In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, when California was under shelter-in-place orders, the literacy coordinators from the California Library Literacy Services (CLLS) were unable to provide services beyond just sending books to learners’ homes.
It was a time of uncertainty, and no one knew when they would resume in-person classes or how they would be able to make meaningful connections with students.
Then Natalie Cole at the state library sent an email to library literacy coordinators throughout all of California. It was an open invitation to meet and brainstorm how they could encourage connections between tutors and students.
“We all met online voluntarily,” said Alisa Adams, literacy coordinator at Sonoma County Library. “And what I recall most is that we naturally talked about missing the people—the tutors and learners—who were in the programs and worrying about them and wanting to connect with them.”
As they talked, they realized that people needed a place to process and share what it was like going through the early days of the pandemic and the fear they were feeling. They came up with the idea of creating an online space for learners and tutors to write about and reflect on their experiences and thoughts about this time.
Knowing what they wanted to do, the next step was figuring out the logistics. They would need writing prompts, templates, and a way for students and tutors to submit their work. This led to the creation of the CLLS COVID Diaries website which became a one-stop shop for tutors and students to connect and work together to create original writing pieces in an easy-to-use format.
Submissions poured in from tutors, learners, and program staff up and down the state.
“One of the beautiful things about this project is it showed that people can connect in other ways. Not just with their tutor. Not just in a library space. Not just with learners in their own program. But it connected the tutors and learners and programs throughout the entire state as part of this broader community,” said Carrie Scott, community outreach supervisor at Carlsbad City Library.
The writing varied in type, length, skill level, and tone. Some participants’ submissions were very raw, while others were lighthearted about a funny thing they remembered. Some were one sentence and others were many paragraphs.
No matter what, one thing was clear: All were important.
“Adult literacy writing is like a genre in and of itself. If, [as an adult learner], you have time in the day and the skill level to write anything, then whatever you write is going to be very important. It’s going to be something that you want to communicate,” said Amy Prevedel, a consultant who managed a Literacy Initiatives grant to fund the project.
The submissions were so good they knew they had to share them. What resulted is an anthology book of all the writing they collected as part of the COVID Diaries project.
Every detail of creating a book out of these submissions was carefully thought out. What they didn’t want was a book of learner writings that would just sit on someone’s shelf. What they did want was a finished product that was beautiful to look at and would act as a passport to personal reflection and a wider understanding of adult literacy learning in California.
The 208-page anthology itself is small, so the writing on the page feels heavy no matter how long or short it is. Prompts and questions are included throughout to encourage readers to write down their own ideas. The cover shows an image of poppies because poppies are resilient and they self-seed to come back every year, just as adult learners are resilient. And the title—All That Is Essential—represents the book’s overall theme.
“When you strip away all the things that this pandemic has stripped away, what remains is what’s essential. And I feel like that’s what people wrote about,” Prevedel said.
The final anthology is something the group hopes the learners, tutors, and literacy staff who contributed can feel proud to show their families and friends. There’s also a sense of pride among the literacy coordinators whose group effort brought the idea to life.
“It was the right time, and the right people, and the right enthusiasm, and a definite need that allowed this project to come about,” said Chelsea Genack Eggli, literacy coordinator at Oceanside Public Library and who also built the COVID Diaries website for CLLS.
“Something else I think is pretty cool is that once Natalie [Cole] shared the idea with the state librarian, he loved it and thought it was super cool. So, it developed beyond just [California Libraries] Literacy Services, and it grew into something larger and became a statewide archive,” Genack Eggli said.
In fact, the California State Library developed its own COVID Diaries site to collect submissions from anyone in California to build the archive. The writings from learners and tutors are included, meaning their voices will forever be a part of the larger voice of California.
Scott said this is something she thought about quite a bit as the book was being published.
“I kept thinking, my goodness, if literacy programs did not exist, these voices would not be heard—on a greater level, not just during the pandemic. I kept thinking about the impact of literacy programs,” she said. “Giving learners this opportunity to share their thoughts made me think about what it would be like if we didn’t have these programs and we didn’t hear these voices. Oh my gosh, what would we be missing out on? ... Look at who we’d be missing, who would be left out, who’s not at the table, and who’s not being heard.”
A few pages from All That is Essential
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