ASLCA/KLAS/NOD Award goes to Libraries and Autism: We're All Connected

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A Cooperative Project of Two New Jersey Libraries

In April, the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA), a division of the American Library Association, announced the 2009 winner of the ASCLA/KLAS/NOD award:  “Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected,” a remarkable project developed by Margaret Kolaya, director of the Scotch Plains Public Library, and Daniel Weiss, director of the Fanwood Memorial Library, both in New Jersey. The success of the video and web-based project is the result of the cooperative partnership the libraries have embraced over the past 4 years, and the contributions of many partners and participants. The award, sponsored by ASCLA, Keystone Systems, and the National Organization on Disability, recognizes a library for “an innovative and well-organized project which has successfully developed or expanded services for people with disabilities.” 

This extraordinary initiative employs a sophisticated, yet user-friendly website, www.thejointlibrary.org/autism, to impart information on the autism spectrum disorder through text and electronic media and, most notably, to train librarians to reach out to, and serve, people with autism. Citations to print and non-print materials, websites, and organizations concerned with the autism spectrum abound.  Special features include an Autism Overview PowerPoint presentation and a 19-minute customer service training video, both of which are downloadable. The video demonstrates some behavioral patterns exhibited by people with autism and shows effective techniques that librarians can use to respond positively, making these patrons feel welcome in the library.  Norma Blake, New Jersey State Librarian said that, “the project exemplifies the best work that libraries can do to help people – to be a valuable resource for parents and families, making their lives easier and better"

Supportive materials include: a list of workshop consultants;  publicity logos;  sample publicity release; a non-verbal communication tool; customer service tips; and a unique storybook template, “This is My Library,” which can be customized by the individual library to provide a visual pre-visit tour of the library for the child with autism.   A “Libraries and Autism: We’re Connected” decal for the library door or window is available on request.

 Kathleen Hegarty, Chair of the ASCLA Awards Committee, commented on the choice of “Libraries and Autism” for the award:  “This outstanding project has launched a virtual campaign to make libraries aware of people on the autism spectrum and, most notably, to train librarians to serve this growing, underserved population. Its accessible website offers valuable background information, a superb customer service training film, and supportive materials and graphics, all of which can be downloaded.  State sponsorship, able project leadership, the involvement of the autism community, and highly effective promotion have contributed to the success of an initiative that has had national impact.”   

The video is intended to form the basis for workshops such as those held by the project for its own library staff, local school media specialists, and selected libraries in New Jersey.  It has been the springboard for workshops presented by Ms. Kolaya and Mr. Weiss in NJ and other states, among them, Pennsylvania and Virginia. The basic customer services skills and techniques provided can serve as universal models for best-practices library service to all members of the public. Information and contacts for providing in-depth workshops for libraries and other organizations is available through the website.

As a component of the project, the training video has been distributed to every public library in New Jersey as well as to many schools, special and academic libraries. The Pennsylvania State Library has also replicated 1000 copies. Other promotional efforts—a  comprehensive release sent by PR NewsWire and MultiVU to thousands of local and national media outlets as their pro bono site of the month - have evoked enthusiastic responses from libraries nationally and internationally as well as from individuals in the autism community.

The project is a part of the “Welcoming Library Spaces for the Autism Community and Their Families” incubator project which was made possible by a contract with INFOLINK: The Eastern New Jersey Regional Library Cooperative.  The Cooperative and its services are funded by the New Jersey State Library which is responsible for the coordination, promotion, and funding of the New Jersey Library Network. Cheryl O'Connor, Executive Director of INFOLINK stated; “We are thrilled by the enthusiasm this project has generated within both the library and autism communities. The need is now for libraries to serve the autism community, and this professionally produced staff training film empowers them to do so effectively. "

The ASCLA Awards Committee chose this project for the ASCLA/KLAS/NOD Award because of its national significance.  Its focus on people with autism has highlighted for libraries everywhere the need for service to this growing and underserved population.  The staff training media and supportive materials of its website offer the means by which libraries can undertake this task.  The project can be easily, successfully and inexpensively replicated on a local basis.  In addition, its website with its valuable array of informational and staff training resources suggests a possible model for preparing librarians to work with people with other disabilities who may also be underserved by libraries.  The award will be presented to Mr. Weiss and Ms. Kolaya at the ASCLA President’s Program on Sunday, July 12 at the Annual American Library Association Conference in Chicago.

For more information, please send a message to autism@thejointlibrary.org.

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