March 22, 2018

The Spirit of Service: An interview with Sandra Ríos Balderrama

Sandra Ríos Balderrama (l.) with  Isabel Espinal (r.), President REFORMA, 2013-2014

Sandra Ríos Balderrama (l.)
with Isabel Espinal (r.), President REFORMA, 2013-2014

REFORMA (National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) presented the first Elizabeth Martinez Lifetime Achievement Award to Sandra Ríos Balderrama at the at the Third Annual Denim and Diamonds Gala, a fundraising event for the REFORMA Educational Foundation, which was held at the 2014 American Library Association (ALA) Conference in Las Vegas. The award is named after one of the founding members of REFORMA, and was established to recognize excellence in librarianship, as well as substantial contributions to REFORMA and the Latino community.

Ríos Balderrama started her library career over 30 years ago in San Benito, CA, as a bookmobile library assistant. Her time as a children’s librarian at Berkeley Public Library and Oakland Public Library inspired her to cofound the Pura Belpré Award in 1996. In 1998, she became ALA’s first Latina Diversity Officer, and carried out Elizabeth Martinez’s (then executive officer of ALA) vision for diversity and multiculturalism in library staff and library collections. In 2002, motivated by her experience at ALA providing librarians from across the country with guidance on recruitment and multicultural collection development, as well as immigration issues, she started her own consulting firm, and continues to advise public and academic libraries in the U.S. and abroad on such topics.

LJ: What does REFORMA’s Elizabeth Martinez Lifetime Achievement Award mean to you?

SRB: It is a [very big deal]. When I got the call, I was so moved because it was such a surprise, and because it’s REFORMA, which I love, and [to which I] have been committed with my heart and soul. And because of Elizabeth Martinez, it was extra special to me.… Elizabeth’s proven record of bringing visions to earth and creating spaces for people and ideas that had not fit elsewhere has always awed, inspired, and moved me. She is my ultimate role model. To receive this award in her name is so very joyful and quite humbling.

What accomplishment are you proudest of in your career?

I’ve been blessed with many diverse library jobs. I would say that the ALA Spectrum Leadership Institutes are a proud accomplishment. The curriculum was culturally infused with indigenous danzantes from Mexico, Africa, and Taiwan; storytelling from library elders; lessons from one of Sitting Bull’s great-grandsons; and heartfelt presentations by librarians of every color. They were powerful! What did they have to do with diversity in librarianship? Everything!

Did you always want to be a librarian, and focus on multiculturalism and outreach?

No. In 1976, when I was a brand new student at UC Berkeley, I met Richard Chabran, and he was the one who really opened my eyes to the power of libraries. He got me a work-study position at a Chicano Studies library. He made an impact on me, showed me this collection of materials by and about Chicanos and Latinos…and he talked to me about being a librarian. But the bookmobile job was the turning point; that’s when I realized I wanted to be a librarian. That particular job impacted on me the idea of access: there were people that couldn’t come to the library because it was too far, or it was too dangerous for the kids to cross the highway. Later, at the South Branch Library in Berkeley, I faced the idea of multiculturalism as head of the multilingual committee and the multicultural committee. Even though I was a new librarian, I kept asking questions, “Why don’t we have more of this? What is the budget for that? How can we increase the budget?” When I was giving story hour, giving book reviews, it felt off balance; you need materials that reflected the children, the patrons.

Why did you decide to branch out on your own?

I began to work with libraries in a different way as diversity officer for ALA. There, you have members from all over [the country] interested in diversity and [knowing] how to recruit more of a diverse workforce, wanting resources, and that was really the beginning of my consulting work. It was an exciting time, very innovative. Though Elizabeth was no longer at ALA by then, I felt so eager to carry on her vision and implement it, be a part of it. You always have to go back to your roots. I like the idea of consulting, sitting down with people, and taking apart, disassembling how their library works, and putting it back together, assembling a process so they can hire a diverse staff, or feel more supported in their efforts.

What would you like to see change/improve in the library outreach that is being done today?

There are many high quality programs going on today, many of them implemented by REFORMistas. We always need improvement in the area of organizational/systemic support of the librarians that provide the direct access, the outreach itself. We need improvement in the area of evaluating and re-evaluating services, since our communities are dynamic and diverse. They can’t be pigeonholed, and they don’t stay the same. They are moving, blending.

What are the most important lessons you’ve learned since your days with the bookmobile?

Outreach principles work inside and outside of the library—library work is all about people, regardless of the technology. And libraries continue to be spaces of discovery and wonder, whether it’s new resources for your research, a first story hour for preschoolers, or finding that comfy corner or table to read the magazine subscription you can no longer afford. Librarians and library workers still facilitate that wonder.

What advice do you have for new librarians considering outreach as their focus?

Outreach, as I define it, is based on “spirit of service.” Regardless of technology and social media, the human voice, touch, curiosity, and compassion are all still required to make a difference and to create social change. Feed your soul and take care of your health. You are needed more than ever. The challenge will be within the library, where you’ll need to create organizational support for your efforts.

If you retired tomorrow, how would you like to be remembered?

I have attempted to retire, but I’m always called back in some way. The issues are so interesting, urgent, and important. I love libraries as spaces and places, librarians and library workers, and, most of all, library users. [I’d like others to think] I was genuine, that I moved with heart and soul to open up libraries, library associations, library schools, in order for people to feel welcomed, to contribute, to exchange their stories and feel the potential of transformation, to become a global citizen where borders and “papers” [legal immigration documents] don’t matter, only the universal drum matters—our shared beating heart.



  1. Eugenia Kuttler says:

    Congratulations Sandra! What a wonderful career!

    Though I have not been in touch, thanks to Ninfa Trejo, I received these news, and I want to tell you that you were very instrumental and supportive in my student time in Berkeley, and I will always appreciated it.

    I the importance you give to human contact, and not letting technology depersonalize the work of librarians.

    You have been –and continue to be– an inspiration to many!


  2. Michael E. Lewis says:

    Sandra, I wanted to tell you how proud I am of you and your steadfast way of handling your career, which I have followed since we met in Oakland when you were with the Library and I was working in HR. Send me an email tell me more.

    Michael E. Lewis