April 20, 2018

LJ’s 2011 Paralibrarian of the Year | Gilda Ramos

Spanish Speaking Library Assistant, Patchogue-Medford Library, NY

By John N. Berry III

Mar 1, 2011

Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images

They had to create the right job to bring Gilda Ramos on full time at the Patchogue-Medford Library (PML), NY. The first to be hired in a new civil service category called “Spanish Speaking Library Assistant,” approved in late 2007, Ramos delivers and exemplifies phenomenal library service in that role since stepping into it in January 2008. She combines extraordinary daily contributions to the people of the community with her total belief in the importance of serving others. That has made her invaluable at PML, so much so that she is one of a half-dozen staff primarily responsible for PML winning a 2010 National Medal for Library Service, presented at the White House by First Lady Michelle Obama.

A growing population in New York’s Suffolk County hail from nations like Ecuador, Mexico, and other places where Spanish is spoken. Once the new job description was approved, other libraries in the county began to hire paralibrarians fluent in Spanish.

In the village of Patchogue and hamlet of Medford, on Long Island, Hispanics are now about 30 percent of residents. At the library there, which serves a population of approximately 50,000, Ramos goes way beyond the job description to empower these people in their new country. She is so good at that work, and so dedicated to it, that it a pure pleasure for LJ’s editors to name Gilda Ramos the 2011 LJ Paralibrarian of the Year, an award sponsored by DEMCO, Inc.

Loving languages
Born Gilda Araujo in Lima, Peru, she always loved learning languages. She studied translation and interpreting and became a professional at both. As a teenager, she volunteered to work with an American missionary couple. Their trips to poor, remote villages in Peru gave her the opportunity to practice her English, her interpreting skills, and to develop her incredible talents at working with people of all kinds.

“Spanish is a wonderful language. It is romantic and very intense. When I translate, and especially when I interpret, I always try to be faithful to the original writer or speaker. Spanish carries a lot of emotion. I always try to get at that spice in translation so the reader or listener will get the whole meaning the speaker or writer was trying to convey,” Ramos says with the passion she describes.

She even studied German in Germany for two years, then, 13 years ago, she came to the United States. By then a single mother with a 12-year-old daughter and an eight-year-old son, Ramos ended up working for the Patchogue school district. The staff there noticed her people and language skills and urged her to teach citizenship classes in a 2004 pilot program held at PML. The librarians noticed her, too. She began working for the library part-time as a clerk in 2005, and ultimately PML took over the citizenship program.

More than 50 of Ramos’s students have passed their exams and become U.S. citizens. On the day LJ talked with her, Ramos and Jean Kaleda, her supervisor, had attended the swearing in of another of those new citizens. Ramos, now a U.S. citizen, was deeply moved by the ceremony. There were people from Egypt, India, China, France, Peru, Colombia, Korea, some 41 countries, she reports.

Ramos loves teaching. She holds computer classes in Spanish and teaches English as a Second Language (ESL) and Spanish conversation, and she offers immigrant counseling. She will continue to offer citizenship instruction once renovations at PML are completed.

She works five days a week, with an evening shift on Wednesdays and an occasional Saturday or Sunday. She obviously enjoys those Wednesday evenings. “People come in after work. They are taking English classes and have questions,” she says. “They know I am on duty that night.”

Ramos has just started a new program called “Madres ­Latina” for the Hispanic mothers who come to her in the library. They want to know how to approach teachers, how to help their children cope with their new culture, and how to keep up with all that change themselves. “I had to do that myself,” Ramos remembers.

Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images

A connector
“She lives library. She promotes it away from work, even when she is shopping or in a grocery store. She works all the time,” says Lauren Nichols, PML assistant director, adding, “It is clear that Gilda Ramos deserves this award.”

“Working with our growing Hispanic population, she fields inquiries that make the rest of the staff struggle…. She is Johnny-on-the-spot, an amazing woman!” agrees PML director Dina McNeece Chrils.

