Anne Leon is the Executive Director of Public Library Services at the Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library. She is the author of the article “Beyond Barriers” (Children & Libraries; Winter 2011, Vol. 9 Issue 3, p12-14), and co-author of the article “Leadership at its Best: Library Managers Spearhead Successful Special Needs Programming.” (Children & Libraries; Summer/Fall 2010, Vol. 8 Issue 2, p54-57.)
You have had a long career in serving underserved populations in public libraries. Some of the most successful programs you developed include the Homeschooling Resource Center and Tutoring Service at the North Regional Broward County Library, and the All-Star Storytime for preschoolers diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library. How did you find out that there was a need for these programs?
Anne: Paying attention to who was in the library, and who wasn’t!
Actually, my first experience with understanding the importance of paying attention to changes happened after Hurricane Andrew in South Florida in 1992. Within weeks of the Hurricane, I noticed that my usually pristine small collection of Spanish and bi-lingual children’s books were all out on the tables, every day. There was very little change in circulation, but obviously they were being used in-house. I had a library assistant take a pickup cart around twice a day for a week, always counting and reshelving the Spanish and bilingual. We repeated this about a month later. These statistics enabled me to obtain funds to expand the collection. It became clear that the devastation in parts of Dade County had caused a shift in demographics; many families were displaced for at least an extended period of time, living with friends and family here in Broward County.
In the late 90’s, the Homeschooling Resource Center at the North Regional branch of the Broward County Library grew from observing a number of family groups studying in the library during the daytime, and putting up a “Welcome!” sign. That led to contacts with a local organization that helped us build a resource file, including a “newcomer’s packet” with information about how to file paperwork with the School Board, identifying curriculum sources and contact numbers for a host of small groups to connect with for shared learning. We enjoyed a wonderful relationship with the Homeschooling community as a result.
When I took a position at a large Regional library, and then later at the Sherman library at NSU, these were very different communities, but there are always patrons who need to be connected to resources and support.
You started your career in public schools. What are some of the differences between working in a school setting and working in a public library? Are there any special challenges?
I had always wanted to teach, but quit college in my junior year. A number of years later, when my own children were young, I took a position as a paraprofessional to four special education classes in a Public School in Queens, NY. I rotated between four classes, with four different age groups, every day. It was the most exhausting and rewarding year of my life, and inspired me to enroll in college, again. Queens College CUNY had a marvelous program, grounded in field work and practicums that provided a wonderful foundation. I graduated Summa Cum Laude, and was recommended for a position, when a family decision was made to move to South Florida. How I became an “Accidental Librarian” is another story, but I have found that the passion for connecting children with the knowledge they need is common to both fields… teachers and librarians are perfect partners in supporting youth. There are always teachable moments. One of the biggest differences in a library setting is that we may never see the same children with continuity. So every encounter matters! My experience in Special Ed planted a seed. I was very fortunate to be able to see it flower, here at NSU with the All-Star program.
Developing the All-Star Storytime for preschoolers with Autism Spectrum Disorder at the Sherman Library at NSU continues to be a particular passion of mine. It was a natural outgrowth of our relationship with the Mailman Segal Center’s Baudhuin Preschool which is affiliated with NSU. That connection led to an opportunity for some training and on-site classroom observations, and learning best practices from experts. Our challenge was to make that work in a library storytime environment. I feel that All-Star is a model for this type of program, and I am so very proud of the work and commitment of our Youth Services Librarians in bringing this to the community.
What advice do you have for graduate students and/or new librarians who would like to work with special populations?
1- Pay attention to shifts of demographics in your walk-in patrons. What has changed in your community? Do you have the materials and services in place to meet that change?
2- Ask yourself the big question: Who ISN’T coming to the library? Keep good statistics and track changes. Advocate for outreach: call local agencies, afterschool care centers, organizations, schools, clubs, churches. What groups are they serving? I worked at a branch that hadn’t had a Children’s Librarian for nearly two years before I arrived. I was told by staff that I wouldn’t have much to do, since no children ever came in. With the support of the new branch manager, I drove around the community, handing out business cards at every childcare/ daycare center and school I could find. I built a following through outreach and, in less than a year, had crowds at my first Summer Reading Program.
In my outreach I discovered two main reasons for the lack of children and families at that branch: 1- the attitude by many staff toward lively children was unwelcoming, and 2- almost all the schools and family-priced housing was literally across the tracks. Small nearby childcare centers without buses were afraid to walk small children over the train crossings–so I went to them.
3- Never underestimate the power of “simple”: Put up some signs or bulletin board notices near your desk as conversation starters. For example: Homeschoolers Welcome! Ask Us for Assistance or Ask us about our inclusive storytimes! Make your signs bilingual or trilingual whenever possible, to reach as many newcomers in your community. Go shopping at a local grocery store at a busy time…how many languages do you hear? Are you hearing them in your library? If not, why not? In a number of cultures, libraries are not open to everyone for free, so get this message out to your community. There are many people who need our help, and don’t know about the wealth of information that can be at their fingertips in their local library. Making that connection happen is one of the greatest satisfactions of our profession.
Interviewed by Rebecca Hickman, Library Services to Special Populations and Their Caregivers Committee Member
To learn more about Nova Southeastern University Alvin Sherman Library’s programs for children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, please visit: http://nova.campusguides.com/ASD.