John Szabo, MILS ’92

Some four million people in Los Angeles are pretty thankful that John Szabo’s father was a bowler. For that matter, so is John Szabo. 

Photo credit: LA Public Library

Why would the City Librarian of this library that serves the largest population in the U.S., with 73 locations and a $183 million budget, be thankful his father bowled?

Because that’s how Szabo (MILS ’92) met what would be his life’s passion: the public library – specifically, in this case, the public library in Montgomery, Alabama, Szabo’s home town.

“My father was in a bowling league and would drop me off at the community library when I was a young teen,” Szabo says. “I loved that environment, the happenstance of being able to find something interesting on the shelf. I was also fascinated with the mechanics of how the library worked. 

“Some kids dream of being an astronaut or operating a dump truck. For me, I wanted to be behind that desk.” 

That library likely felt a lot like home, too. George Szabo was in the U.S. Air Force, so the family moved a lot when John was a young child. John’s mother, Jule, died when he was just 10 – and he was an only child. Hanging out at the library filled a lot of needs for Szabo – which, he will tell anyone who will listen, is exactly what libraries should do. More on that later.

At 16 years old, Szabo applied for a job at that library. Not long after that, he worked at the University of Alabama library, where he was a student, the Tuscaloosa Public Library and other libraries. 

“I liked the environment of the library; I liked the people who worked there,” Szabo says. “I probably didn’t know it at the time, but there’s a certain value set of those working in libraries: serving everyone—treating poor folks the same as rich folks. The library is a place that welcomes all.”

Like most young people, Szabo meandered a bit on his path to public library leadership. As an undergraduate, he was a telecommunications and film major. But as he considered a graduate degree, while working at that local public library, “that’s when I decided this was going to be my career.”

Szabo chose U-M over several other schools – and is as thankful for that decision as for that bowling alley. He fell in love with U-M – the diversity, the work ethic and a fellowship for serving as Head Librarian in the East Quad residence hall library. 

After earning his degree, Szabo served as director of public libraries in Robinson, IL: Palm Harbor and Clearwater, FL; and Atlanta-Fulton, GA. He gained a reputation as a major innovator, always keeping in mind that the library is for the people. 

He has taken that philosophy to new heights in L.A. since his arrival in 2012. The Los Angeles Public Library now has programs to help people become citizens, open small businesses, get vision tests and glasses, and of course, learn to read. Other programs offer lap-sit story times for babies, virtual reality programs for teens, health care and financial resources, and much more.

Perhaps most groundbreaking is the library’s Career Online High School program. The first of its kind in the nation, this fully accredited online high school program has been replicated in more than 50 libraries. 

“This is not a G.E.D.,” Szabo emphasizes. “This is for adults 19 and older. To date, we have had 170 graduates, and 299 are enrolled now. We hold graduation ceremonies here at the library, complete with caps and gowns.”  There is no shortage of cheers – or tears, he says. 

All of this is about workforce development and lifelong learning, Szabo says.

He and the L.A. Public Library have received due recognition for these innovations. In 2015, the library received the nation’s highest honor in the field, the National Medal for Museum and Library Service, for its success in meeting the social, cultural and educational needs of its residents.

The award was given by then-First Lady Michelle Obama during a ceremony at the White House. Szabo was required to bring with him one person – among those 4 million – served by his library system, a difficult task.

Szabo chose Sergio Sanchez, an immigrant from Mexico, who saw a sign on the Wilshire Branch Library window that offered citizenship help. Sanchez and his wife, Francisca, became citizens, and then both used the library to advance their careers. 

The best part of his White House experience, Szabo says, “is how proud I was of our country where an immigrant could become a citizen, and end up at the White House.” All through the local public library. 

Libraries are dynamic, and while they continue to evolve, the public library is still a gateway – and the friendly front door, as Szabo learned as a youth. The homeless come, Szabo says, “for the respect they may not always get elsewhere.” Shut-in seniors come in for friendly conversation; other patrons come in for what they can’t get elsewhere – at least not for free and with such a warm smile.

“I think most people now know that their branch library is the center of their community,” Szabo says. 

“I’m lucky. I have a wonderful job, and have all of these inspiring experiences I get to enjoy so frequently. I’m lucky to be in a profession I still love, and that I believe in now more than ever.”

 Sheryl James, UMSI PR Specialist