The final weeks of MaryLou Lia’s 43 years as the librarian at St. Cyril of Jerusalem School in Encino have been winding down, and — for the most part — so is she.

“Excuse my dirty hands but I’ve been doing inventory,” Lia explained during a recent visit to her well-kept classroom of wall-to-wall bookcases.

Agile with her barcode scanner, Lia had been logging book titles that populate the popular fiction section, catching up on work after missing six weeks to mend a surgically repaired broken elbow. She took it as another signal that it was time to slow down, be at home in nearby Tarzana with her retired husband, and just come back to the school for visits as needed.

By her latest count, Lia estimated she had about 5,000 books in circulation for the school’s 200-plus students. Keeping track of them is much different now than when she started, yet she developed a hybrid way of doing things. Not far from two large Apple computer screens, she still has the wooden card catalog file near the entrance, a relic she has kept since she agreed with the late Sister Claire Patrice, the school’s principal and a Sister of St. Joseph, to come to St. Cyril after a stint as a part-time volunteer librarian at nearby Our Lady of Grace School in Encino.

Lia sorts books on the shelves of St. Cyril’s library. (Tom Hoffarth)

Since Lia’s daughter, Roseanne, and her son, Robert, had been going to Our Lady of Grace, Lia said she had a natural inclination for a mom to jump in and help.

“For me, volunteering was a natural thing to do,” said Lia. “They had some parents fix up a really nice new library and I did the organizing of the books. There was no budget for a salary, so I did it because I loved it.”

As her daughter graduated from eighth grade, Lia got an inquiry from St. Cyril before the start of the 1980-81 school year asking about her availability.

“I had to be honest with the principal — I don’t have a degree in this field,” said Lia, who worked on Wall Street before moving to Southern California with her husband in the early 1970s.

Lia wasn’t sure if she’d be a good fit. But Sister Claire’s persistence got her to say yes.

“Libraries have always been my thing, even working back in New York.” Getting the job, Lia said, “was a dream come true.”

Lia’s children became part of the school family, too: Her son came along as a sixth-grade student at St. Cyril before attending nearby Crespi Carmelite High School. Later, her daughter would send her three sons to St. Cyril. Lia’s oldest grandson is now 20 years old, a graduate of Loyola High School in Los Angeles.

“We all treasured seeing MaryLou with her grandkids and watching her giving them the right amount of guidance and independence,” said Angelica Pugliese, principal at St. Cyril for the last 12 years. “She was always about letting the kids explore. If they picked a book and didn’t like it, she said, ‘Just put it on my desk and get another one.’ She wasn’t restricted to the transactional part of it.”

A big part of Lia’s staying power, Pugliese believes, has been her willingness to pinch hit in other roles, from Pre-K recess supervisor to 7th-grade substitute teacher. “She could always zero in on a task and see the big picture as well.”

As a tribute to the beloved librarian, the modest space next to the school’s main office will be renamed in Lia’s honor, Pugliese revealed.

Despite advances in cataloging technology, Lia has kept the original wooden box card file she brought to the library when she started at St. Cyril’s four decades ago. (Tom Hoffarth)

Despite concerns about children’s increased dependency on screens, Lia senses that “since the pandemic, students are reading again and a lot of that could be, especially with the younger ones, that the parents have been reading to them and keeping them engaged with books.”

At a time when grade-school-age kids are almost born as “digital natives,” Lia has focused on reminding students that schoolwork topics can be researched without using a computer screen, and that the library has those resources. As an exercise, Lia often gave students scavenger-hunt sort of projects — topic quilts, she called them — to search out a subject and then track down books related to it. An old-school Google search, of sorts.

“It’s about organizing their brains and realizing there are other ways to find information, and you can do that through having fun,” said Lia, sitting on one of the pint-sized chairs at the library’s scaled down round table. “The library is still a place to go from a classroom as a treat, or a reward, and it can be exciting, especially for the little ones. You try to teach them the love of reading and exploring.”

Children’s interests in the library, she reported, haven’t changed much over the years: the fantasy and fiction categories remain popular, especially Harry Potter. Girls still love horses, and boys still love sports.

From a faith perspective, Lia has been able to point out how subjects such as science and math have rooted connections to saints who were teachers, making them worthy of biography projects.

“Not so much the saints on a pedestal, but ones like St. Francis, or Mother Teresa, who show some modern faith values in the real world,” said Lia. “There are so many new wonderful books about the concept of Easter and Christmas that update language in how children read now.”

What will Lia miss the most about the job?

“Just the joy of coming here,” she said with a smile. “I’ve heard recently talk in some schools about bringing back libraries after they had let them go. Maybe the children really miss it. You have to look at the bigger picture.

“I think when you work in a school like this and see a need, it has to be part of your soul to jump in and help. But you know, time marches on, and hopefully kids keep reading.”