“Gilda’s strength is her ability to connect with people in a warm and natural way. Her background and deep education in interpretation and translation are crucial, but you need that other quality, that ability to empathize with people, to listen very well, and to communicate. That sets her apart…. I wish we had ten more like Gilda,” says Kaleda, PML’s coordinator of Spanish-language outreach services. It was Kaleda who pushed to get the new job description through the difficult Suffolk County HR apparatus.

Ramos believes deeply in connecting to others. She provides literacy tools and facilitates English and Spanish conversational groups. She helps all users access a variety of library resources and conducts database training, creates website content, and works the circulation and welcome desks.

Ramos translates library newsletters and other literature for the public, along with school district information.

She often interprets at library meetings and workshops. On her own time, she interprets at community events for elected officials, law enforcement personnel, and community groups. Through those activities, Ramos has helped build incredible relationships between the library and the community.

On a county level, Ramos translated the countywide library catalog, programs, and services into Spanish. This included working with a team of librarians, system administrators, and programmers to provide bilingual access to over eight million people.

“Translating the catalog was long, tedious work, but I thought of it as a way to leave my mark there forever,” says Ramos. “A long time from now people will see and use my work. Many more people can get access to the libraries now. My gift will help generations.”

Mobilized by murder
It was the horrible 2008 murder of Marcelo Lucero, an immigrant from Ecuador, by a gang of local teens that moved the community to greater understanding of its diversity.

Ramos had noticed that people were afraid to attend an evening ESL class. They told her that gangs robbed Latinos, sometimes even riding on bicycles around the library parking lot seeking targets. They said the gangs picked on Latinos because they believed they were all undocumented aliens and would be afraid to call the police. Ramos reported the accounts to her superiors and the police. Just a week later, Lucero was murdered at the train station. Among the community responses, the mayor came to the ESL class, apologized, and promised to take action to make the community safer for all. Finally, the murderers were caught and are now in prison.

When Lucero’s family came from Ecuador to grieve the victim and find out what had happened, Ramos interpreted for them. “It was heartbreaking. He was killed in November, and he had planned to go home in December,” Ramos remembers.

She was also the interpreter at a community meeting at the library called to address the problem. With more security measures in place and Ramos there as a trusted ally, more Latino patrons came to PML. “I was here at the right time,” says Ramos.

According to her colleagues, Ramos does things not for personal gain but because she believes libraries must show the way for people of all backgrounds to live and work together, as a first step to a lasting, sustainable community.

“It is difficult to live in a country where you don’t speak the language. You can’t communicate with anyone,” she says. “You are left out when you are from another country.”

“I’m able to give people a voice. You empower people when you give them the language,” Ramos says. “To truly enjoy this country and all that it has to offer, you need the language and the help of a middleperson. I am that person in the library. It is very gratifying.”

The impact of that work resonates in the community and the profession. “Gilda’s exceptional communication skills, perceptive insight, and desire to inform, educate, and empower those around her make her a truly spectacular paralibrarian,” says Chrils. “All members of the library profession should strive for her standards.”


Two To Watch
This year saw a number of outstanding nominations, and among them the following stood out:

Karen Kelly Library Manager, West Caldwell Public Library, NJ

Maria Lomeli Library Assistant II, Monterey County Free Libraries, Marina, CA


This year marks the renaming of this award from the Paraprofessional of the Year to the Paralibrarian of the Year, in recognition of the inherent professionalism of these talented people. Special thanks to 2010 award winner Allison Sloan for making the case and marshaling support for the name change.

The Paralibrarian of the Year Award is sponsored by DEMCO, Inc., of Madison, WI, which underwrites the $1500 cash prize and a reception to honor the winner at the American Library Association conference in New Orleans, in June. The award recognizes the essential role of paralibrarians in providing excellent library service.

Author Information
John N. Berry III is Editor-at-Large, LJ