A Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning

Steve Thomas: Elena, Bharat, and Margaret, welcome to the show.

M. Elena Lopez: We’re glad to be here. Thank you for inviting us to share our book, a Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning.

Bharat Mehra: You’re very excited to be here. Thanks a lot. And looking forward to having a engaging discussion about various aspects of the book.

Margaret Caspe: Absolutely. Thanks for having us.

Steve Thomas: How did each of you experience libraries early in your life and then come to libraries as part of your work as adults?

Margaret Caspe: Yeah. You know, Steve, when we, over the past few years have been doing professional learning workshops for librarians and family engagement professionals, we often start with that question of, think back about your first memory of a library or, what was your first experience in a library?

So very early on in this writing process, Elena, Bharat, and I surfaced some really nice conversations and a real connection, I think, among the three of us, I shared the story about how, when I was really little growing up, my grandmother would take care of me while my parents were working. And she grew up during the Depression and you know, didn’t go more than eighth grade. So taking me to the library every day was really important to her, but I have this very strong memory of going to a card catalog, which I always loved and pulling out all of the cards to her dismay and probably every librarian’s dismay out there, but it just was a really fond memory that I have of my grandmother and in sharing that story, it invoked stories from Bharat and Elena about their experiences, as well.

Steve Thomas: Yeah, we all know those kids that go into all the cards out, pull all the books off the shelf and pile them up.

Bharat Mehra: Yeah, for me, if a human being is supposed to be a coming together of who we are, based on our genetic understanding, interacting with the social, cultural, environmental aspects to our lives. For me, if one looks at looks back at my own life experiences, coming from India, as an immigrant, social justice flows in my veins. And so for me, emerging from a home of child abuse and domestic violence, knowledge, education, literacy, libraries were my go-to places. And that’s where I was able to get away from the dysfunctional life experiences in one’s family environment.

And then growing up in a middle class family in India, I knew that education and knowledge and libraries were my mechanism to escape and establish a life for me, myself. Actually, I remembered a significant time. I also was born with club feet, so I had physical deformities when I was younger. So I remember when I was in class eight, in the middle school, I had to go through a particular surgery to get my feet operated. And so in that for six months, I had to wear a plaster. And in some ways that became my saving grace, because what else could I do was us to go and find haven in the libraries and study, and that’s the time that I kind of was able to establish my desire to educate myself and find my learning and get away to get out of some of the environmental aspects that I had experienced. So coming to the United States in 1994 as a graduate student, I was able to find opportunities to be able to integrate social justice aspects, working with various minority and underserved populations. And through that time, working with Puerto Rican community in Chicago, looking at the library as a place for community mobilization of working with African-American women in Champaign-Urbana and where the library became the place for helping to build connections between the women and healthcare information providers, looking at working with LGBTQ+ people in the area where libraries were the haven that they would go to and find a safe space. Through some of those experiences libraries became the venue for being able to kind of make a change in society, working with underserved populations and those who are disenfranchised. And I was then able to weave those collaborations and partnerships with libraries throughout my time as a faculty member at the University of Tennessee. So that’s how I came to my respect and collaborations and partnerships with libraries.

M. Elena Lopez: When I came to the United States and was introduced to a public library system and entered the library here for the first time, it was like being in a toy store or candy store, and that’s because I love books. I grew up in the Philippines where there is no public library system. However, my parents really encouraged us to read. I remember my mother talking to my godmother and saying for Christmas, give Elena books. So I had every Christmas something to anticipate: new books. And my father was an avid reader, everything from sports to political news and to best sellers. And so when I came here to the United States, I was really impressed with the public library system because they provide books for everyone, not just for those who can afford to buy books.

Steve Thomas: Thank you all for sharing your stories. That’s great so what brought the three of you together to edit this book?

M. Elena Lopez: Well, Margaret and I worked together doing research on public libraries and we had an opportunity to contact Bharat and interview him for an article that we were writing. And that’s how the three of us came together, found out that we shared a common interest, and then after that article was published, we decided that we wanted to create this book because there was hardly anything in the field available to librarians and others about this particular topic, about engaging families and communities to support children’s learning as well as lifelong learning.

