February 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 1 »

Going Beneath the Surface: Outreach to Latino and Other Communities

January 17, 2017
Amanda Civitello, Waukegan Public Library

Five years ago, it had become apparent in recent years that Waukegan Public Library’s patrons no longer reflected the city’s changing demographics. In particular, Waukegan’s growing Latino community was underserved. In 2012, the library conducted an environmental scan that sought out perspectives from individuals throughout the community, with a particular focus on Latinos. Carmen Patlan, then the library’s Spanish Literacy and Outreach Manager, executed the scan in such a way that it delivered meaningful data that wasn’t guided by preconceived ideas about what a library should do or be. 

In addition to changing the approach to the content of the survey used to gather data, the library launched a Promotores program—Spanish for “promoters”—to leverage the personal networks of dedicated volunteers. The goal was to gain information from potential new users through connections with community leaders, and encourage them to advocate for library services. Modeled after community health ambassadors, the program has been successful since its launch and continues to grow.

Along with the Promotores, Patlan asked one question: What are the barriers keeping you from success? The question was frequently skipped, but the survey persisted. Do you have a driver’s license?Can you speak English? Do you have a doctor? Did you graduate high school? Do you have a long-term career or just a job? Do you know how to read? The results of the environmental scan revealed deep inequities, along with opportunities for positive intervention.

Identifying the chief challenges wasn’t enough. The library needed to know particulars—such as age of the respondent, where they lived, current level of library use—in order to develop the kind of targeted strategy and services that could have an impact on the community’s need. At the same time, we conducted an in-depth review of our operating statistics and existing patron demographics, using data available through the cardholder database, general tracking (door counts, computer usage statistics, and reference questions), and website analytics. The Lake County Health Department and Community Health Center then used that information to create heat maps highlighting demographics such as age, race, and cardholder status to help the library team see trends by location and need.

The environmental scan revealed not just the barriers facing the interviewed community members, but also those keeping their children from success. Based on the results of this work, the library launched a new strategic plan in 2014 with a strong emphasis on functional literacy, committing itself to developing the programs and services the community said it wanted and needed. The plan also incorporates a significant focus on early childhood education and grade-level reading, to support students’ learning outside the classroom.

A number of different programs developed in response to the results of the scan—Conversational ESL, Health Awareness, Leamos (pre-ESL Spanish-language literacy), and others—continue to be offered. Beginning in 2016, the complete library website now appears in Spanish and English. Translated by a member of the community to ensure accurate and culturally sensitive translations, it provides Latino patrons with the flexibility to browse the site in either language, flipping between the two whenever they like.

Whether by encouraging community dialogue or developing innovative services and resources, Waukegan Public Library remains committed to serving its wonderfully diverse community. The challenge now facing our community engagement team is to replicate that success across other underserved demographics, but this experience will be invaluable.

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