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Thursday, June 5, 2008

Successful Outreach is Key!

Those working with Spanish-speaking communities may find that library service is not necessarily an "if you build it, they will come" situation. Just because a library develops a Spanish language collection or begins offering a bilingual storytime, it will not necessarily result in increased library use by the Spanish-speaking population. You know they are out there, you have services for them, but they still aren't using the library. What should you do?

The answer to that question is outreach! There are a variety of great resources available which discuss the necessity and benefits of library outreach to Spanish-speaking communities. To sum up a key point, public library services as we offer them in the United States are not the norm in Central and South America. It could very well be possible that your Spanish-speaking community is not using the library because they simply do not know that they can, or how to, or why they should. It is up to YOU to spread the word!

I would like to share two successful outreach endeavors which I recently engaged in, in order to promote library services to residents of the Whitehall, OH Spanish-speaking community. It is my hope that these endeavors could serve as a case study and be replicated by other libraries struggling to connect with their Spanish-speaking residents.

Partnering with an ESL teacher
During the summer of 2007 I was fortunate enough to meet Stella Villaba, an ESL teacher for the Whitehall City School District. Stella is a passionate teacher and an avid library supporter. When I first met her, she was very happy to distribute information in Spanish about the library to her students and her families. Later during the school year she approached me about putting together some type of presentation for the families of her students. She was finding that they often did not know about the variety of services available through the library, such as the Homework Help Centers and the Fresh Start program, which allows customers to read-off their fines twice a year. We decided to develop a Library Orientation and Tour. On May 11, 2008 we welcomed about 35 people to the library for a bilingual presentation which explained the basic details of how to use the library and what types of services the library has to offer. It was a huge success, which wrapped up with participants taking a tour of the library and with some getting new library cards!
This particular strategy could be replicated anywhere to bring in immigrant families who may not be aware of the library. If you are not bilingual and the language barrier is an issue, perhaps a local teacher or volunteer would be willing to translate in order to present the information bilingually. Even without the tour, making contact with local ESL teachers to let them know what services the library has to offer to support their services will likely result in that information being spread to families.

Visiting an adult ESL class
Rather coincidentally, the same week we put together the library tour, a local adult ESL teacher contacted the Whitehall library to come speak to the children of the students about Summer Reading Club. Throughout the course of this conversation it was discovered that the entire ESL class was Spanish-speaking. When the teacher learned that a Spanish-speaker was available to come talk with the students about the library she was ecstatic! The following Monday, May 13, we gave the same presentation at the adult ESL class which meets at a local church. The group of about 25 was delightful to work with. I was amazed how many questions they had which I was able to answer. The group was very enthusiastic about the library, and it has since been arranged that our Bookmobile will visit the church before the ESL class each week this summer!

At my library, due to a lack of Spanish-speaking staff, we are following a model of Spanish customer service which ALA President Dr. Camila Alire describes in her book Serving Latino Communities: A how-to-do-it manual for librarians. I have a standard shift that I work to provide customer service in different branches once a week. I saw the impact of this outreach the very next Wednesday when I was working my weekly shift in Whitehall; seven people from the presentation at the ESL class came to the library!

So get out of the building and spread the word, or find creative partnerships to invite people in! Be proactive about letting potential customers know what you have to offer them and you are likely to see them take you up on it!