April 7, 2020

New Library Manager in Topanga


Our new Community Library Manager speaks of growing up as an immigrant in America, books and his passion for all things library, especially the people.


New Library Manager in Topanga

Oleg Kagan, the new Community LibraryManager, in front of the Library during the Friends of the Topanga Library book sale in June.

When people visit the Topanga Library, they should take time to extend a hearty welcome to its new Community ­Library Manager, Oleg Kagan. He comes well prepared for the job, having earned a Masters in Library and Information Science from UCLA and with considerable experience at other facilities within the County of Los Angeles Public Library system. Kagan was kind enough to answer the Messenger’s questions and provide us information about his life and interests and what his goals are for our Library once he’s settled in.

Topanga Messenger: What is your background?

Oleg Kagan
: I'm 29 and live in Mar Vista (just east of Santa Monica) with my wife, Ashley, also a librarian. My twin brother, Igor, works in the hospitality industry in Denver, CO. I was six when my family arrived in the United States from Kyiv (Kiev), Ukraine.

While Russian was the first language that I learned, my brother and I were speaking fluent English after three months in Los Angeles. For us, adapting was easy. But even after all these years, I still find it quite amazing to think of the hardships my parents, Vladimir and Augustina, went through in immigrating to the United States. They basically gave up their whole lives—decades-long friendships, established careers, a familiar language and culture—to give their children an opportunity for a more fruitful life. It's easy to get desensitized to immigrant stories after reading books and movies documenting common struggles, but I don't think that's ever going to happen to me. I am always aware that I owe my successes to the sacrifices my parents made. When we arrived in the United States, my family lived among many other Soviet Jews in West Hollywood, which is where I spent most of my childhood. Throughout my teenage years I volunteered at the Will & Ariel Durant Branch Library where Senior Librarian Hannah Kramer took me under her wing, ushering me into librarianship.

Later, when my family moved to North Hollywood and I was working as a Sandwich Artist at Subway, I got a call telling me that there was an opening at Durant as a part-time Messenger Clerk (book shelver). I interviewed and got the position where I stayed through undergrad and graduate school, until 2010. It was fitting that Hannah's retirement coincided with my first librarian job with the County of Los Angeles. It was as if she passed her “yea-saying librarian” torch to me.

With the County, I have spent time at the Lancaster, Lomita and, most recently, the West Hollywood Library, where I served as an adult services librarian and volunteer coordinator. While I was still in library school, I also interned at the Moorpark Library, and was part of the Reference Institute with the Los Angeles Public Library, which gave me the opportunity to work at the reference desk of various departments at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles.

Outside of the library, what are your main interests?

I have so many interests that it's hard to narrow them down to main interests. I think that's why librarianship is so appropriate for me. People approach the reference desk with questions about something I know nothing about, and all of a sudden, I have a new interest!

But if I were to put a sign over my head that said, "Talk to me about these," that sign would include poetry, libraries, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and maybe psychology or philosophy. These would all be perfect topics to discuss with me in short or at length. But if none of those suits, it would work just as well to talk about something completely unknown to me.

How did you come to be so much in love with books?

From my earliest years, books were a source of enlightenment and entertainment. They were stories you could hold and little packets of knowledge. Every week, my brother and I would go to the library and before we checked our books out, our father would look at what we were reading.

Because he made sure our reading was well-rounded, I spent time reading books about history, exotic places and fascinating people, in addition to the novels I would ordinarily read.

I remember being so excited by the possibilities in those books that I'd make myself nauseous by reading in the car because I couldn't wait until we got home. I love books because of their potential.

If my mind were a powder keg, books would be the spark.

When did you start reading and what were some of your most memorable books from a young age?

I don't know when I began to read independently, but I do know that I can't remember a time when my brother and I weren't reading or being read to. In my early semi-literate years the most memorable books were in Russian—I know now that the stories of both “Karlsson-on-the-Roof” and “Ferda the Ant” were translated into Russian, but what kid cares about that kind of stuff? Those two and others were my “Spongebob Squarepants” and “Greg Heffley.” In English, I got through probably all of the Berenstain Bear books. Dr. Seuss, Louis Sachar, and Beverly Cleary, among others were names I could always depend on. Thinking back, I distinctly remember being affected by the illustrations in “Charlotte's Web” and always getting hungry after reading “Bread and Jam for Frances.” When I got older I read a lot of sports fiction, primarily Matt Christopher and Thomas J. Dygard. I can recall going to the Beverly Hills Library to do research on Jacques Cousteau and finding Matt Christopher books that I hadn't read. What a thrill that was!

About how many books do you have in your house and have you read them all? What kind of books predominate: fiction, nonfiction, political or is it a mix?

Oh, wow, I never counted. There are several full shelves not counting the books stacked on the floor. I have definitely not read them all. Considering the speed at which I acquire books, I doubt that I ever will. As for kinds, there are no political books unless you count “The Penguin Guide to the United States Constitution.” Of novels, I have mostly classics; of non-fiction there's a mix of literary theory and philosophy, books about libraries, and lots of poetry.

I also collect books by and about American author Sherwood Anderson, former UCLA librarian Lawrence Clark Powell, and I have a small collection of books about printing in California. My wife has a beautiful collection of children's books, which are, on the whole, a lot more fun to read than most of the books mentioned above.

What turned you on to Library Science?

The library part. While I enjoyed diving into all sorts of interesting academic subjects in library school, it was all just a sneaky way to get to work in a library. And while I love books, I think people are at least two times better. Thus, a public library is an ideal place for me; I feel lucky to have been able to serve so many good people in my various assignments.

What is your impression of Topanga so far?

Everyone has been asking me this question and I repeat the same thing: The Canyon is beautiful and the people are really friendly. The most important thing I've noticed, though, is how involved the residents of Topanga are in creating a sense of community; though Topanga is only minutes from Malibu and Woodland Hills, it is truly its own Place. That's something you don't see everywhere, and I'm proud to be a part of it.

Have you had a chance to experience life in Topanga, i.e. programs or events outside of the Library?

My wife and I saw Lear at the Theatricum recently and loved it. It's one of my favorite Shakespeare plays and the production certainly did it justice.

Do you have any ideas for what kind of programs you would like to implement in Topanga or is it still too early to tell?

Well, as promised initially, I have been mostly listening in regard to what programs I should introduce. It's been several months now and I have compiled a fairly lengthy list, which I keep in the drafts folder of my e-mail and frequently update. I'm not going to run down that whole list here, but I will let a few things slip: By request, I'm starting a Russian Literature Reading Group whose first meeting will be on August 9 at 11 a.m. I just had a meeting about the future of the Topanga Authors Group, which I'm pretty excited about; we're planning on having author panels, workshops and other events of interest to both readers and writers. Beyond that, the sky's the limit...speaking of sky, perhaps a Star Party might be fun.

You are still at the beginning of your career, what's next?

While I have some thoughts on the topic, I try not to get too far ahead of myself. Right now I'm just starting here in Topanga so that's where my focus is. I aim to do my best to be a credit to the community through the library service my staff and I provide.

For more information contact the Los Angeles County Library, 122 N. Topanga Canyon Blvd, Topanga, CA 90290. (310) 455-3480, Oleg Kagan, Manager, okagan@library.lacounty.gov. Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-8 p.m., Friday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Sunday 1-5 p.m., closed Mondays and all major County holidays.