Commuter Math Matters at Topanga Library

After four years of a stimulating, fruitful relationship with Community Library Manager Oleg Kagan, Topangans wondered who could replace him.

He attended meetings and championed programs initiated by library patrons. Or, he created his own, such as the Russian Literature reading group and a series of programs on space exploration. He had become a visible part of town life and often took his lunch at the Waterlily Café, where he’d put down an open book to converse with a local. His kindness and expansive curiosity created an air of ease at the library, where everyone felt welcomed.

Just one reason Topanga loved Oleg Kagan. Photo by Kim Zanti

It wasn’t surprising that he was selected for the job of Community Engagement Coordinator for all Los Angeles County Libraries, which includes 87 community libraries, serving 3.4 million residents on a $201 million annual budget. Kagan introduced his successor Catherine Seneris in February of this year at the Topanga Town Council meeting. She expressed interest in getting to know people, and the transition seemed to bode well for the future.

By May, Ms. Seneris was gone and Topangans were left shaking their heads. What happened? North County Regional Administrator Gladstone Bucknor said in an e-mail that “[L.A. County] had a time-sensitive service need at Library Headquarters as part of a multi-million-dollar grant partnership with the Department of Mental Health, and Catherine is currently filling the role of Department of Mental Health Outreach Librarian.”
It’s good to know that this position exists and that residents of our region can benefit from her new focus. But what does this mean for Topanga Library?

The search for a new manager, or CLM, is a lengthy process according to Barbara Custen, Assistant Director of Los Angeles County Libraries. She retires this month, after 43 years as a librarian, 10 of those years in the County. She spoke fondly over the phone about Topanga as a “serene, peaceful place” and recognized that Kagan’s were unique shoes to fill.

She said that the county maintains an objective recruitment process that begins with an internal pool of candidates. County librarians are categorized into a five-level (1–5) pay scale. Librarians at levels 2–5 are eligible to apply for a CLM position. Sometimes, when a position posts internally, she said, the County is “inundated” with applications. Sometimes, not. Topanga falls in the second category. Ms. Custen cautioned that Topangans shouldn’t take that personally, because the reason that it takes a long time to find the right match is the commute.

“When you get off the freeway,” she said, “you still have a long way to go.”

So let’s look at this: the drive to work for Mr. Kagan was a moderate traverse, with the option of an ocean view, from Mar Vista to Topanga. Ms. Seneris drove to Topanga from Covina, roughly 50 miles one way. Near rush hour, the ho-hum drive could turn into a soul-crushing, multiple freeway gauntlet, especially for a four- or five-day workweek. Considering that her previous four posts were within a 10- to 20-mile radius of her home, the drive might have stunned her into a new awareness of urban sprawl.

The commute mathematics matter, as Custen noted, in selecting the person who will set the tone for both staff and public. Regarding the hiring process, Custen said, “We don’t set people up for failure.” A long commute isn’t necessarily a problem at the outset, if the person behind the wheel is game. It’s only in the doing that reality gets close enough to see its potential for crazy making.

What this means for Topanga is that it will be at least a couple of more months for the County to complete the internal vetting. If an ideal candidate isn’t found, the position will post publicly. Ms. Custen could not attach a time frame to the process, since it all depends on who applies. If the position goes public, the pool of applicants broadens.

For example, Malibu Library CLM Melissa Stallings lives in Agoura Hills. She used to work at the Glendale Public Library, outside the L.A. County system. When the Malibu position opened, she found herself with a new commute, sans freeways, through the Santa Monica Mountains. She travels a little further on some days to Topanga, where she shares management of the library with CLM Julie Frieze from Westlake Village. Over the past six months, the two libraries have served, on average, about 240 patrons a month. For the same length of time, Topanga Library averages about 151 patrons per month.*

Malibu Library Manager Melissa Stallings (left)is one of two interim Managers for Topanga Library, here with Adult and Teen Librarian Craig Fischer, and Children’s Librarian Meredith Sires who keep the literary flame burning. Photo by Kim Zanti

While the search continues for a CLM who welcomes a manageable commute to a mountain town out of the fray of the metropolis, Children’s Librarian Meredith Sires makes her section of the library a must visit for young readers. Adult and Teen Librarian Craig Fischer ensures that shelves are stocked with current books, videos, and magazines. A full schedule of July programs all suggest that free, public programming continues to be an important service at Topanga Library.

Seneris followed Oleg Kagan as Topanga’s third Community Library Manager. Chase McMunn established the position when the library opened in January 2012.
Meanwhile, Barbara Custen is open to hearing from the community with questions and/or a wish list of qualities sought in the ideal candidate. The deadline to e-mail her is Friday, August 17 at BCusten@library.lacounty.gov.

*CORRECTION: According to Gladstone Bucknor, Regional Administrator of the North County, the 240 and 151 numbers for Westlake Village, Malibu and Topanga are daily patron visit averages.

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