By Reggie Peralta
Downtown Santa Ana has become a hub for the arts and culture, thanks in no small part to the numerous galleries, shops, and other places for creatives to congregate that have cropped up in recent years. Yet, just outside the periphery of DTSA is another space where the creatively-inclined can gather: the Santa Ana Public Library. Located on 26 Civic Center Plaza, the library is within walking distance of downtown proper and also accessible via parking in the neighboring structure. Also referred to as the Main Library to distinguish it from the city’s other library on Newhope Street, SAPL offers a quieter, more laid-back alternative to the hustle and bustle of DTSA, which I was able to see for myself during my recent trip there. I hadn’t been to the library in ages but by remarkable coincidence, my friend, Angie Velazquez, happens to work there, so I was able to not only interview her about it, but got a tour of the place as well. It was a fun, but informative visit, with her sharing both background and insight as she guided me through this storied building.
Established in 1960, SAPL was actually the second facility built by the city for its public library system. Tasked with designing the building were architects Francis Keally and Harold Gimeno, the latter of whom also designed the Grand Gimeno event venue in Old Towne Orange. Angie observed that Gimeno’s role was significant for the time, noting that “It was kind of rare for a Hispanic to take over such an important project specifically, like a public library, here in Santa Ana.” With the tremendous strides in political and social equality that this country has made since Gimeno’s time, it’s still appropriate to look back and appreciate the role of people like him in helping shape the character of our city. And like Santa Ana itself, the library has undergone many periods of change and growth since its opening half a century ago. With the world having advanced from analog to digital, for example, it now allows patrons to apply for library cards or peruse their catalog online and offers patrons the chance to check out Chromebook laptops alongside books. Despite all the technological advances and social changes happening around it, the library has remained a safe, steady presence for residents to visit.
"And like Santa Ana itself, the library has undergone many periods of change and growth since its opening half a century ago."
And what a presence it is. Divided into two floors, the library boasts a sizable main floor with row upon row of books, computer stations, and a dedicated children’s section, as well as a balcony that connects to conference and study rooms and gives one a scenic view of the rest of the library. There’s also a basement that serves as a teen space, where older youths can hang out and play arcade games or watch movies. Outside the children’s section is a patio, which features a play structure for kids to climb, as well as outdoor reading space. Greeting guests before they enter the building is a statue of Alex Odeh, a Palestinian poet and activist who lived in Santa Ana and was murdered by the extremist Jewish Defense League. Supporting the structure’s facade are several block-style pillars that, as Angie pointed out, give it a Greco-Roman feel. “Both architects were actually really, really fond of Greek architecture, and they loved traveling,” she said, with the builders even transporting material directly from Europe to construct the columns. Angie also revealed that the library had stained glass windows back in the 60s and 70s, a cultural influence that likely hit closer to home for Santaneros who grew up in the church.
Playing as important a role in cultivating education and culture as it does, the library has brought fond memories to many Santa Ana residents. I myself remember going to a storytime event with my family as a kid, where we got to pick books from their collection and have them read aloud, discussing the content afterwards. I also recall returning when I was older to check out video tapes (remember those?) of old Twilight Zone episodes and Stanley Kramer’s classic comedy, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World (with the latter coming in one of those two-cassette sets that extra long movies required). Angie, on the other hand, had a somewhat different background with SAPL prior to working there, with her saying that she first started coming to the library to find books for her college classes. “I was still not sure where to go for books — I did not want to buy them — so I remember someone was like ‘Well, there’s always the Library of Santa Ana’,” she explained, adding that she was “impressed” by the size and design of the facility during her initial visit. This combination of invaluable services and aesthetic appeal plays no small role in drawing Santaneros to the library.
"Well, there's always the Library of Santa Ana".
Also drawing residents are the various programs that SAPL offers, with different services being offered in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. Storytime events remain a family-friendly staple, with ones hosted by drag queens added to programming within the past few years. Tutoring is available for students from kindergarten through high school, while adults who wish to earn their high school diploma have the opportunity to through the Career Online High School program. Additionally, there’s a resource center for veterans, with health, housing, and legal services among the resources that veterans can be connected with. Outside of traditional library services, SAPL has also hosted art and photography exhibits, such as “Here, Our Voices: Our Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples Movement,” a series by Isleta Pueblo Indian photographer, Nicole Merton, that seeks to raise awareness on that issue. Specifically for the teen space, Angie teased a number of upcoming events, like Thursday book clubs and a music workshop held on Wednesdays. “You just show up and you grab an instrument and you jam out,” she said of the latter. “If you want to learn a particular song, you just tell the teacher and then he’ll teach you one-on-one how to play it.” In short, there’s something for everyone and every age at SAPL.
Yet, all this barely scrapes the surface of the library. Historians and hobbyists looking to learn more about Santa Ana have an invaluable resource in the form of the History Room, a special section of the building dedicated to gathering photos, maps, and records that document the history of the city and its people. Families have another option for recreation with the library’s monthly Movie Night series, and writers like Jayne Allen and Santa Ana’s own Marytza K. Rubio have visited as part of its Author Hour series. The thread running through all these projects and events is community, with each working in some way to bring different people with different backgrounds and different interests together in one place. In this sense, SAPL really does embody the diverse spirit of Santa Ana, uniting young and old, book lovers and movie fans, the studious and the curious across all demographics through its eclectic programming. There’s plenty of space, of course, for those who prefer a quieter, more traditional library experience, but if you’re looking to bond with new friends over literature and the arts, then the Santa Ana Public Library is the place for you.
A Santa Ana native, Reggie Peralta's writing has been featured on HonorSociety.org, The Frida Cinema, and The Grindhouse Cinema Database.
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