By Darlene Donloe
LOS ANGELES — Skye Patrick, the director of the Los Angeles County Library system, has had a personal relationship with libraries for most of her life.
She talks affectionately about her tenure in that industry, a clear indication of just how much libraries have significantly influenced her life.
When she was younger, the Lansing, Michigan, native and avid reader said, the library environment brought her joy and comfort and most of all, a sense of safety.
“I absolutely did the downtown library of Lansing when I was younger,” said Patrick, a married mother of one. “I would walk there. It was a haven for me. It was a place I could imagine and read, and participate in — or not. I would find myself in a corner with my favorite book series, drift away and not be bothered by anybody. I could be there for hours. My home life was so wreaked of havoc. It was a place I felt safe in. A place where I could explore the world beyond Lansing, Michigan.”
Patrick is the first African American to hold the county library director position, a designation she has held since 2016 and doesn’t take lightly.
“I think it means we have a long way to go,” said Patrick, who received a graduate degree from the University of Pittsburgh and a doctorate from UCLA. “I’m grateful to be the first African-American person who holds this position. I hope I won’t be the last. I’ve been able to open a door that wasn’t open before.”
Because she’s “a first,” Patrick feels a sense of responsibility.
“In some ways I think, I’ve hung my profession hat on being an advocate for equity,” she said. “I have leveraged the space I hold here professionally to advance equity work. Yes, I feel a sense of responsibility because there were people who came before me who made sure someone like me could step into a leadership role.”
In her leadership role, Patrick leads one of the largest public library systems in the country.
The county operates 85 community libraries, a 15-vehicle mobile fleet and three bookmobiles in the unincorporated areas and in 49 of the county’s 88 cities. The library serves 3.4 million residents, offering a collection of more than five million items.
Patrick also manages the library’s $200 million annual budget.
Prior to coming to Los Angeles, Patrick helmed the large Broward County Library system in Florida, which contains 38 branch locations and circulates more than 10.5 million items annually. She made her way west because she thought she was the right person for the L.A. job.
“I’d like to believe the job wanted me more than I wanted it,” said Patrick, who also had a leadership role at the Queens Public Library in New York and San Francisco Public Library before moving to Florida. “I had some trepidation because it’s so big. It’s huge.”
When she took the reins in 2016, Patrick had a lot on her agenda.
“There are lots of things I wanted to do,” she said. “The first was to get to know each of my communities to the degree I could. I spent six months to a year going to 85 locations so I could get a sense of the community and its needs. Then I did a visioning session. I brought three communities from supervisorial districts to get feedback about what they wanted.”
Patrick said what she brought to the table when she became the director was “trying to understand the community.”
“Another thing I hung my hat on is the matter of equity, diversity and inclusion,” she said. “I add another letter to that, j for justice. Which makes it a Jedi. I believe in equity. We are able to achieve it. Dedicating time, energy and resources to making an equitable environment for people. I also wanted to push the agenda of innovation so all of us are library lovers.”
In addition, Patrick said she wanted “to be open more and to have more resources for the community.”
“I’d like to have more service hours,” she said. “Not everybody works 9-5. So I would ideally like us to support those folks. Many people are blue collar and other collars.”
Over the years Patrick has come to realize libraries are more than books.
“There are centering programs and resource centers,” she said. “I want our staff to think outside the box about bringing programming to our base.”
One library within the system that Patrick calls “a jewel,” is the A.C. Bilbrew Library and the Black Resource Center.
“My predecessors are responsible for the creation of the Black Resource Center,” Patrick said. “We have four resource centers. The Black one has been here since the 70s. It’s been around a really long time. It’s important culturally.”
Patrick said the Black Resource Center is important for its collections, and the research ability it has, and that the same goes for resource centers in the Chicano, American Indian, and Asian communities.
“We live in a wonderful microcosm,” she said. “They are critical to uplift and shine a light on cultural differences. The things that make us different make us all important. I don’t take any credit for that. It was all in place when I got here. The A.C. Bilbrew is a tiny jewel.”
Over three decades, Patrick has worked in various capacities at libraries nationwide.
“I still don’t know how it all started,” Patrick said. “Life is always changing. It’s a constant evolution. I looked up and realized I had been working in libraries my whole life.”
That’s when, Patrick said, she had a moment of reflection.
“I realized I had worked in the high school library, the college library, and libraries in Baltimore,” she said. “Life kept evolving and my position evolved. I was promoted to other positions. I worked with all facets of the library. I consider that a privilege.
“It was never intentional for me,” she added. “I was planning to run off and join the circus. What I learned is that I could do all the things I was interested in within the library.”
One of those things was to become a truck driver.
“The dream I had for myself when I was really young, was to become a truck driver,” Patrick said. “In my small minutia of a life, I saw truck drivers being the people who could go anywhere and explore anything. Coal or mining companies were close by during that time.
“Big semis were going back and forth. They got to travel all over the world – I was 6 or 7 at the time. The vantage point for me was to see the world by being a truck driver. Those were the people who got to travel.”
For a brief moment, Patrick did have a life outside of libraries.
“At one time, I was heavily into film and video,” Patrick said. “I was into the arts and music, and retail. When I was younger I worked at Burger King, McDonald’s, Meijer, waited tables, worked in a convenience store, and taught for a while. I tried to be a teacher. I taught basic music. I coded. I’ve had a very full career. Everything I mentioned I can do in the library.”
For Patrick, the library opens the imagination — literally and figuratively.
“It has the ability to open doors, the books, history, collections, DVDs, and the streaming services,” she said. “It could also be more literal in that you can reserve study rooms, participate in STEAM or work-ready programs, and utilize our veteran centers. You can check out the California State Park passes. Build your skill set. Do it all by imagination.”
Darlene Donloe is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers who covers South Los Angeles. She can be reached at email@example.com.