March 22, 2018

The Advocate's Toolbox

Islands of Adventure | Up Close with Michelle Perera

In just five years, Michelle Perera, assistant director of the Rancho Cucamonga Library (CA), has broken amazing new ground. This Mover & Shaker’s tireless efforts to expand programming, infrastructure, and professional development have garnered her library more than $300,000 in grant funding—and the National Medal for Museum and Library Service. And her plan to build four innovative, museum-style interactive exhibits for children—now trademarked as the Play and Learn Islands—is continuing to be expanded, with the islands being loaned, and sold, to other libraries.

Photo credit: Robert Karatsu and Sean Guerrero.

In this 11th of a dozen planned follow-up interviews with librarians named as Library Journal Movers & Shakers this year, Perera shares with us her inspirations and passions for the profession, and some of the secrets behind Rancho Cucamonga’s recent success.

How did you get your start in library science?
While I was in college, getting my degree in English Literature, I got a part time job at my local public library. My first day was one of trial and error because my supervisor had called in sick, so I was told to work at the reference desk. It was quite the experience—I didn’t know where anything was, I didn’t know the types of questions I would get, and didn’t know how to use the computers or phone. But luck was on my side, and not only did I persevere, but I realized that this is what I wanted to do with my life. I loved working with the community and loved doing reference.

Were you a library fan as a child?
Alas, I was always that kid that was talking to her friends and eating in the library. In the 80s, that was not allowed.  So, my experience, especially during high school, was getting kicked out of the library almost daily for talking and eating candy.  Obviously, it didn’t deter me, but that is probably one reason our libraries are more like community centers than the “sssh” libraries of the 80s.

Children’s librarian Angelica Trummell hypes the audience for one of Rancho Cucamonga Library’s summer reading program kickoff performances.

What was programming like at Rancho Cucamonga before you were appointed assistant director? What were some of your early goals?
I have been at the Rancho Cucamonga Library since we opened in 1994. We have always had a wonderful slate of children’s programs which expanded when we opened our second location in 2006. We currently offer 18 weekly storytimes plus lots of special events. When we opened the Victoria Gardens location—which is part of a multi-use facility that houses a library, 536-seat performing arts theater and events space and all centrally located in a large shopping district—I wanted to develop a series of cultural programs. We offer quarterly cultural arts nights (Hispanic Heritage Night, Black History Night, Asian & Pacific Islander night, Chinese New Year, Local History Night, etc.) that bring in anywhere from 300 to 900 people. It really has become a family night out, with something for everyone—music, art, dance, crafts, games, storytelling, and more.

It has always been important to me that we offer different kinds of programs, ones that are experiential, educational, and interactive. Some of our signature events, besides the cultural arts nights, are Cookies & Carols (complete with a 150-child choir serenading the participants during the program), Star Wars Day (with about 1500 fans attending), Robot Day (where kids learn about making robots), Superhero Day (with a wide variety of superheroes in attendance), and Hello Kitty Day (to celebrate Hello Kitty’s birthday.  In all these programs, we try and create a fun, immersive experience.

Darth Vader Storytime during Rancho Cucamonga Library’s annual Star Wars Day.

What are you most proud of at Rancho Cucamonga?
There are so many things—an amazing programming lineup (which we publish in an annual calendar), the partnerships and relationships we have created over the years, a supportive community, the staff development program we have created (the Staff Innovation Fund™), and our talented and dedicated staff.  But, what I am most proud of is our National Medal award we won this year. It truly is a testament to everything I have just mentioned—programming, partnerships, and our staff.  Our library winning this award (and receiving it at the White House, from Mrs. Obama) was and is an amazing achievement.

Who do you collaborate the most with there?
Mostly, our fellow city personnel (the city manager’s office on citywide projects, the fire district and planning department on a local history program, the community services department on programming and cultural arts, the animal center on programming.  In addition, I collaborate a lot with other libraries—recently eight libraries across California who are going through our Staff Innovation Fund™ program as well as a myriad of libraries and library personnel through the California Library Association.

