California State Librarian Greg Lucas has a daunting daily to-do list: managing the main research and information hub for all things pertaining to the Golden State’s illustrious history and heritage. It’s a tough job that is equal parts administrator, historian and educator. But anyone who spends any time around him knows Lucas is up to the task. A highly regarded former journalist, Lucas covered the Capitol for various dailies for over 25 years, giving him both a unique insight into the machinations of state government and a deep appreciation for the role California has played in shaping the America we know today. I sat down with him recently to talk about the job, his former life as a Capitol scribe and the reasons why every aspiring writer needs a good library.
Open Mic: How huge of a shift was it for you to go from the daily grind of chronicling politicians to caretaking all this wonderment of California history?
Lucas: As with every job I’ve had in my working career, at the beginning I was kind of too stupid to know how stupid I was. And there’s an education process that happens. What helped me here was that I spent 25 years asking questions. So that was easy. I didn’t mind asking how things work and that sort of thing. But in terms of understanding both the mechanics and the strategy behind preserving things and making them more accessible, that’s something that happened over time. Was I overwhelmed? No, because I was too stupid to know how stupid I was.
Open Mic: How much of that journalism background did you bring into this? Was it helpful or unhelpful?
Lucas: Because there is so much that the state library does, this job can be almost whatever you want it to be. One of the things I loved about being a reporter is that there is something new every day, and it can be like that here as well. Some days it’s the internal part of running the state library and other times it’s pushing the money out into local public libraries and seeing what innovative stuff they can do. For example, earlier this year we did a program with Oculus Rift where we put 100 virtual reality stations into public libraries. There are 1,100 libraries in California, the most of any state, and we focused the program to the extent that we could on lesser served communities where we felt this could be really transformative for kids and families that wouldn’t otherwise have access to this technology. I was giving a speech in Monterey recently and the mayor of Coalinga came up to me and said having those stations was the most amazing thing ever. They are a lower income community, and with those devices kids can do things they’ve never been able to do before. They put on the goggles and all of a sudden they are walking in Yosemite as opposed to just seeing it in Google Maps. So to your question, it fills the same sort of thing for me, in part because now I know I know so little. It’s like going to a legislative hearing where I don’t know anything about the issue. By the end of the day I’ve got to figure out enough to summarize it for somebody else and get them to feel like they need to pay attention and that the issue has some relevance to their life. That still happens here a lot for me in this job.
Open Mic: Do you get to do much writing anymore in this job?
Lucas: We have a blog but we haven’t really put energy and effort into that. We’re putting up a new website and so there’s going to be more of that kind of writing, which I think I would enjoy. A lot of my writing now is trying to write a budget memo that convinces someone to give us money.
Open Mic: You use to do all kinds of fun freelance work, great restaurant reviews and the like. Do you get to do anymore freelance work or did they said you have to give up everything?
Lucas: When I got appointed to this job I committed to the administration that I would get a master’s degree in information sciences. It’s not required – state law only says the state librarian has to have at least some training as a librarian – but I’ve been working on that degree for the last three years, which takes a lot of time. In the sense that I come home, have dinner and go online and do library school until the 11:00 news, it doesn’t leave a lot of time for other stuff.
Open Mic: You mentioned the VR stuff, which is really cool. What other kinds of offerings do our libraries have that should interest writers, particularly those who might be most interested in historical fiction?
Lucas: There is a whole range of stuff available to writers and aspiring writers in public libraries. Let’s say you want to write a screenplay. Well okay, there are lots of books that tell you how to write a screenplay. Or you’ve got a great novel idea but can’t write a lick, there’s a book on character development. For California-centric writers looking to write historical fiction, there are scores of stories and manuscripts and books by California authors, and there are so many more terrific California stories small and large that still haven’t been told. As Harry Truman said, the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know. Here at the State Library we’re of course California-centric, but our offerings are not just about the past. We’re also very much about how California sees itself and how it is seen by others. We have thousands of manuscripts here, and we’re about a hundred paces from the archives so if you don’t like what we’ve got on the shelves you can walk over there and access so much more.
Open Mic: I’m fascinated by oral histories. My friend and colleague Lou Cannon just did one with Ronald Reagan’s former legislative director George Steffes for Capitol Weekly, which I found to be really interesting.
