Mark McDermott

Librarian Melissa McCollum departs for El Segundo library

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Melissa McCollum, the former community library manager at the Manhattan Beach Library. Photo by Caroline Anderson

by Mark McDermott

More has changed at the Manhattan Beach Library over the last few years than the transformation of the building, itself, from a one-room, fluorescent-lit relic into a multi-level, sunlit 21,500 sq. ft. architectural wonder. The library has become an attraction, and not just because of the building, but what began to happen inside.

Melissa McCollum, a Manhattan Beach resident who became the community manager of the LA County-run library six months after it reopened in mid-2015, took the helm with the intention of reinvigorating the facility’s role in the community.

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“I think the best libraries and librarians are ones who focus on the community, find what they need and deliver whatever they need,” McCollum said at the time.

McCollum’s tenure at the library came to an end two weeks ago. She left to become the director of the El Segundo library. At the May 16 Council meeting, Councilperson David Lesser, who also serves on the LA County Library Commission, said McCollum’s work fulfilled the vision he’d hoped was possible when the new library was first deliberated.

“You really made it the community center so many of us dreamed it would be,” Lesser said. “In terms of the programming… in terms of the dedicated staff, in terms of making a place, people can come, read, enjoy their view and really have the human touch you have provided. Thank you so much. You will really be missed.”

One of McCollum’s goals at the outset was to host more events, and to be creative about it —  to organize events that reflected Manhattan Beach and the people who live here.

The change was immediately noticeable, particularly in the kind of events she did, often in partnership with local independent bookstore, {pages} and the Manhattan Beach Creative Arts Center.  

Ryan McDonald, an Easy Reader reporter who also is a Manhattan Beach native and a nearly lifelong library patron, found himself even increasingly drawn to the library because of the change in programming.

“She kind of epitomized the idea of somehow making libraries more important in the age of the Internet, not less,” he said. “She came on pretty much right away when the new library reopened, and from the get-go had an ambitious slate of events. Some that stand out are the way she involved Manhattan Beach in the countywide ‘Big Read’ program, in which people all over the county read the same book, then gather to talk about it. Last year it was ‘The Maltese Falcon’ and she organized this murder mystery-themed launch party with Dashiell Hammet’s granddaughter. Then she made it part of monthly library book club discussion… She also organized great community events that were only loosely centered around books. For the event surrounding David Byrne’s ‘The Bicycle Diaries,’ she invited the South Bay Bicycle Club to do a safety demonstration, booked a Talking Heads cover band, and found a guy who had a vegan taco ‘truck’ that he lugged around on a bicycle.”

People came, sometimes in droves.  At one event in 2016, when singer Kenny Loggins appeared to read from his book “Footloose,” a line of more than 100 people, some who arrived three hours early, snaked around outside of the library and down the block. Loggins, touched by the response, lead a sing-along of “Danny’s Song” in the library’s large meeting room. More recently, in another event co-organized with {pages}, author and illustrator Thi Bui read from her award-winning illustrated memoir “The Best We Could Do,” about her family’s journey from Vietnam to California, an event followed a week later by a “Book to Action” panel on refugee and immigration issues.

“It is because of Melissa that {pages} and the library started working together on joint literary events for the community,” said Jane Guthrie, a bookseller at {pages}. “The library has that nice big room with the latest technology and {pages} has authors who want to present their new creations.”

Partnering with the Creative Arts Center, McCollum and library staff began hosting “Library Late Nights,” short exhibitions featuring artists talks, music, food and drinks.

The gatherings were always thoughtfully eclectic and of a caliber, residents would previously have needed to drive to downtown Los Angeles to experience. McCollum had borrowed ideas she’d picked up at two previous stops as a librarian, West Hollywood, and Lawndale, but tailored for Manhattan Beach.

“It’s important to not do the same thing in every community, but figure out what the community is looking for at any given time,” McCollum said. “And it’s important to partner with other stakeholders in the community.”

Mayor Amy Howorth praised the inventiveness of McCollum’s programming touch, but also noted that she possessed the perfect skill of a more old school librarian, as well —  the fine art of matching book with reader.

“I would talk to her about books, and she’s recommended books to me,” Howorth said. “I think she’s terrific.”

McCollum, who is from Iowa and obtained her masters from the School of Information at the University of Michigan, moved to Manhattan Beach with her husband in 1999 at the urging of a friend who’d attended a party on the beach here and stayed.

“I was lobbying for San Francisco but he was right,” she said.

Her first job was as an archivist for Toyota. She began her career in public libraries as an audio-visual specialist at the old Manhattan Beach library, then spent seven years managing the Lawndale library and 16 months at the West Hollywood library before returning to take the library’s helm in her adopted hometown.

McCollum said leaving the Manhattan Beach library was a difficult decision, but directing the El Segundo library —  which is its own entity, not part of the 85-library county system — was too good an opportunity to pass up.

“I would have loved to have been here for years,” McCollum said. “One of the things I’ve loved about Manhattan Beach is everybody is supportive of the library, and I’m sincere about that —  from the City Council and staff and the relationship with {pages] and the Downtown Business Association and all the nonprofits in town…

Basically, anyone I’ve ever approached was willing to try to figure out a way to work together and make something great.”

“I wasn’t looking to leave,” she added. “But because the El Segundo director position came open, and El Segundo is a really interesting town, there’s a lot that excites me about working in that community.”

“I am happy for her,” Howorth said. “I would never want to hold someone back from a better job, and this is a really good opportunity for her… She’s done a phenomenal job, and I hope the next [community library manager] continues what she’s started.”

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