Q&A: Checking in With Ingleside Librarian Catherine Starr

The head of the small but mighty branch talks about Ingleside's multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational community.

Ingleside Branch Library Manager Catherine Starr in the library's courty. | Anne Marie Kristoff/Ingleside Light

With thousands of books, low-priced printing and ample outdoor seating, the neighborhood’s library is open for any reader’s needs.

San Francisco Public Library’s Ingleside Branch first opened in 1925. Despite several moves throughout the neighborhood and limited service during the pandemic, the branch has remained a community. During its 2021-2022 fiscal year, they saw 54,248 visitors with 518 people becoming registered patrons.

“I strongly believe that when patrons walk through our doors, the question should be ‘How can I help you right where you are right now,’” Branch Manager Catherine Starr said. “This requires slowing down, active listening and asking the right kinds of questions. Our staff is good at this, in my opinion, and I continuously work to grow staff’s collective effectuality here.”

With support from her parents, who were educators and social activist Catholics, Starr has always had a passion for books, learning and providing service to others so when the opportunity arose for her to take the next step in her career, she was eager to accept it. Starr has been a librarian for 15 years and has been in her current position for one year.

“I truly love numerous aspects of my work,” Starr said. “Interacting with and supporting this incredible multicultural, multilingual and intergenerational community is one. Another is having the privilege of working with an experienced, dedicated and very talented staff.”

The Ingleside Light caught up with Starr to talk about her role and get more information about the library.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Please tell us about your work.

It's a multi-faceted position to be sure! Along with our Head Tech Lucy, I oversee operations on a day-to-day basis, and I liaise continuously with many departments within our large urban library system. Some major tasks include training new librarians; supervising staff; liaising with community organizations; co-running collections and programming; and taking care of building issues.

Why do you think public libraries are important?

We are important in so many ways. Public libraries play critical roles in communities by providing access to gratis information, resources and borrowable materials. We also promote literacy and education. We support lifelong learning and we function as a gathering space. Very special is the fact that libraries offer a one-of-a-kind opportunity to learn from different cultures around the world. In addition libraries are wonderful places for serendipitously nurturing new interests. For example, this Summer Ingleside patrons discovered passions by building Lego Motorcars, creating iPad Stop Motion Animation films, making handmade miniature books, designing collage candles, learning some Mandarin and taking yoga.

I don't believe there is a replacement for in-person human relating and the library offers a lot of this. We saw how isolated humanity felt during Covid, and sure, texting and Zoom-ing are great but the library really supports “live” interconnectedness. Being together face to face can facilitate more nuanced socio-emotional communication than technology can’t always afford.

Some of the staff of Ingleside Branch Library. | Anne Marie Kristoff/Ingleside Light

What is something the branch struggles with?

We are a sanctuary for all people, and as long as patrons are respecting library protocol, all are welcome. I've encountered patrons who think library staff should be "policing" homelessness in the neighborhood but that's not in line with our mission.

How do you and your team encourage people to come to the library?

We do this via social media and patron e-blasts, by posting multilingual program flyers and by verbally broadcasting our offerings to patrons when they pop in. Kids who are regulars l-o-v-e to check the reference desk for free books, stickers, buttons and scavenger hunts.

Are there any upcoming events our readers ought to know about?

We always have programs on the horizon! Our amazing Youth Librarians offer Toddler Tales storytimes on Sundays, 1:30-2 p.m., and on Mondays, 11:30 a.m. to noon. Summer is the time we really ramp up special programs; we really want patrons to slow down during this season, and to take time for leisure and self-care activities on offer.

Upcoming August programs include a Capoeira workshop, contraption building for kids, a film featuring renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble and more.

During the library’s ¡VIVA! Celebration of Latinx Cultures and Traditions, the Ingleside Branch has the enormous privilege of hosting Bay Area-based Mexican singer-guitarist-social activist Diana Gameros and clarinetist Patrick Wolff. They will be performing on Thursday, Sept. 14, at 5 p.m.

How can people support the library?

Please visit our branch where you can peruse our fabulous collection, check out materials and attend our programs. I also recommend you get to know the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library, a nonprofit that supports our many free programs.

On staff we have members who speak Chinese, Spanish, Vietnamese, Italian and English, which is quite something. Come see us!

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