Bharat Mehra: I was really excited when both Elena and Maggie reached out to me because we found some synergy amongst ourselves in terms of, as Elena mentioned, the aspect of reaching out and engaging with libraries and families and children, especially from underserved populations.

So the elements of equity, diversity, inclusion, and accessibility, the aspect of social justice and engagement through our organization, this was a great opportunity to be able to bring together case studies and promising practices from a wide variety and aspects of ways libraries are making a difference. Through my understanding, some of the people who I had been part of working with in the Southern and central Appalachian region, rural communities, through those networks when I was able to get some collaborators and contributors in the book.

Margaret Caspe: And I can add that as part of the research that Elena was alluding to before, we heard so many stories and so many powerful examples of the ways that libraries were creating opportunities for families to come together, and really build relationships with their children around learning. And we really wanted to capture those stories in the book. So it was a really nice opportunity to go back and think of all the people we had heard about and reach out to them.

Steve Thomas: So for the purposes of a foundation for the conversation, can you define what family engagement is?

M. Elena Lopez: Family engagement is a shared responsibility for children’s learning and for families, it is about activating their knowledge, their values, their relationships to enable children to be motivated and enthusiastic and successful learners. It’s also about learning for all members of the family and really the process of lifelong learning. And because it’s a shared responsibility, we look at libraries and their roles in supporting and guiding the parents and other extended family members to draw upon their strengths and the love that they have for their children or other family members to really create opportunities for learning and learning that is a fun and joyous experience, as well as contributing to everyone’s personal growth and development.

Margaret Caspe: And if I could just add to that, both Elena and I come from the discipline and the field of family, school, community engagement. And I think often, when we say the word family engagement, most people think of schools and specifically they tend to think of parent-teacher conferences or back to school nights, and very early on in the process of speaking and learning from librarians from across the country, we really heard about how we really need to expand how learning doesn’t just happen in schools. Learning happens everywhere, all the time and libraries or one particular space in our communities where there’s so many resources for that learning to take place and so many experts in the library itself to support that learning.

One of the huge benefits of libraries is unlike schools where an individual teacher sees one child at a particular age, and then there’s another teacher at a different age, libraries see the whole family across the trajectory of their entire family’s life and librarians always come back to this notion of lifelong learning and family learning. And that’s why when we titled the book, we actually wanted to make sure that the word family learning was in there, because it’s important that we center the whole family and that we really develop family learning opportunities based on the knowledge, the skills, the culture, the context of all families bring to their everyday lives, and that for us is really at the center of what this book is about.

Bharat Mehra: Yeah, for me coming as a critical scholar and activist and advocate, my understanding of family engagement and learning was in shifting the lens and perspective in library and information science professions from the past in recognizing the constructive asset based understanding of families as they engage and involve them in the various activities, rather than the past, where there was a tendency towards deficit models of helping people. And in the recent years, we found a shift towards helping people help themselves and engaging with them as equals while bringing in their own knowledge, experiences, realities into the interactions that the library can provide. So to me, this is a great opportunity to be able to then document those constructive, positive examples that we of course have been able to include in our collection as compared to the past.

Steve Thomas: Yeah. And you talk about equity, diversity, and inclusion in the book. How can libraries make themselves a welcome place for constructive dialogue with our families and with our communities?

Bharat Mehra: Yes, in the past, libraries have been tiptoeing around these matters. Whereas now we are seeing, again, as I mentioned, a more progressive contemporary shift towards playing a more proactive and more than the past passive roles of neutrality and hanging on to outdated notions. I think we are seeing them step out of their comfort zones and reaching out and building collaborations and partnerships with external key stakeholders. So, that action-oriented aspect, we will continue seeing that, moving forward. Some of the themes related to this are important as we look forward. The whole lip service business that has happened in the past, but current contemporary, performative politics that we find, I think libraries also recognize that’s important because public libraries and others are public entities. They are politically, they are right in the crux of the attention and the visibility in the political forums. But they’re also now realizing that they have to make efforts to actually make changes and address some power imbalances that are part of our society and our community. So I think we are moving in those positive directions.