Families enjoy potting plants during Rancho Cucamonga Library’s annual Earth Day festival, a partnership between the library and the city’s engineering department.

Can you tell us more about the Play and Learn Islands™?
Our islands arose out of a needs assessment to determine the best use for 14,000 square feet of empty space in one of our libraries. Whereas we didn’t have the money to develop that space due to the downturn in the economy, I wanted to use the needs assessment data (significant interest in interactive exhibits) in both of our libraries. From that, the project was born.

I wanted to create interactive, multi-modal, developmentally age-appropriate exhibits for young children and their families, and pulled our children’s team together to make it happen. When we designed and built the island, it was always our intention to make them available (through a loan process) to other libraries in California, and we received grant funding to do it.

In the last two years, over 35 libraries have borrowed our island and we have orders from 30 libraries who are purchasing an island of their own. We knew that if they would be popular in our libraries, they would probably be popular in many.

Which is the most popular Island? Which is your favorite?
The popularity depends on the day and sometimes the program we are offering. Big Build is always popular with boys because they love to build anything. Discovery Dig is always popular at our outdoor events because kids can dig for fossils or sea life or Terra Cotta Warriors or buried treasure, depending on the event. I think the Healthy island is the most popular because it is a mini farmers market stand that conveys the concept of “from the field to the market to the table.” [It] is super popular right now for the Reading is So Delicious Summer Reading Club. We just finished a new island in partnership with the Rancho Cucamonga Municipal Utility: Renewable Energy. Through colored LED lights, a solar panel, inviting graphics, and toys, it teaches children about the different types of renewable energy. In the future we hope to re-create our IlluminArt island into something more mobile, where light meets art.

Children check out Rancho Cucamonga Library’s IlluminArt Play and Learn Island.

Why did you see the need for these types of interactive activities?
That is what our community really seemed to respond to when offered…we did an extensive needs assessment on interactive learning and activities four years ago and there was an overwhelming response for this. I [and my staff have] studied the value of playing and learning in a child’s life. We have tailored staff days to this topic, visited children’s museums, attended children’s museum conferences, and done quite a bit of research on the topic.

What is next for you and why?
I need to figure out how to leverage successes like the Mover & Shaker award and the National Medal to build out that second floor of the library!  The time is right for our library to expand and as the assistant library director, I need to help figure out how to make that happen.

What do you think are the big issues and challenges in children’s services right now?
I think the state of children’s services right now is promising. There are lots of challenges, of course, like providing programming and services to a changing clientele—balancing high tech and no tech opportunities, staying relevant in a constantly changing environment, competing with a wide array of private opportunities children have, developing mutually lucrative partnerships, etc.  But the children’s librarians I know are motivated and creative, and dedicated to providing quality programming and services. So I am confident we are moving in the right direction.

What do you think children’s services should look like going forward?
Based on my experience here in Rancho Cucamonga, I think children’s services should morph more into family services, providing something for the whole family and encouraging multi-generational use, programming, and services. There seems to be a disconnect sometimes between the parent and child during library programs, so having programs that appeal to the whole family encourages that ever-so-important interaction.

Children enjoy a zumba class among the stacks at Rancho Cucamonga Library during its annual Hispanic Heritage Cultural Arts Night.

What are the best professional development experiences that you have ever had?
I have been fortunate that there have been a few: developing the Staff Innovation Fund™ for my staff and now for several libraries across California (first part is training in grants, project management, marketing and branding, talking to power, and then a dedicated innovation fund to use for special projects); being the program chair for the 2011 California Library Association Conference (it really got me involved with a great organization); and having the Play and Learn Islands™ be so successful and have so many libraries wanting to buy them.

What’s on your career wish list? What would you love to do that you haven’t done yet?
My long-term career goal has always been to make a positive change in my profession, and hopefully through projects like the Play and Learn Islands™ and Staff Innovation Fund™, through teaching for several years at San Jose State’s MLIS program, and through my work with the California Library Association, I hope I am making steps towards that.

Karyn M. Peterson About Karyn M. Peterson

Karyn M. Peterson ( is a former News Editor ofSLJ.