Julie Robinson remembers the first thing Irene H. Ruiz ever said to her: "How long will you stay at my library?" Robinson's answer: "Until they tell me I'm going somewhere else." Now, eight years later, Robinson has built a reputation for her branch as a unifying force in the community it serves.
After moving to Kansas City from California, Robinson worked as assistant manger and children's librarian at North-East. After five and a half months, she was asked to fill in as interim manager at the Irene H. Ruiz Biblioteca de las Americas. The branch had seen three managers come and go in the past three years - hence the skepticism on the part of the building's namesake.
One of Robinson's favorite memories is of the day in 2006 when the Ruiz Branch dedicated its portrait of Mrs. Ruiz, painted by local artist Bob Walkenhorst. Mrs. Ruiz had just been named the first woman "Hero of the Year" by Primitivo Garcia Elementary School, and people flocked to Robinson's branch to show support.
"We had never had anything that showed who she was, just the name of the branch," Robinson remembers. "We had a lot of people come who had known her for many years, as well as Library people. It was a truly great moment."
Irene H. Ruiz served first as a teacher, then as a librarian from 1976-1996, beginning at a time when the Library was tied to the school district. As the librarian at West High School, she developed the Latino-dominated neighborhood's first Spanish-language collection.
She also recorded a series of oral histories of the Westside neighborhood - stories told by first-generation immigrants. A consummate community builder, Ruiz is one of the few Hispanic females in the country to have a public building named after her.
And Robinson is more than following her example.
From changing the entire tone of the branch through bi-weekly teen lock-ins (which were so popular when they began in 2007 that incident reports dropped to three in a single year as teens put on their best behavior); to helping build the Back-to-School Pep Rally into the Library's single biggest Outreach event; to sowing the seeds of Switzer Neighborhood Farm; to working with Public Affairs to nurture a relationship between the Library and the Consulate of Mexico in Kansas City; Robinson has made her branch into an active hub for the entire Westside.
"Being accepted by the community has been a real achievement," Robinson says. "I don't speak fluent Spanish, and yet the community has always accepted me as being one of them, as being a Westsider."
Help Robinson celebrate the Ruiz Branch's 10 years of service on Friday, September 30, at 6 p.m., with a musical showcase featuring the Alta Vista Middle School Mariachi Band and the Solis Family Band. Refreshments will be provided, and tours of the newly remodeled library will be given.
And don't be surprised if you see Mrs. Ruiz herself in the stacks.