Literacy Forum: Libraries in the 21st Century

Josiah Brown sent in the following report about an event in which he took part.

On Oct. 29, the Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven and the New Haven Free Public Library held a breakfast forum at the public library’s Wilson branch in the Hill neighborhood. Panelists addressed “Libraries in the 21st Century” and how to meet communities’ needs, from early childhood and youth development to employment, technology, civics, and English-language learning.

Martha Brogan, the new city librarian with a range of community and university library experience, welcomed the audience and introduced the panel.

Before doing so, she referred to studies by the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project – for example, a 2011 presentation on “How Libraries Add Value to Communities” – and how broader trends are evident in New Haven.  She previewed an event held later on Oct. 29, the launch of the Public Library’s new Readmobile, as an illustration of the library’s continuing efforts to reach residents of all ages, across the city.

“The Public Library Reimagined”

Kendall “Ken” Wiggin, Connecticut’s State Librarian since 1998, brought a perspective both national and statewide to this local discussion.  Invoking an Aspen Institute “Dialogue on Public Libraries” – including a summer 2014 session on “The Public Library Reimagined” – he emphasized that as libraries are not just about “loaning books,” measures and expectations must change.  He said, “Successful libraries are really about partnering with communities” in response to what they “need.”  He enumerated several elements of those needs.  “Information literacy … is about being able to connect” with people’s “life skills,” whether related to employment, personal finances, technology, health, civic involvement, or parenting.  He cited “digital literacy” and the rise of “maker spaces” (the New Haven Public Library now has a 3-D printer), as well as “financial literacy.”  He spoke of “health literacy” (from the ability to read the instructions on a medicine label to knowledge of nutrition and fitness).  Citing “civic literacy” (e.g., awareness of voter registration requirements and elected officials) as a key to “civic engagement,” he alluded to “all kinds of outreach” such as the Readmobile.  He mentioned “environmental literacy.”  In short, he said, virtually “every problem has … some literacy” aspect.  “Libraries have this expanded role” in furthering “lifelong learning.”


Soraya Potter of Wilbur Cross High School and ACES identifies as a “teacher first, librarian second.”  She spoke of challenges including how to teach teenage students “to use information ethically” in a cut-and-paste era that complicates matters of attribution and plagiarism.  She addressed linking Common Core standards to “literary competencies” and how, amid budget pressures, “we work with what we have.”  Regarding computing, she conceded that in certain instances students have greater facility than librarians, but that library media specialists help one another – as well as teachers, parents, and students – to develop their skills and knowledge.  She asserted that she and her colleagues in some cases are preparing students “for jobs that don’t exist yet,” as technologies rapidly advance.

John Jessen, manager of the Public Library’s Wilson branch, entered the profession through an unconventional route; he worked in book publishing and in book stores before, he said, New Haven Reads and “Chris Alexander” (its founder) offered a point of entry into the city and, ultimately, its library system.  Initially a children’s librarian, he remains inspired by the “stories” that can help libraries appeal to their users.  Concerning technology, he emphasized that many library patrons have only a “foundational level” of proficiency, if that, and recalled assisting one man who had considerable difficulty developing – as part of his job search – a resume to suit an online template.  Library use can drive civic action, Jessen said, not least through information about voter registration that can come with a library card.  As examples of neighborhood partnerships, he cited the Festival of Arts and Ideas and its events with three branch libraries, and “Guns Down, Books Up” – which its leader, Raymond Wallace, largely operates out of space at the Wilson branch.

Neighborhoods, Partnerships

Sandra Hernandez-Laguna, manager of the Fair Haven branch, maintained that the bustle of activity there belies any skepticism about the “relevancy” of libraries today.  To the contrary, she said, users of all ages – including many from Spanish-speaking and other non-English-speaking backgrounds – find much that they need at the library.  From books, periodicals, and computers to English-as-a-second-language material, citizenship classes and driver’s license information, a range of resources are in demand.  She declared, “We’re trying to create a branch and a library that goes beyond” a narrowly traditional role.  Fostering “life skills” and helping to “educate parents,” for example, are aims.  One collaborative effort is with the NewAlliance Foundation, a “READy for the Grade” program that for three summers brings youngsters and their parents into the library to counter “summer learning loss.”  With the foundation, Connecticut Humanities has helped to extend the program through the school year.  Features include “family nights” that gently model best practices to promote “a love of reading.”  Overall, she said, at the Fair Haven branch “it’s been a process of shaping a place” into what “the community needs the most.”

Library Funding: Under 1 Percent of City Budget

Following the panelists’ remarks, moderator Martha Brogan commented before inviting questions from the audience.  She noted that “scheduling and staffing” are a major “challenge” amid the Public Library’s financial constraints – that its funding represents less than one percent (.76 of a percent) of the municipal budget, as an institution with four branch libraries (Stetson in Dixwell and Mitchell in Westville, as well as the Fair Haven and Hill branches) and the main Ives building on the Green.  The library system has 38 full-time employees in total; each of the four smaller branches has one.  (In addition to Sandra Hernandez-Laguna at Fair Haven and John Jessen at Wilson in the Hill, the branch librarians are Diane Brown at Stetson and Sharon Lovett-Graff at Mitchell. City librarian Brogan mentioned “Winter Family Reads,” yet another October 29 event – in the evening – that the Public Library had that day, in this case with Diane Brown rallying neighbors at Stetson.