Lucas: That conversation, just parenthetically, came about through a grant from the State Library to Open California to do exactly that; oral histories that are more engaging to a 21st century audience. They also put a strong emphasis on the interviewer because the value of that interview is significantly increased by, for example, having the go-to Reagan biographer be the on talking to Reagan’s legislative secretary. Not that he would, but let’s say Steffes tried to BS Lou Cannon about Reagan. Lou is going to know and be able to challenge him on that. Similarly, we did one in that program where 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman interviewed [California prison health care receiver] Judge Thelton Henderson. So those interviews are just night and day from so many of the older oral histories where it’s clear the interviewer was someone who spent lot of time researching this person but who has no real interviewing chops. You read those transcripts and the questions seemed aimed more at proving they did the work to research the person being interviewed than getting good answers. And the answer from the politician or the policy maker ends up being, “uh huh, yeah, that’s right.” Because the interviewer can’t reach the person in there, right? There’s a skill and a gift to interviewing.
Open Mic: Exactly. Writers really need to immerse themselves in the art of the interview because you rarely get repeat opportunities to sit down with a quality source. You could come in with all the knowledge in the world and, as you noted, if you don’t have the skills to extract that knowledge it can still end up a wasted opportunity. What would you recommend to people who are trying to improve their interviewing skills?
Lucas: It wasn’t a conscious strategy, but a thing that emerged for me during my reporting career was talking to people about their family. We talk all the time about how reporters are supposed to be fair and objective, right? But nobody is really objective. It’s about making correct judgement. Everything that happens is a judgement call, right? Who are you going to talk to? What story are you going to write? How long is the story going to be? How much time are you going to devote to the story? It’s all about judgement calls. And so I discovered that one of the great bridges in talking to people is asking about their family. Or finding something that they have done that’s kind of different. For example, when I was hosting a TV show for Capitol Weekly we had California Assemblymember Mark Stone on as a guest. He swam the English Channel when he was 53 years old. That’s a great thing to open an interview to help get things going, and then you can get around to the real work of the interview.
Open Mic: Good tip.
Lucas: Another thing – and I may not be a good role model in this sense – but it used to be a really cool thing if you were working here in Sacramento to have your bosses send you to the big show in Washington D.C. Well, I didn’t want to go to the big show in Washington D.C., and as someone who wanted to stick around here it didn’t do me any good to go out and ambush people. So let’s say you’re interviewing me and I say something stupid. You think that’s a great story and type up something that has the person being stupid and then I never talk to you again. Well, to me that’s a bigger loss than to just say, “Yes, that stupid comment would be cool to write about but the relationship is more important than this one story is ever going to be.”
Open Mic: I grew up practically living at the library. Today Californians access libraries more than almost any other state, but things are very different now. How do people most often access what you have to offer here in this day and age?
Lucas: If the Internet has done anything it has created a multiplicity of pathways to acquire information. You can take vastly different roads to whatever your destination is, and so what’s happening in libraries is people are now accessing our stuff in very different ways. And different Californians use different parts of the library. I didn’t know until I had this job that somewhere on the order of one out of four Californians doesn’t have the Internet at home. And that’s just the average. It gets even more pronounced when you start slicing and dicing it by ethnicity and demographics. For example, as recently as two years ago 40 percent of Latino families had no Internet at home. So let’s say we’re trying to reach the immigrant population by putting this awesome website up about how to become a citizen. They’re not going to see it! You would have better luck reaching them standing in front of a church with a handout that says here are the 10 things you need to do before you want to try and become a citizen. So there’s a whole category of people who are using the services in the library because they don’t have them at home. The people that are on our 23,000 computer terminals are more likely to be lower on the economic ladder, folks who are trying to climb up somewhere and don’t have the tools to do it at home. There’s even a category of people now who are accessing library materials by their phone.
Open Mic: Many people now get their daily news from the Internet and social media. Sadly, both are also filled with a ton of misinformation, which we’ve widely come to call fake news. What role do you see the library having in all of us becoming better consumers of the vast array of information out there?