M. Elena Lopez: We also see that libraries are going outside their walls and reaching out to the community and forming partnerships with other agencies and nonprofits in order to reach those families that typically don’t come to the library.

Steve Thomas: And how can libraries come to know the families in their communities?

M. Elena Lopez: I think there are both informal and more formal ways. It begins with listening and learning from families, having conversations with them, something as simple as, “how can we help you? What do you need from the library?” And then there are more formal ways that we describe in our book. There are focus groups, usually those are held before the library embarks on a new program or initiative. And it’s an effort to get feedback from families, from community members.

Another way of knowing families is to network with those serving children, youth, and families in the community. There are several different types of employment, social service agencies, nonprofit organizations, ethnic associations. It’s connecting with them that libraries are able to reach out and know families that are not too familiar to librarians.

Steve Thomas: In the book, one of the chapters or several of the chapters, you talk about different types of families and different ways that libraries need to be creative and engaging with those kinds of families. Can you all talk about some of those and how libraries can best serve those communities?

Margaret Caspe: Yeah. So one of the themes that comes across in maybe all of the chapters is association of engaging families is really about reaching out to families, raising up their voices and consistently building relationships among families within the communities.

And in one chapter, Elena and I interviewed a number of Latina mothers to understand, and really build our knowledge about their perceptions of the library, what the library has meant to them. And we heard just these really robust and vibrant themes of the library being a place for education and learning. The library being a place to meet others, the library being a place to build one’s own knowledge about the United States perhaps, or English or other types of digital skills or things of that matter. And also the library, as Bharat mentioned before, just becoming like a really calm and soothing place to be with the family. One of our hopes is that by listening to these stories, how can libraries listen to what they hear from families, and then build that into their programming, build that into the types of climates that they create.

And then the other thing, we reached out to the Brooklyn public library to share a little bit about their TeleStory program, one of the things that they had heard from a number of constituents who come into their libraries, the difficulties in communicating with loved ones and how difficult it is sometimes to travel to see them. So they created this wonderful program where families could come to the library, and talk by video chat or talking to other ways, to loved ones who are incarcerated. So it’s that process of deep listening and building what families are saying into the programming and into the services and that really makes that difference. And Elena, do you want to share a little bit about the chapter about Reading is Grand?

M. Elena Lopez: Sure, so we talk about family, we also mean extended family and the Reading is Grand program really brings the wisdom of grandparents on the forefront. It is about grandparents being honored and sharing their oral histories with younger generations and also extending even the notion of family to those who are not biologically related in Reading is Grand. They’ve got seniors and elders in the community to share their stories and really transmit what they know, what they’ve learned, to the younger generation.

Bharat Mehra: I would then add further, as my colleagues have mentioned that libraries have to venture out of their comfort zone, into the external environment. They have to also then be able to recognize, what is the pulse of their communities, which are the populations which are getting left out and not getting served with the appropriate resources, information, knowledge, literacy, and other aspects. So to explore, what are the populations that they can collaborate with in a participatory manner that you are involved together to make a difference in addressing some of the marginalizing circumstances that certain populations might be encountering.

 I had a chance to be funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services in rural communities. And recognizing that the rural communities, low-income families, other underserved racial, ethnic minorities within the rural setting, children and parents with different forms of abilities and disabilities, looking at low-income families, LGBTQ populations, how can they connect with them in ways where the key people about the policies and procedures that they have.

And so we saw the example at the San Diego Public Library with discarding the notion of fines. We saw the matter in the Nashville Public Library, the aspect of homelessness. And getting out of the comfort zone into areas which have been stigmatized and not been able to have appropriate resources because of biases and prejudices, to be able to then establish ways that they can collaborate together in order to make a difference.

Steve Thomas: And what are the benefits of creating partnerships with families and communities?

M. Elena Lopez: I think the benefits are for libraries, for families, and for communities. So let’s talk first about libraries. Through these partnerships, libraries are able to fulfill their mission, their mission of being sources of information, sources of connection with other members of the community, and being a place where people can find inspiration and new ideas and also be creative.

For families, not all families can afford to send their children after-school programs that are fee-based and libraries are a free resource for the community. They have lots of after-school programs for teens and for children. So families then know that their children are in a safe place where there are rich learning experiences.

