Libraries Transform Essay Contest
Congratulations to our winner!
Linda Baer, Reading Public Library
The following essay was selected from nearly 50 entries submitted for the Libraries Transform Community essay contest sponsored by FOLUSA, ALA, and the Lana and Michael Porter Foundation. The Reading Public Library received a $1,000 check on behalf of this winning entry.
In the northeast corner of downtown Reading, Pennsylvania, sits a thirty-two-year-old building which is the Northeast Branch of the Reading Public Library. Since 2004 the Branch has been more than just a branch of RPL. It has been the site of the Migrant Education Center, a place where the more than 600 migrant families living in the surrounding community have found entertainment, friendship, information, help, and laughter.
It is a place where every week two young mothers meet to spend time with their babies and each other. The women met at a Northeast Baby Lapsit program and forged an immediate bond. The Baby Lapsit program is long over; but now when they meet, the Hispanic mother teaches her friend how to speak Spanish, and the Irish friend teaches her English while their babies play together.
Across town in the Southeast Branch of RPL, elderly citizens escape the weather in the new Senior Resource Center. They scour the shelves of new large-print books for the latest romance, twirl the rotating pamphlet carriers full of information on senior health issues, and settle into the cushy faux-leather chairs to read the morning newspaper or the latest thriller.
Seventeen of these seniors participated in a Memoir Project, which was a culminating activity of the Center’s creation. They shared their private memories with each other and basked in the glow of seeing their memoirs in print, in the beautiful book of their writing published by the Library. One woman ordered books for her daughters when orders were taken for extra copies. But she had to order two more for her sons after she discovered that they too wanted copies of the book. She was surprised and thrilled to discover that her sons were eager to learn about her history. The Memoir Project was such a success that other seniors called to inquire when there would be another.
The Northwest Branch of RPL is the smallest and perhaps the liveliest. Every available space is crammed with books, magazines, DVDs--and patrons. Spanish and English ring out from the stacks, and the branch manager and her helpers are known for their enthusiasm and their willingness to help.
As one of her programs for teens and adults, the manager held a sewing class for the participants to make a shirt and a skirt. Everyone loved the class, especially one teenager. She approached the manager and asked if she could help the girl to make her prom dress. She wants to make her outfit herself but she knows that she will need help--and so she went to her library.
Before the Library’s summer reading program each year, the youth services coordinator and the migrant education program coordinator meet with the Penn State cooperative extension educator and the teenage playground leaders hired for the city’s summer program. The adults talk with the teens about safety for the children who will be in their care and what is expected behavior for both leaders and children. The library staff members teach the teens about the importance of reading and how to read to the little ones. The teens leave the meeting armed with good information and a sense of pride in what they do.
The children’s department of the Main Library is a place to meet after school and on Saturdays to hang out, use the computers, and play games. It is also the site of the chess club, the parenting center, and the story times. The children’s department staff make it a point to talk with the youngest patrons and help them with their homework or with finding a book.
One summer a youngster who came to the Library daily seemed lost. He stayed close to one staff member in particular, and she paid him the gentle attention he needed. At the end of the summer he stopped coming to the library, and she wondered what had become of the boy. More than a year later she encountered the boy and his family as they left a local restaurant. The boy flung his arms around the woman and hugged her. “Thank you for helping me,” he said. “I’ll never forget.”
Libraries do transform communities. One soul at a time.