Lucas: The American Library Association and the California Library Association have talked about that. Can libraries take a greater role in policing the voracity of what appears out there? Certainly there are media publications that work with academic libraries as fact checkers because the data bases that the academic institution have are more robust. But I’m not certain what libraries can do in a real structured way. I don’t know that‘s necessarily the sweet spot for public libraries anyway. A public library can do a lot of stuff, but there’s also a lot of stuff it can’t do. It can onramp you to where you need to go to get what it you’re looking for, but I’m not sure, for example, that if I had a kid that was somewhere on the autism spectrum that I would want a librarian telling me what I should do with my child. That’s not what libraries are supposed to do. They’re supposed to help me find the information so that I can make a judgement. Here’s what I don’t understand; explain to me how come newspapers can’t find an economic model that succeeds on the internet. If we’re living in a world that’s riddled with half-truths and all this crazy stuff, wouldn’t you be willing to pay money to look at something that at least has been copy edited, proof read and read by a second set of eyes and isn’t just Greg’s crazy blog? And to the extent that libraries are places you go for information, a library is more likely to point you towards the most reliable information.
Open Mic: You rely a lot on humor, both in your writing and speaking presentations. Talk to me a little bit about your approach to writing humor.
Lucas: Kurt Vonnegut has a quote where he says “crying and laughter are just different reactions to the same thing, which are the vicissitudes of life.” I’m paraphrasing but he also said he preferred laughing because it doesn’t take as long to clean up afterwards and then you can get back to struggling and striving that much sooner. I’m a firm believer in that, but I don’t know what started it for me. Maybe with my father. He wasn’t a standup comic or anything, but he was funny with a very arid sense of humor. And growing up I was a class clown. So at this point in my life it’s whatever that whole mix of things has become. Often I’ll just try and get the ideas down and if there’s something that happens on the page, that’s cool. But there’s nothing better for me than to come back to something later. I don’t do this, but Carlin used to say he would write his material completely straight to get all the ideas out there and then he would light up a joint, take a couple of hits and then sit down at the typewriter and punch it up.
OpenMic: Good writing is rewriting.
Lucas: Pretty much. Humor is a good tool to get people to pay attention. Again, somebody described Kurt Vonnegut as being a sweet message inside of a bitter pill. So humor can be the exact opposite, right? You can back somebody into something where they don’t want to go necessarily and you can help make it stop with a little bit of humor. Or it can make a connection between people that didn’t exist before
Open Mic: It can also make it worse.
Lucas: Yeah, I’ve done that but I was trying to focus on the positive.
Open Mic: I’ve done that too. Often on social media, where there are definitely times I have to stop myself from allowing the worst of my snarkiness come out. There was a story that I saw a few days ago about a women who has some ailment where she sweats blood and I started to write “I get that every week around deadline time.” Then I realized that was just totally inappropriate. There’s no way to post that without coming across like an asshole.
Lucas: There’s a slogan all the recovery programs used that basically says to pause when agitated, which is always good advice. And it always helps when I’ve written something and then take a break. I come back and look at it again, and maybe it is too far over the OB [out of bounds] marker. Or maybe it’s like when somebody stretches the joke to the point where it’s like, “hey man, you’re working too hard.”
Open Mic: I have a closing tradition here. We’re going to presume for a moment I have the power to put you in a conversation like this with any of the following three people: Jimmy Page, Richard Pryor, or Harper Lee. Tell me who you would pick and why.
Lucas: Jimmy Page, in part because I know the least about him. I didn’t really listen to Led Zeppelin when they were around. It wasn’t what I was into at the time, but over the years I’ve kind of backed into Led Zeppelin through some of the projects Robert Plant has done with people like Allison Krauss and the Sensational Space Shifters group he plays with now. And I’ve learned to play the guitar. Not terribly well, but it was a thing I always wanted to do as a kid and so I finally thought, ‘Hey, what the hell man, this ain’t a dress rehearsal.’ And so I started taking lessons and my teacher for the first two years accused me of being like a three year old kid. He would say “here’s the A minor” and I’m all ‘why is that the minor chord?’ I would be like why, why, why, why, why? And so now when I listen to what’s going on in Led Zeppelin’s music, I have a whole new appreciation. I mean, there’s the thing Robert Plant does that makes Led Zeppelin be Led Zeppelin. But to my ear there are some intricacies to what Jimmy Page is doing there and the way he’ll find a melodic line and then sort of tweak it a little, shift it a little. And then how he would play the two guitars with the two necks on them. I would love to talk to him. And unlike some musicians, he seems eager to talk about it. He just seems sort of…he ain’t no coward, let’s say, and he seems urbane and fun like you could have a nice conversation over dinner or tea. So Jimmy Page for sure.