American Dream Literacy Initiative - Plainsboro Public Library

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courtesy of the ALA Office of Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services

Libraries play a vital role in American society. They are centers of learning and opportunity that welcome all members of the community to freely explore new possibilities, access educational programming, and enlighten the mind. For many new Americans, the wealth of digital and print information at their local library, coupled with the educational programs that are available, serve as valuable catalysts for the pursuit of their American Dream.

Since 2008, 188 libraries across Dollar General’s market area have received more than $1.5 million to help build innovative and effective literacy programs for adult English-language learners. With these grants, libraries have developed new courses, expanded their print and digital collections, increased access to technology, implemented new strategies for inclusion, and developed sustainable partnerships with organizations across their communities. These enhancements and expansions have resulted in increasing access and opportunities for thousands of individuals across the country:

The Township of Plainsboro, New Jersey, known for the pharmaceutical corporations and advanced technology laboratories that call it home, attracts a diverse population from all corners of the globe. More than 46 percent of its residents speak a language other than English at home—and the number is growing.

Nowhere is this more evident than at the Plainsboro Public Library, located near the town’s center. One of the most frequent questions at their reference desk is about English classes and materials.  “The library is a natural gathering place,” says librarian Joyce Huang. “Libraries have evolved past the traditional notion of being this quiet place. They have evolved into a community center, where you get people from all walks of life coming for all sorts of different purposes.”

A two-time awardee of the American Dream grant, the library was able to build upon its existing efforts and became better equipped to serve its growing English as a second language (ESL) population, including introducing new writing courses such as “Writing in the Workplace” and “Writing English Every Day.” Classes included participants whose first language was French, German, Hindi, Mandarin, Russian, or Spanish. Many of the participants were stay-at-home mothers like Ting Zhang, a recent immigrant from China who felt isolated in the community until she saw a flyer for the writing course.

“I studied here for almost one year,” she says. “I think my English has improved a lot.”

The library also began offering the Plainsboro American Language Social (PALS) Club, where English language learners and volunteer native speakers came together to practice English, improve communication skills, and deepen their understanding of American culture. Each session included social time and lessons or guest programs, following by breakouts in small conversation groups.  “Volunteers get at least as much out of it as the participants do,” Huang says. “It’s fascinating talking to all these people from different cultures and backgrounds.”

“Libraries have evolved into a community center, where you get people from all walks of life coming for all sorts of different purposes.”