Luis Herrera ended his 40-year career in library services like the closing pages of a good book. With a loving farewell from the biblioteca community, in 2018 he retired as City Librarian overseeing 28 neighborhood libraries in the San Francisco system. Before that, he led libraries in Long Beach, Pasadena and San Diego, and in 2012 was appointed by President Obama to the Institute of Museum and Library Services, where he still helps develop federal policy and fiscal support. Luis lights up when he talks about his career, but as a child this was the farthest thing from his reality.
“I call myself an accidental librarian, because I never imagined myself here,” he smiles.
It was an unlikely career for a boy growing up in El Paso, Texas, as one of eight siblings raised by Mexican immigrants. His father made a living as a master carpenter and his mother was a seamstress. “My parents did very well by us, but they could not afford to send us to college.”
When Luis was 12-years-old, he joined his older sister and her husband on a road trip to the World Fair in New York and Washington D.C., an adventure that sparked in him a whole world of possibilities outside of El Paso. With his penchant for learning, he became the first in his family to go college. Eventually he received a fellowship to attend the University of Arizona for a graduate degree in Library Sciences. “They were looking for more bilingual, bicultural people, because there were very few in the profession that could speak Spanish or serve multicultural communities. That became my forte.”
He met his wife of 27 years, Nancy, at a holiday party in San Diego at the Mayor’s office where she worked. After years working in city government and for non-profit causes, Nancy switched careers, earning her master’s degree in Library Sciences at her husband’s alma mater in Arizona. She’s also earned certificates as a personal trainer and a vegan chef, among other things. “My career is much less linear than my husband’s,” she laughs. “I believe Socrates was right when he said: ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’”
They both agree life in Benicia is well worth living. It’s been like a dream come true since they moved here from Oakland in November. As a retired man, Luis had a bit more time to talk with us than Nancy, but here is what the pair had to say about life and work:
BM: Luis, bring us back to your first jobs as a librarian. What was that like?
LH: My first job was as a middle school librarian in 1977 at my own middle school in El Paso, Texas. It was an amazing experience to work side by side with peers who were once my teachers. I loved it. Then I transitioned into running neighborhood libraries in Long Beach and San Diego. My first directorship was in Pasadena for a decade, and then in San Francisco – which is the envy of many cities because of their support for libraries. I fell into a difficult job. I was able to help bridge a connection with city hall and build the relationship, and I feel proud about that. The whole San Francisco Library System was named Library of the Year in 2018 by Library Journal. I was over the moon because of that.
BM: What do you love about libraries?
LH: What I love about libraries is that they are resilient and smart – amazing organizations in how they adapt with the times and technology. I speak from experience because I started my career when we had card catalogs, and then I saw the transition to microfiche and CD-ROM, and all of the sudden the internet transformed the world as we know it. And now we have e-books and audio books.
Libraries are our community living room, bringing people together in a fragmented time. I always say Libraries are the most democratic public institutions because they welcome all. I think one of the neatest things about libraries now is how much they offer for life-long learning. It’s amazing the level of programming that’s available for people: early literacy, career transitioning, digital world, teaching seniors how to use tablets and email.
BM: Are you concerned about books or libraries becoming obsolete?
LH: Not really. People still love books. I just think that there is something to be said about the printed word and hard copies that will be here for many years. Libraries will be a place for both. A balance between printed and electronic resources, and they can coexist well. We still need physical spaces. Libraries are physical places that bring people together to learn.
BM: What do you foresee in the library world over the next decade?
LH: I’m optimistic about the future of libraries. They will continue to be public spaces for public engagement, even more so than now. I think they need to be radically welcoming. Any good library system will see the need to re-invent themselves constantly. Like a good business. If you don’t reinvent yourself, or adapt, you’re going to be irrelevant. But if you do, you’re going to be more relevant than ever.
BM: What has retirement been like for you so far?
LH: I like to stay involved in civic work and remain a trustee for SFMOMA, Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, and the IMLS. I have been involved for a long time with the Latino Communities Foundation to build capacity in the Latino community. I’m also learning to say no.
I decided when I retired that I would take classes in some art form, but I’ve yet to have time to do it. We are loving the house, landscaping, succulent gardening. We also have three small rescue dogs that are our paw kids. Nancy and I both have large families and are very close with our nieces and nephews. Oh, and I’m a part of a men’s book club. I love novels, but we rotate genres. One of my recent favorites is the non-fiction book Bad Blood. I’m a very slow and deliberate reader.
BM: Tell us about your experience in Benicia so far?
(Nancy jumped in to answer this one.)
NH: There is such a wonderful sense of community. People are so generous and genuine. And the views of Benicia, wow! The mountainside, the whistling of the trains, watching the sailboats and cargo ships go by, the fog horns – it’s therapeutic! And kudos to Parks and Recreation, the parks are so clean. We feel so blessed by our neighbors, they welcomed us right when we moved in. And in December we had carolers, I got teary-eyed. We had been coming here for years to visit. We’d bring friends and spend time walking, having lunch in a café, or by the water. We knew we wanted to live here, but it took us a while to make our dream come true.