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Libraries and Latinos: Return to Adams County

August 14, 2012

(Kathryn Pyle recently marked her fourth anniversary as a PhilanTopic contributor. In her last post, she wrote about the Justice Matters series at Filmfest DC.)

Children_with_booksFour years ago, in my first post for PhilanTopic, I described how the Adams County Library system in a rural part of south central Pennsylvania used a modest donation to try out some new ideas and improve its services for the growing Latino population in the area, mainly families and seasonal workers from Mexico.

Since then, thanks to PhilanTopic's broad and inclusive vision of civic life, I've written about a presidential inauguration, a "City of Trees," the first moon landing, transitional justice, a memorial park in Argentina, and -- most frequently -- social issue documentaries and the organizations that support them. Over that time, I've really enjoyed the opportunity the PND team has given me to refine my vision of the nexus of philanthropy and social justice. But today, because this is my thirtieth (!) post for PhilanTopic, I thought it would be interesting to revisit Adams County to see what, if anything, has changed.

I caught up with library director Rob Lesher on his way to the annual library book sale, which was organized by the Friends of the Library at the main branch in Gettysburg; Lesher told me they hoped to raise at least $25,000. That's a lot of used books and a big shot in the arm for any library in an era of government cuts.

"It's been a challenge financially," says Lesher. "But the big news is that this summer we've seen the highest circulation months in our history. Seventy-five thousand items circulated in July, part of a fifteen-year pattern of growth. And 2011 was a record year, with seven hundred and fifty thousand items circulated; we'll equal that this year. Despite the cutbacks, we've managed to expand our services to Latinos. The key has been experimenting with new programs and partnering with community organizations."

As described in my first post about the library, the strategy to reach Latino families included operating a bookmobile with materials in Spanish through the northern end of the county, offering a story-time in Spanish for Latino children, and the acquisition of more Spanish-language magazines. Over time, staff at the library also became aware that the skills and needs of the Latino community were changing.

"In the past, the family member with the strongest English skills, often a child, would be designated to interface with services and programs," says Lesher. "That’s changed, as there's now a whole generation of children who are native English speakers and the parents themselves are more comfortable in English situations. We're seeing more families, not just children, coming to the library to use the computers and take out books. We've discontinued the Spanish-language story-time as the Latino children began attending the English-language story-time program. We still have a small percentage of our materials budget dedicated to Spanish texts, and the bookmobile certainly is still important in reaching the Latino community. But with so many publications now online, there's not as much available and not as much demand for magazines. The library is transitioning as the community matures."

Part of the transition has been the hiring of a Latina, Marisol Rivera, as a library assistant to staff the main desk of the Harbaugh-Thomas library in the town of Biglerville, the largest branch in the northern end of the county and the center of the fruit-growing region where many of the migrant workers in the area and its fruit-processing labor force lives.

"Marisol has been a wonderful addition,” says Lesher. "Her presence has created a welcoming environment and has certainly contributed to the increase in Latino families coming into the library."

Partnerships with community-based organizations also continues to be a key to reaching the region's Latino population. This summer's "Roads to Freedom" program, a treasure hunt created around local history (the Civil War, Native Americans, local industry, quilting and other crafts) that also encourages kids to be physically active as they track clues around the county, is sponsored by Well-Span Health, a local health services corporation. So far, nearly eight hundred booklets with clues and information have been distributed through the library system.

"When we were planning Roads to Freedom," says Lesher, "we consulted with Latino community organizations about also printing the booklets in Spanish. Their recommendation was to include a bilingual welcome but keep the rest of the text in English. This is part of an evolving approach: our target now is an outcome, and to reach the goal we include the community in planning how to best achieve it, but we're finding that as the community matures the needs are different."

An example is the Harbaugh-Thomas library computer center, which I mentioned in my first post as a resource for Latinos seeking to access news from Mexico, e-mail, and other information. In a new program, the library provides the computers and Latino organizations provide the trainers and people, bringing them to the library to learn how to use a computer.

And in a change that might say as much about the community as anything, there is increased interest in bilingual publications, suggesting not only a "maturing" Latino population but also a growing willingness on the part of English speakers to engage with Spanish. "We’re moving more toward that now," says Lesher." It's what people want."

-- Kathryn Pyle

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