And for communities just as Bharat mentioned earlier, when libraries and other agencies go beyond their comfort zone, then you’re able to reach out and provide services to all community members. I think we have one example from the Nashville Public Library where different agencies come to the library once or twice a month, and that’s a place where people who have specific needs can go and the libraries are non-stigmatizing institution. So people can go there to find out about services that are available in the community, legal help, whatever they need. So the library connects the community in terms of providing the resources that are of interest to individuals and families.

Bharat Mehra: And for libraries to make a difference and make an impact in meaningful ways, in recent years, we’ve seen, they’ve seen the potential of collaborating with underserved populations and becoming the beacons of EDI and social justice matters. And it’s through these kinds of partnerships that they are able to extend their impact and inform and change misperceptions that the public might have had of them in the past. They’re the only white middle class neutral passive agents, and so, through these kinds of opportunities, we are finding libraries to be able to extend their roles and be able to make a difference in reality and shaping public perceptions who and what they are.

For families, in some of the rural areas, it has meant recognizing that the library is a potential agent that can help support them in various aspects of their lives, and education and health and helping them get established financial outcomes, any aspects of community life.

Libraries have never been part of the community’s understanding that they can help assist to make a difference in their life. And so that reality and understanding has emerged only in the recent years, and then of course, in the communities, it is coming together of various stakeholders in resource sharing and libraries are then an important part in that process of disseminating information, and sharing within the limit, especially in rural areas, when there has been such challenges in terms of resources, libraries are beginning to prove that about themselves that they are important partners with other stakeholders in order to be able to collaborate together to make a difference.

Steve Thomas: Are there any other examples of partnerships that are discussed in the book that you found particularly inspiring or creative?

Margaret Caspe: We spoke with some university researchers at University of Maryland, and they have partnered with a number of libraries using participatory action research methodologies. So these are specific tools and ideas that librarians can use, which is not creating the programs that we think families and youth want, but actually working with families and youth together to create those programs using different types of co-design methods. So starting from ideating and starting from really from scratch and building those programs so that they really fit what families are looking for. We spoke with a number of librarians who are partnering with schools, and really collaborating with schools in vibrant ways. We have one chapter where a fairly rural community that was somewhat homogenous, really wanted to explore how to bring about a better understanding of different experiences that different families have. So they created an entire community wide project around the book “Refugee” where children in schools were reading it, adults were reading it and it really culminated in a vibrant community celebration and sharing of the book together.

We have another example from Ricarose Roque, who is out in Denver, and she’s using computational literacy, digital coding, in libraries. So using Makey Makey or Scratch Jr., she’ll partner with libraries to really enhance the types of opportunities that they provide families and their children together to tell stories using those types of digital media. So there’s so many examples out there that are really exciting.

Steve Thomas: That’s great. How can libraries generate impact and make a difference in the lives of families? You have a whole section in the book addressing homelessness un- leveling the playing field and eliminating fines, IMLS grants, stuff like that. Can you talk a little bit about that?

Margaret Caspe: I could start off, but I would love Elena and Bharat to jump in.

When we think about impact, impact for families in particular, there’s so many levels and there’s so many ways that we think about the impact on families that libraries can have. I think on one hand, We talk about the impact that libraries can have just in a relational parenting- like way providing that context, that safe space to just enjoy and spend time with your child in a learning environment.

So one direction that’s in a very micro level way but libraries also through their programming, through the resources that they offer, grow parents’ own knowledge, their own skills, their own abilities, which we know is directly linked to both family wellbeing, increasing family resources, and increases in student achievement.

We also know that through the connections that families are meeting in libraries, they’re really also creating that vibrant, social, emotional connections that are so important for all of us, especially when you think about the pandemic and how isolated everyone’s been, just to be able to come together in a community space again. It feels wonderful. And then there’s also an advocacy level that, that libraries provide for families. The ways that families partner with libraries and advocate for libraries within their communities really builds families’ own strength and families’ own agency in the community.

