2006. Since then, she has attended many more times, including the last three years collecting books for the Wilsonville Library.
"It's fun to be immersed in a world where people are really excited about books and in a different way than we are at the library," she says.
When Gitlitz was hired as the library's outreach coordinator in 2015, she noticed that while the library had some books in Spanish, the collection was limited and some of the items were dated.
"They (library staff) were definitely paying attention but it wasn't super informed or wasn't a focus for the library," she says.
Gitlitz says a scarcity of Spanish books isn't a unique problem to the Wilsonville Library and is to a certain extent outside of its control.
In her assessment, many American libraries struggle to garner a satisfactory assortment of Spanish books because Latin American publishers often don't have the infrastructure to send thousands of books to the United States and that American publishers are skeptical that there is a sizable market for Spanish books.
As a result, Gitlitz says: "If you want to get them you have to go there (to Spanish-speaking countries)."
While at the book fair, Gitlitz tries to find books in Spanish about dinosaurs, firefighters and other topics children are often interested in, books that complement school curriculum, graphic novels and up to date nonfiction books about how to start a business, file for a divorce and other popular topics. And she says the books could be useful for native Spanish speakers and those learning Spanish as a second language alike.
While she enjoys reading all children's books, she's often struck by the differing cultural norms and larger emphasis
on magical realism in books from Central and South America.
"One of the goals in our collection is to make sure we have books that mirror a child's experience and books that are windows into a totally different experience," Gitlitz says.
And she says the library's collection of books in Spanish has improved since she jumped aboard.
"I would say we have more materials, more up to date materials, more culturally appropriate (materials) to the Spanish speaking and Latino communities in Wilsonville, greater variety and shinier, more fun," Gitlitz says.
Gitlitz, however, isn't yet sure if the additions to the Spanish collection have led to improved use of the library among Spanish speakers. She says she tries to advertise the collection at the many community events she attends in her role as outreach coordinator and is excited for the library to soon add better signage to hopefully lure more people to peruse the collection.
"A lot of times people are like 'What, you have Spanish books at the library?'" Gitlitz says. "I think we are very much building an awareness in the community that that is a resource that exists."
Along with buying books for the Wilsonville Library, Gitlitz founded Libros For Oregon, a statewide consortium that helps Oregon libraries attain books from the Guadalajara book fair. Each library involved with the program sends the selection committee a list of the kinds of books they need and Gitlitz and committee members who travel to Guadalajara do their best to purchase the requisite items. 2018 was the first year Libros For Oregon functioned as a subcommittee of the Round Table of the Oregon Library Association, which is dedicated to serving Spanish speaker and Latinos. Gitlitz says 16 Oregon libraries have participated in the program so far.
"Not only did the purchases from FIL (the Guadalajara book fair) breathe new life into our collection, but monitoring the collection since their introduction has helped our selectors determine what subject areas and topics to continue to watch for and collect on an ongoing basis," says Kirsten Brodbeck-Kenney, the Lincoln City Driftwood Library Director, on the Libros for Oregon website.
According to the 2010 United States census, the latino or Hispanic population in Wilsonville was 13.1 percent and Gitlitz thinks that number could rise to 20 percent in the near future. She's proud of the work the library has done to provide material for those populations and hopes it continues to treat minority groups like important members of the Wilsonville community.
"I feel like the library is on a really good track and I would like to see that continue," Gitlitz says.