Libraries Engage Families in Lifelong Learning

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by Steve Zalusky

As parents and caregivers strive to give their children the best education, they are finding valuable support from their library. This is especially true for children living in poverty or from low-income homes.

But libraries are also involving the entire family in the journey of lifelong learning.

A new report, "Public Libraries: A Vital Space for Family Engagement," released by Harvard Family Research Project and the Public Library Association, provides powerful evidence of libraries supporting families and helping pave the way for lifelong learning.

Already, libraries help prepare children for school with storytimes and early literacy programming. Libraries support students with afterschool and summer learning programs.  With the advent of digital technology, libraries are becoming increasingly innovative, providing maker spaces and digital media labs.

“Libraries are important learning spaces and poised to engage families more meaningfully across children’s development. The rich digital and hands-on resources libraries offer—especially when guided by librarians—can prompt families to steer children’s learning, pose questions, make connections, exchange information, and instill in children not only a love of learning but also the skills for learning that last a lifetime,” wrote Heather B. Weiss, director of the Harvard Family Research Project.

Weiss also pointed out that libraries support learning in families beyond childhood.

She said, “Even more, libraries embrace the entire family—from infants and toddlers to teens to grandparents—making it a space that is not limited to just one age group, but rather a place that spans generations.

Through offerings in adult education, job seeking and computer skills, libraries are reinventing themselves as hubs of two-generation learning. According to Clara Bohrer and Kathleen Reif, co-chairs of the Public Library Association’s (PLA) Family Engagement Task Force, which was established in 2015, “family engagement goes well beyond the support of early literacy and our youngest children, and encompasses the wide range of services offered by libraries for families and children of all ages.”

The partnership between PLA, a division of the American Library Association (ALA), and the Harvard group is aimed at encouraging libraries to engage with families to promote learning. It builds on previous efforts led by the Public Library Association (PLA), such as Every Child Ready to Read@ your library® (ECRR), offered by the PLA and the Association for Library Services to Children (ALSC), also a division of the ALA.

The report mentions a number of successful engagement efforts, including one in Maryland, where, it says, “the state’s Early Childhood Advisory Council (ECAC) recognized that public libraries are in a unique position to interact in meaningful ways with all members of a family.”

The state received a U.S. Department of Education Race to the Top Early Learning Challenge grant, and librarians were supported in efforts to work with local partners to reach at-risk families, presenting ECRR workshops and conducting Library Cafés, which included facilitated training, to engage families who were not using libraries.

The report said, “As a result, librarians in all 24 Maryland library systems reached new families with ECRR workshops and Library Cafés, and they expanded their partnerships with local community organizations.”

At the Waukegan (Illinois) Public Library, in a community that is 57-percent Latino, community ambassador volunteers  work with families and assess their needs and connect them with such library services as bilingual story times and conversational ESL programs.

And the Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh has partnered with the Ready Freddy program, bringing together educators from the Pittsburgh Public Schools, parents, and community partners to focus on kindergarten enrollment, transition, and school readiness.

According to the report, “Through this partnership, the libraries host a weekly storytime program that begins in late winter and focuses on the transition to kindergarten. With the support of the librarians, families read books, sing songs, and engage in various other activities to ease children into the routine, daily activities, and expectations of kindergarten.”

The need to engage with families in areas where children live in poverty or low-income households is especially crucial.

Growing Young Minds: How Museums and Libraries Create Lifelong Learners,” a 2013 study from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, cites a Pew Research Center’s report showing that an overwhelming percentage of parents of young children, especially those with annual incomes under $50,000, believe that libraries are “very important” for their children, and are eager for more and varied family library services.

The study offered examples as well of libraries stepping up to serve the underserved.

The Anchorage Public Library’s Ready to Read Resource Center, it said, mails books, puppets, CDs, and other literacy-based materials to child care providers and families in remote areas of Alaska.

In addition, it said that the Minnesota Children’s Museum partnered with the St. Paul Public Library system to install children’s exhibits in two underserved libraries to assure that families and those caring for children in family, friends and neighbor care settings have local access to literacy-based interactive experiences.

In the borough of Queens in New York, family engagement is exactly that. The Queens Borough Public Library offers its Family Literacy Learning Center at the Ravenswood Community Library. The Family Literacy Learning Center helps both adult learners and children achieve literacy and self-sufficiency.

The program makes it possible for adults and children to learn English together.

According to the library, “The goal of Family Literacy Center is to be recognized by every learner as a ‘safe haven’ that provides ESOL and adult literacy (ABE) classes, in preparation for their Pre-HSE classes, as well as multilingual information, resources and referrals and a wide range of services (instructional, vocational, recreational, and family support) that will help them attain their goals.”

The testimonies of the people it serves demonstrate its value.

They include people like Aaron, the father of two sons.

He said, “For living in the US, language is very important. That’s why I began looking for English programs when I arrived to the country for my boys and I. I found many English programs, but none for children. I really wanted a program where I can study English alongside my sons. I called the Queens Library, asked them for help, and then I found this great program.”

The program enables him to enhance his pronunciation, reading and word skills, he said.

“The best part is that I can bring my little sons here. He can also learn his ABC’s, colors, shapes, or just watch fun educational videos with other children. It’s a good time for him to touch a new language that he never learned before in such a playful way.”

For Tashima, This program is very good. The English class is perfect for me. In class, we learn grammar and vocabulary. The program is special because I can bring my baby. The staff takes care of my baby very well. I can’t wait to learn more English so I can get a better job.”