In a world where not much is free, there aren't many places like the library.
It’s National Library Week, so it seems appropriate to celebrate what libraries offer to their communities, including adult learners!
Leading up to National Library Week, we talked via Zoom and email with two ProLiteracy member library programs to find out firsthand how a library serves its community.
When asked, Allyson Jeffredo, family literacy coordinator at Riverside County Library System, in Riverside, California, barely missed a beat.
“Libraries are still a solid democratic institution in the United States,” she said. “They are totally a space for people to access information, education, or resources in a positive space. Libraries are beautiful in that way for a community.”
Mary Ann Rockwell, Literacy and Assessment Librarian at the Saratoga Springs Public Library, in Saratoga Springs, New York, had a thought along the same lines.
“I feel that libraries are inextricably tied to the system of democracy that we espouse in this country. Ben Franklin was a founding father. Ben Franklin also founded a) the U.S. Postal Service and b) the first public library! And I was reminded of that when I taught a citizenship course—at the library!”
This is important because what is so special about libraries is that they exist for no other reason than to serve their communities.
“Libraries are here for the free and equitable use, to satisfy intellectual—and in my mind, spiritual—needs, and to aid in the quest for self-actualization and to promote the understanding that we are interdependent on each other as a community,” Rockwell said.
"Libraries love to learn what their communities are interested in. Libraries love their communities."
They are a space for everybody—including individuals with limited literacy skills.
Though it might seem counterintuitive, libraries are actually very accessible for someone seeking literacy services, Jeffredo said. Anybody can show up and ask for help, and the library can and will find a way to assist them because, unlike a traditional adult school, it isn’t tied to a set curriculum, she said.
“We always make efforts to meet the student where they can begin to feel successful in gaining whatever literacy skills they are seeking—including those with an eye toward a high school equivalency diploma,” Rockwell said.
And with the seemingly endless materials at their fingertips, they can tailor their instruction around the specific needs of any individual to provide supplemental resources like digital literacy, parenting, or family literacy, Jeffredo said.
“In California we think a lot about quality and we have the advantage to respond to learner needs. We act as a bridge to the community's needs. There is a lot of fluidity in how we do things,” she said. “Someone might come to us and say they want help reading but also conversational skills so they can talk to their child’s teacher, and we say sure! We can do both!”
Because it’s in their nature to serve, both Jeffredo and Rockwell said the shutdowns of the last year have been difficult to watch.
“We lost some good tutors who didn’t feel comfortable teaching remotely. We also lost some students for whom there may have been a digital divide. We said farewell to both students and tutors whose lives were altered somehow by the pandemic,” Rockwell said.
In Riverside, Jeffredo said communication has been the barrier most difficult to overcome and has led to losing some students there, too.
“The biggest challenge during the pause has been that it is already hard to communicate with those people who need literacy services,” she said “They might be low literate or pre-literate and they don’t use the traditional channels of communication. You can’t reach low literate or pre-literate people virtually. We’ve tried to give them a call to keep them engaged, but it just couldn’t be sustained.”
But, in some ways, as the pandemic left everyone looking for something to do, Jeffredo said people in the community, even those who previously did not use the library, began to.
“Through the pause we have become more visible as a space in the community, and awareness has grown.”
As life slowly gets back to normal and restrictions are lifted, there is hope that the library will be back to what Rockwell remembers it as.
“The library is often a place where children are first exposed to the joys of reading through story hour, as well as music and artmaking. It’s a place where teens can safely congregate for games or game-ing and making friends,” Rockwell said. “It’s a site where adults of all ages listen to a presentation, a movie, or live music—or participate in an art project, book discussion, discuss poetry, or play music together. It’s also a place to convene for important community conversations.”
Libraries give their communities so much more than the option to borrow a book. They provide a space, like Jeffredo mentioned, where anything is possible.
Both Jeffredo and Rockwell were asked this question: What would you say to someone who has never been to the library in their community?
Jeffredo: I would say that the library is still one of the few places you can go without paying. Libraries are responsive. If there’s something you’re interested in, ask us. Libraries love to learn what their communities are interested in. Libraries love their communities.
They are also very intergenerational places where people of any age can be at the same time—I don’t know many places like that.
3. It’s about much more than books!
4. I would ask them: What can I help you find? How can I help you learn what you need to find? The library is an “app for that!”