In late 2015 across Ventura, flyers for punk rock shows started appearing, taped to streetlight poles and in record stores. There were brief invites on Facebook. The news spread, heard in passing at this market or that gas station. The venue? It was hiding in plain sight: the unassuming 132-capacity Topping Room, named for late county librarian Elizabeth Russell Topping, at the 95-year-old E.P. Foster Library. Just as quickly as those first few shows were set up, a few rules were set forth by the organizers: clean up after yourself. Don’t give anyone any trouble. Let this place be something for everyone to express themselves without getting shut down. This is a library. Behave yourselves.
The cost to rent the room for events? $25. The effects of the Topping Room on local Ventura creativity?
To quote the Thesaurus: invaluable, vital, and, of course -- priceless.
Over the last six months, it has become a venue not just for the live actions advertised on those first brash street placards -- but a place for everything from talks to meetings and poetry readings to convocations of the Friends of California Condors Wild & Free and the California Native Plant Society. It’s a welcome relief from years of reduced library hours, the closing of the H.P. Wright Library across town and general overall funding cuts to the Ventura County Library System. As a catalyst for involvement, the Topping Room has been shepherded into its new realm of multi-subjectival greatness by city librarian Deya Terrafranca. An energetic yet necessarily even-keeled person who’s been with the library since August of last year, she stresses the crucial underlying aspect of the library: community. “One of the things about our library system is that libraries are about community,” she says, adding, “And creating space where community can come together. It’s for community members who want to present (events) but don’t have $100 to spend on a meeting place. We have the ability to provide this space. That’s the motivation behind keeping the cost of the room down.”
Despite her role as city librarian, she’s not the only one in charge of arranging the events. “We have a bunch of people behind the scenes. David Harrington is one of our library techs and he works on our adult programming,” she reveals, explaining the process more fully. “Anyone can log on to our website and fill out the room request form. All we ask for them to do is to agree that whatever event they’re having will be free and open to the public. That is the one important clause.” Not only is the all-ages punk and indie music scene blossoming under the roof of the Topping, but the local ukulele community has also found a home there. “David secured a grant to start our ukulele lending program and it grew into the program that now happens in the Topping Room every second and fourth Monday,” Terrafranca says. “Our ukulele blowout in August had ukulele players come up from all over Ventura County, and even Santa Barbara and L.A. Counties, and we had over 75 people here taking ukulele workshop classes,” she beams, with no small amount of satisfaction.
Not only has the scope of the Topping Room’s uses increased, but so has the frequency of those uses. “The number of events that the public holds in the Topping Room is double what it was in 2010,” she reveals, running down a bit of quick history. “In 2012, the library greatly increased the number of library-sponsored events. It’s my belief that this increase in events, in conjunction with increased advertising of the events, has brought more people into the Topping Room and increased the public’s awareness of the space.” With all of the programs happening lately, you’d think there’d be a long waiting list to use the space, but, as she explains, “One thing that we do is that we have to be able to plan library events and use that space. We only take reservations within 60 days of an event. We don’t tend to run into too many problems.”
Are there things that she’s produced herself at the Topping of which she’s particularly proud? “Recently, we had the Ventura County Poetry Out Loud Competition -- and the room was just full of teenagers and parents and other librarians who came to listen to the young people of Ventura County reciting poetry. The room was full! That kind of event -- particularly for the young people of Ventura County -- I love to be able to do that.”
What would seminal E.P. Foster Librarian Elizabeth Topping make of what’s going on in her room? “I really think that any librarian is always just really happy to see people meeting up and sharing information,” Terrafranca says. “And that includes their music. People getting together and talking about their community; people sharing their expertise. The amount of community participation is something that Elizabeth would be ecstatic about. Pretty much any librarian would be, too!” she laughs.
She says the program's style could potentially spread to the other libraries in the county library system. “There are other meeting rooms throughout our system,” she explains, continuing, “We have one at the Avenue Library; they’re working on a community room at Prueter Library over in Port Hueneme, and I believe there’s going to be a meeting room at the Ojai Library as well. I think what’s interesting about the Topping Room is that it can be used and accessed from the outside -- you don’t have to come through the library.” Is that part of what’s helped the Topping become the touchstone for the community that it’s become? Modestly, she says, “I think that that has created a unique blend of programs and groups in that space.”
She understands the somewhat ironic notion that there’s loud music coming out of the library. “Live music of all kinds has been happening in the library for years. The Topping Room is a venue that is open to all ages and has hosted cello players from the San Francisco Symphony, Opera Santa Barbara, and local punk and rock bands. Libraries make programs of all types available to the public and having the public an active part of the creation of events and use of the space is exactly what we love to see. I think it’s really great that we have young people bringing in their music,” she enthuses. “That’s one thing that I really love to see. I think that 20 years ago, people would be very surprised at that -- but libraries have been changing and finding their place in the community, and they really are a community resource. And if the community wants loud music, then the library gets to reflect that.”