Audience questions and comments generated further discussion.  Among those participating were:

*Lee Cruz of the Community Foundation for Greater New Haven and the Chatham Square neighborhood, who compared a library to a religious congregation and on the side mentioned with enthusiasm his son’s enrollment in a dual-language NHPS pre-K classroom not far from the Fair Haven branch;

*Maryann Ott of the NewAlliance Foundation, who elaborated on READy for the Grade and the promise of the Fair Haven initiative in statewide context;

*Susan Muro of Connecticut Humanities, who spoke in a similar vein, including about trying to “model for parents new ways to share learning” and “create literacy-rich home environments,” such as through Family Read; and

*Sarah Masotta, an AmeriCorps VISTA team participant working with New Haven public schools and concerned about “trauma” that many students experience, and how libraries may offer support or at least understanding, along with Internet access and other such new essentials that many homes may lack.

(Others in attendance included Natalie Elicker of the Institute Library, as well as literacy volunteers – one of whom asked in particular about libraries’ role in promoting school readiness for young children.)

In response, panelists provided additional, specific illustrations of library needs, services, and partnerships.  Martha Brogan termed local libraries (receiving “a thousand” visitors per day)  already a positive “force” in neighborhoods, something to build upon in response to residents’ requests, and spoke of “optimizing” skills of library staff through professional development and efficiencies, e.g., sharing of digital devices such as tablets.  She called attention to one new tool for serving readers, a database of popular magazines that accommodates “unlimited simultaneous users.”

Ken Wiggin pointed to “one book programs” (like the Big Read, which New Haven staged several years ago, using books such as Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451) as a way that some communities have cultivated both reading and relationships.  He noted that volunteers, “webinars,” and cooperation are means of leveraging resources, and that working with “the education system – including the adult education system” – is critical.  He mentioned an American Library Association program, “Every child ready to read,” that focuses on early literacy.  His exhortation: “Reach out to your library,” while also expecting it to reach you.

Soraya Potter explained a “Books 2.0” project to engage teens in reading and in talking about books of interest to them.  She spoke of a Google-based platform that the New Haven Public Schools has created at to facilitate communication for students with limited Internet access, and also of a parenting class that encourages parents to read to young children.  “Collaborate,” she urged.

John Jessen reflected on an initiative with the Long Wharf Theatre, supported by the William Caspar Graustein Memorial Fund, to distribute free theater tickets while raising awareness about plays and their accessibility.  He mentioned IRIS as another partner, serving refugee immigrants and their families.  He displayed a zeal for getting books “out” of the library, into patrons’ hands, including via a high-volume “institutional card” for teachers and their classes.  “We’re the cheerleaders for reading,” he said, and a library is a “bridge” into a community.

Sandra Hernandez-Laguna suggested, “Listen,” and “keep it local,” with children, families, and teachers.  She cited “stay and play” as a valuable program at each branch, a way to use stories, songs, and play to promote respectful teaching.  Finally, continue “developing those relationships.”

The Literacy Coalition of Greater New Haven – sponsor of the Literacy Forum series – is a nonprofit, all-volunteer organization with a mission to promote, support, and advance literacy for people of all ages.  Visit LiteracyEveryday to share or obtain information on free events, resources, and ways to get involved in pursuit of a region of readers.

The LiteracyEveryday site has portals to Get Help, Volunteer, Donate, and Learn More, as well as a blog, News/Events calendar, and presence on Facebook and Twitter, @LiteracyGNH. 

There is a need for additional volunteer tutors and mentors at such organizations as the Boys and Girls Club, Jewish Coalition for Literacy, Junta for Progressive Action, Literacy Volunteers of Greater New Haven, New Haven Public School Foundation, and New Haven Reads.

Neighbors are invited to visit the Literacy Resource Center on Winchester Avenue, in space at 4 Science Park donated by Science Park Development Corporation.  The Literacy Resource Center, or LRC, represents a partnership among Concepts for Adaptive Learning, the Coalition, New Haven Reads, Literacy Volunteers, and the Economic Development Corporation.  Upstairs in the same building at 4 Science Park are the offices, classrooms, and art gallery of the Connecticut Center for Arts and Technology (ConnCAT).

You can help by:

• Reading in the home, promoted by libraries such as the New Haven Public Library—and involving grandparents as well as parents, and free books from sources including Read to Grow and New Haven Reads;

• Encouraging friends, family, and others to seek literacy assistance whenever useful;

• Volunteering as a tutor or mentor;

• Bolstering literacy in other ways, such as through donations of money—whether directly, via the Community Foundation or the United Way—or of books and by advocating and voting.

For more information:

Earlier articles on the Coalition and its events:

“Literacy Coalition Welcomes New Board Colleagues”

“Why Read?”

“It’s about WORDS”

“Literacy Paths Plotted”

“Literacy, Every Day”

“Learning in the 21st Century, in Ways New and Old”

“Reading, Culture, and ‘Quality Time’ at Home”

“‘Empowering Teachers,’ Reading Research, Instruction, and Supports”

“Margie Gillis Discusses Using the Latest Research on Reading”

“Early Reading, Community Action, and Catalytic Philanthropy”

“Literacy Coalition Forum: State Legislative Update and the Big Read”

“A Day for Literacy”

“Commissioner Ted Sergi: Their ‘Second Chance’ Starts with Reading”

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posted by: RHeerema on November 3, 2014  6:30pm

I’ve dreamed that community libraries would be co-located in high schools—wouldn’t it reduce overhead for both city departments?  Expand inter-generational learning and understanding?  Provide young people a great bridge from youth to adulthood—with known community resources that they can access after graduation.