“Books are a uniquely portable magic,” to quote the illustrious Stephen King. Carl Sagan continues the notion: “Books break the shackles of time, proof that humans can work magic.”
If that’s all true, then Ashley Abrams is Glinda the Good Witch of the canyon, dispensing knowledge, entertainment, and enchantments every day of the week.
She is a lot like Topanga, and everything a good librarian should be, possessing a calming presence nuanced by curiosity and creativity. You might know her as the pleasant voice on the telephone, arranging book pick ups during Covid lockdown; perhaps you recognize her signature fashion, as she is usually found in a curated vintage dress.
Perhaps you are meeting her for the first time through this article. Whatever the case, since 2019 this community library manager has made our corner of the literary world a welcoming place.
Let’s start by getting one thing straight—you will not be able to pin Ms. Abrams down on her all-time favorite book. “There’s just too many books out there… Non-fiction and children’s stories, those are the genres I love. People are missing out if they don’t read those,” she says.
She does pay homage to Sarah Vowell, author of humor infused historical books. Vowell was a frequent guest on The Daily Show, a political satire television episodic, which is where Abrams first became acquainted with her. The programming was of special interest to Abrams, as she herself was a political science major at CSUN, where she received her bachelor’s degree.
A Northridge native, she dreamed of being in local government, in a career that would make a difference. While an undergrad, Abrams got a job at the library. “I always wanted to do something to help people,” she says, “I saw how the library helped people at a different level, providing information, and the resources to access that information.”
Though she had initially seen politics as the most effective inroad, Abrams ultimately decided her role as change-maker was best fulfilled at the library. She has been working in libraries since 2008.
“I used to write the names of all new book arrivals on Post-it notes, and eventually I had those everywhere-all over my car and all over my house,” she says. “Books I intended to read. When I retire, I’ll get around to them all!”
After working with the privately held Valencia library in the city of Santa Clarita, Abrams was hired back by the county in 2016 at the Lancaster branch in Antelope Valley. 2019 brought a promotion, as she took the helm at the Topanga library.
I asked Abrams about the Covid pandemic, which struck less than a year after she arrived. “We had to connect in a really different way than we had before,” she said. “Our library became the site of food pick up for those experiencing food scarcity. It was rewarding to connect with people at that otherwise distressing time.”
Abrams is determined to make up for the time lost while the library was closed. She says she hopes that through community outreach and increased awareness of everything the library has to offer, more people will be walking through the front doors.
“It’s nice to work somewhere that feels like a close knit community,” she says. “We look out for each other and take care of each other.”
Though this is the smallest library she has been employed at, her stints at bigger establishments inform her work now. She helped run pilot programs, (such as The Source, a monthly pop up resource fair for unhoused individuals). She knows libraries are more than just places to borrow reading material. The Topanga library is part of the Los Angeles County library system. It serves as an election polling place, a designated cooling station when temperatures soar, a host for book releases and author talks, a place for elementary children to receive tutoring or attend a summer program. It’s a workspace for those who need a quiet conference room, free Wi-Fi, or a printing station. The Topanga library was specifically chosen to offer laptop kits for check out as part of a work ready program, complete with built-in hotspot.
In my childhood library, I remember small paper cards housed in wooden cabinets, and the librarian stamping the due date on each book I checked out. Long gone are those days, replaced with intuitive online self checkout stations. Like everything else in life, the library has gone digital. One such development championed by LA county Supervisor Lyndsey Horvath, is the books unbanned digital card. It was created in response to a June 2023 motion from the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors as part of an effort to support young people without access to certain banned books.
LA County Library’s website explains, “Books Unbanned initiative offers free and unrestricted access to the Library’s entire digital eBook and audiobook collection on Libby, by OverDrive, which includes many frequently-banned titles. The Books Unbanned card allows 5 check outs at a time and is valid for one year.”
Another perk of being a library card holder? The California State Library Parks Pass program provides free vehicle day use at over 200 participating state park locations.
And though it’s come to an end for the season, I would be remiss not to mention the library’s fantastic summer reading program, replete with challenges and prizes for all ages.
So plentiful are the innovative programs and services offered, the LA County library system was recognized as one of eight recipients of the 2023 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries that make significant and exceptional contributions to their communities. The award was presented by First Lady Jill Biden in Washington DC, and was a feather in the cap of all LA County libraries, including the Topanga branch, which serve such a complex and diverse community.
Like many of you, I have my disaster ‘go bag’ packed, and I reserve space inside of it for the friends I cannot leave behind, my books.
If you love books too, please make your way to 122 N. Topanga Canyon Boulevard; Abrams will be happy to outfit you with a library card and some recommendations.
To get a head start, here are some books she and fellow library staffers suggest.
Children’s Picture Books
- Oh, Olive! – Lian Cho
- A Book for Bear – Ellen Ramsey
- Princess Puffybottom and Darryl – Susin Nielsen
Graphic Novels (middle grade)
- Meesh the Bad Demon – Michelle Lam
- Mexikid – Pedro Martin
- Shakti – SJ Sindu
- The Art of Magic – Hannah Voskuil
- When You Trap a Tiger – Tae Keller
- Red, White, and Whole – Rajani LaRocca
- The Wager: A Tale of Shipwreck, Mutiny and Murder – David Grann
- The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life and Legacy of Frances Perkins, Social Security, Unemployment Insurance – Kirstin Downey
- Palaces for the People: How Social Infrastructure Can Help Fight Inequality, Polarization, and the Decline of Civic Life – Eric Klinenberg
Mark Twain suggests that in a good book room you feel in some mysterious way that you are absorbing the wisdom contained in all the books, without even opening them. Such is the sense of wonder I get when standing among our local library shelves, and I know I’m not alone. I routinely watch parents lead their kiddos by the hand to a comfy pint-sized reading chair; I witness impromptu neighborhood gatherings on the front patio; I hear the chatter between Friends of the Library book sellers and people just discovering the dollar book cart and volunteer run store. I especially love seeing patrons engrossed in a story, barely daring to breathe as they immerse themselves in the pages of a good read. Truly, there is comfort and a little bit of magic in that.