Bharat Mehra: Building on what Maggie said, libraries have not been very effective in the past of telling their own stories. And especially in national, state level associations and forums, the focus has only been on the Northwest, and Northeast, Midwest, and urban metropolitan areas. So I think what is found through some of the community engagement initiatives in the rural communities that within the constraints of the limitations of resources and other constraining factors, they are making such remarkable efforts in reaching out and making partnerships and collaborating and making a difference in their rural areas.

But their stories have never been told. They themselves have not played a more proactive role in telling what they are doing and being able to reach out to the people who are in charge of the financial purse strings in order to be able to tell their stories and be able to convince them that they are making a difference. That same aspect of representation, of storytelling in the libraries, libraries themselves have to understand the aspects of equity instead of equality, and that there are different community members and within that, individuals coming with their own life experiences and social cultural aspects of the underserved and marginalized in different ways and still be able to recognize what those inequities are, through an asset-based framework. What strengths are these communities bringing to the table in being able to then build on them and facilitate that growth and opportunities in that manner. And several references to it, but one of the chapters on the Family Learning Place that it’s a national level network of library organizations and systems who are establishing and developing creative, innovative ways of learning while engaging with children and their parents recognizing the equitable nature of what the different individuals and children bring to the conversation.

M. Elena Lopez: You also wanted to portray in the book, the several levels of the library system that can have an impact on family. So we do have a chapter written by somebody who talks from the federal perspective and how, for example, the Institute of Museum and Library Services, IMLS, supports the cultural identities and revitalizes library programs that transmit the values of different cultural groups to the next generation. In particular, this chapter looks at or provides examples of what’s happening in Native American communities, as well as in Hawaii.

We also look at what’s happening at the state level and state libraries systems are also important in providing the resources, especially for early childhood programs and ensuring that those that cannot afford childcare or preschool have opportunities for early literacy and early math through their Storytime and other programs that are available through the libraries.

And then we also have the aspect of associations. There are many different types of library associations, and how associations can also. So have an impact on families. We talked earlier about the Reading is Grand program. That actually is part of the Black Caucus of the American Library Association and it’s a national program that supports literacy mainly through the contributions that grandparents and seniors in the community have.

Steve Thomas: And in this section, Bharat, you actually co-wrote a chapter about rural families. Could you talk a little bit about that?

Bharat Mehra: Sure. Yes. Several projects thanks to the funding of the Institute for Museum and Library Services. And it started with training of paraprofessional librarians in the Southern and central Appalachian region. And how one would bring in into the curriculum aspect of rural management and information technology, which thanks to taking online courses in a synchronous model, students were able to partner with families and children through developing course projects, which were leading towards actual, tangible deliverables within the community libraries that they were working in.

And so it started with two grants that were funding about 29 ,30 students in the various states in the Southern and central Appalachian region. From there, one was able to propose a research-based project, but action research in building partnerships between smaller businesses and public libraries in Tennessee and small businesses involve individual entrepreneurs, families in terms of different types of small business and how the library could then facilitate providing appropriate resources and support. So through that process, we ended up collaboratively in participatory design, getting the families and the small business owners and the librarians together developed a blueprint design of a public library, small business toolkit, and which had different components of information related offerings. And we then got some support from the local government in strategic planning session where we will be able to get some resources to support operationalizing and implementing some elements of the blueprint design of the toolkit that we had developed.

And then the most recent one was on looking at the whole notion of community engagement in relation to rural libraries, again, in the Southern and central Appalachian region and in various aspects of their work including starting from diversity, talking about education, health, social welfare, there were 11 different domains that we picked up in terms of aspects of community life and the identify what the rural libraries were doing in relation to partnering with external stakeholders in these different sectors and what challenges were they encountering? And then what outcomes we’re getting generated through the collaborations and initiatives that they developing. So through that process, we were making the rural libraries the spotlight of the positive initiative that they’re making and of course leading towards development of roadmaps and strategic action plans of how that would move forward.

Steve Thomas: Given the long timelines of publishing, I imagine when you were first putting the book together, you maybe didn’t have the last chapter planned, which was about adapting in times of crisis. Can you talk about why you wanted to include something about that in the book?

Bharat Mehra: It started off when I moved to Alabama in 2019, but it was around that time too, it started with the opioid crisis and I was looking at rural communities in the region in how they were developing partnerships, collaborating collaboration to address the high rate of the opioid problems that we had found in the region. But of course it made sense to include something related to the whole pandemic. And since then the challenges and shifts in our whole life realities that have happened. And so, that’s how we ended up recognizing the need to the current circumstances and mittens how libraries are then playing a role in helping their families and communities and including children through innovative new ways of delivery of services, which has now of course shifted online, but many other ways helping the supporting the first responders and other aspects there. But that’s where the chapter came about.

Margaret Caspe: And Amber Brown is our colleague who wrote that chapter and she serves on the Public Library Association Family Engagement Group, and as part of that chapter, what she did is she talked to a number of librarians and she really tried to raise up the ways that libraries had adapted and pivoted and transformed during the pandemic, you know, I’m just looking at some of them now, how access to online resources, libraries shifted very quickly to make everything more accessible. I know my own public library, suddenly it was very easy to reserve a book and have that book reserved, in ways that it hadn’t been before.

Libraries are expanding digital resources, really using library staff to help in frontline ways, which is really a powerful idea. And then, one of the things that we’ve heard as we come out of the pandemic, is how many of these innovations that needed to take place really quickly have sparked lasting change.

Steve Thomas: And so if a librarian is reading this book, what’s your advice to them for getting started with engaging with families?

M. Elena Lopez: It goes back to listening and learning from families, gathering that type of data, both through informal as well as formal means. And then really stepping back and reflecting. What do you want to accomplish given all this information and really do something that is realistic within the resources that the library has? And so it means also going back and looking at what library services, programs, collections already exist. So it’s about building on a library’s assets.

 One of the chapters in the book that features the Benson Memorial Library. It’s about collaborating within departments of a library. So here we have a situation where the adult librarian gets together with children’s librarian and develops this program for the whole family. And so libraries can do that if they’re wanting to serve children and families, they can collaborate within their departments to come up with something that addresses the interests as well as the needs of families. And then there’s of course, networking within the larger community to find out how you can put either a program or a set of collections together that has the input of these agencies that work with directly with families because they have contacted families again, that may not always come to the library. So it’s having these networks and connections, but always being clear about what you want to accomplish and how you can use the library’s assets, as well as its connections within the community to make something really tangible and valuable and meaningful for children and families.

Margaret Caspe: One thing we started with at the beginning of this conversation was the definition of family engagement and family learning. And we always say that family engagement is a process. It’s not a program, so there’s no need to create a whole new program. Just like Elena was saying, sometimes minor tweaks to existing services can go such a long way. So if you have a story time group, take a few moments for the families and caregivers who are together in that storytime group to perhaps share cell phone numbers or share something about themselves to build that social connection. Or if during summer programming, provide some additional opportunities to have families come in and participate jointly. So it’s not just a youth program. There are so many ways to just tweak ever so slightly what’s going on to make them more family centered.

Bharat Mehra: Yeah. One step at a time and reaching out of course is a key element there that in your local communities, do some environmental scanning and see who are the different organizations and agencies, those populations that are being left of the distribution of resources and power and information and others. And through that process of environmental scanning, recognize those potential partnerships and collaborations and venture outside our comfort zones to see how one can work together in participatory engaged manners to facilitate the goals or aspirations of those communities might be.

And so that kind of involves as my colleagues have mentioned, the element of impact and outcomes. Outcome based assessment needs to be integrated into the type of work that libraries are doing in telling their stories. Outcomes means, what difference does it make in real ways in someone’s political, economic, financial, educational realities, and documenting those elements in there.

And my last thought that as Elena and Maggie, both said, there are potential partners and collaborators out there. And so one doesn’t have to start from scratch. One can find those allies and alliances at different levels, local level, state level, national level, and even internationally in terms of continuing to help support each other towards making a difference in our communities.

Steve Thomas: Well, Elena, Bharat, and Maggie, thank you so much for talking to me for the show today and to your contributors, obviously, for writing some of the chapters there and good luck with the book in the future!

Bharat Mehra: Thank you for having us today.

Margaret Caspe: Thank you so much.

M. Elena Lopez: Thank you so much, Steve.