Blogger Library Service to Underserved Children and Their Caregivers committee

Whitehall Public Library: The LEARN Bus and so much more!

As a member, and later Chair of the LSSPCC, I learn of many programs that are truly fascinating. I was surprised when I learned of a program that was happening not far from my own home. I have followed the work of the Whitehall Public Library for the last four years with great interest. As part of ACLA (Allegheny County Library Association) I run into Paula Kelly, the director of Whitehall Public Library, on a regular basis. She is always enthusiastic about the outreach of WPL. I consider her a shining star. Paula Kelly grew up in Whitehall and began working at the library in 1997 as a part-time library page after spending time at home to raise her two sons. She never realized it would lead to an entirely new career path. She eventually became a full-time Circulation Service Desk Manager, and made the decision in 2007 to study for her MLIS degree at the University of Pittsburgh. Her graduation from the program coincided with her appointment as Library Director in 2009.

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You serve a unique population in Allegheny County. Can you describe your community and the special population you serve?

Recent census data from American Fact Finder reports that the Borough of Whitehall is a community of 13,944 residents. It is a suburban municipality of 3.2 square miles located in the South Hills of Pittsburgh, approximately six miles from the city. Although most of the homes are single-family dwellings, there are a representative number of apartments and town houses as well.

The borough’s diversity is somewhat unique in that it is host to a significant community of multi-ethnic resettled refugees, comprising over 7% of the population. The Baldwin-Whitehall School District, presently educating refugees from more than a dozen countries, has the highest percentage of refugee students of the 42 school districts in Allegheny County, and the second highest in the state. There is a wide range of English language proficiencies among the refugees; from young children who quickly assimilate, to older adults who often remain basically non-literate.

Whitehall Public Library (WPL) has created some great outreach programs, how did you come up with the ideas and assess the needs of your community?



In response to the sudden influx of resettled refugees within the Borough of Whitehall, Whitehall Borough Councilwoman Linda Book spearheaded a proposal whereby the library would provide bus transportation for resettled refugees, giving them the opportunity to utilize library resources and services. This initiative involved a unique cooperative arrangement among the Whitehall Public Library, the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC), the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, and the Friends of the Whitehall Public Library.

Since its establishment, the LEARN Bus (Library Easy Access to Residents in Need) has introduced many multi-ethnic resettled refugee families to the Whitehall Public Library, providing residents an opportunity to receive a library card, check out library material, and attend library programs. The cooperative arrangement among the organizations involves:

– A contractual agreement with the School District to provide the bus transportation,

– An agreement with GPLC staff and volunteers to accompany families on the bus and facilitate during LEARN Bus visits,

– A designated portion of the annual Friends of the Whitehall Public Library’s donation to help underwrite the cost of the LEARN Bus program.

This initiative was further strengthened when Children and Youth Services Librarian Denise Ignasky and I made the decision to become GPLC-certified adult ESL tutors at Whitehall Place, tutoring adults in a group classroom setting two evenings a week.

We created library literacy lesson plans for our ESL students. By creating simple library lessons with many visual cues, we were able to convey the library’s message and generate an atmosphere of genuine enthusiasm and excitement around the idea of visiting the library. A visit to the library was explained not only as an educational opportunity, but also as an opportunity for an ‘evening out’ with family in a community setting. The message was reinforced that the library was a welcoming, helpful, and friendly place, and that a visit would involve them no cost. This resulted in a subsequent LEARN Bus ‘rebirth’ that has been nothing less than phenomenal.

Each LEARN Bus visit lasts approximately ninety minutes. It is loud and it is lively. Because the monthly visits coincide with our Monday Night Family Storytime, refugee visitors are able to socialize, enjoy the library, and borrow resources, etc. along with members of the community-at-large. Over the course of the past two years, we have issued over 170 new library cards to our LEARN Bus patrons, enabling them to enjoy their first-ever public library experience.


WPL continues to change and evolve its programs; can you explain that process?

The LEARN Bus program’s success provided a strong foundation which has subsequently lead to a variety of other ESL initiatives and funding opportunities.

– Family Literacy Kits
In 2012, the library was awarded a $2,000 LSTA grant opportunity for the creation of Family Literacy Kits which are circulated and managed as a library outreach initiative via GPLC’s ESL classrooms. The kits were designed to foster literacy-based activity among parents and children; they are also used as a classroom instructional tool. The library solicited input from the school district’s ESL instructors as well as GPLC staff for suggested kit content. The program was successfully launched in February of 2013.

Other aspects of the program include:
– Citizenship Seminars

– Talking Time @ Your Library

– World Book Night Donor
We have been selected again in 2013, as a donor and a site host, and will distribute books to refugee youth involved in a mentoring program.

Beyond what we have accomplished with our refugee population, the library has had much success in creating programs and services for other user groups. We received a Senior Spaces grant in 2011 from Commonwealth Libraries for the creation of our library’s Second Chapter Café, a library space that can rival any Starbucks, hosting collection items and programs for older adults and seniors. The Café was also the springboard for our successful Teen Tech Open House program where a panel of tech-savvy teen volunteers ‘hang out’ in the Café and field questions related to e-readers, iPads, smartphones or anything else tech-related.
We are also a trademarked Family Place Library, the result of a 2010 Family Place grant. Our Children’s Library has a dedicated Family Place area and collection and we’ve hosted numerous successful parent-child workshops for our youngest library users and their caregivers.
When I became the Director, I made a conscious effort to analyze our local demographic, and then tried to prioritize programs and services, as well as seek opportunities for outside funding, accordingly.

What have you learned over the years partnering with numerous outside agencies?

Partnering strengthens and enriches library programs in so many ways. With respect to refugee-related initiatives, working with the Literacy Council enables us to directly tap into the local refugee community. Also, by serving as literacy volunteer myself, the ‘face of the library’ is now easily recognized within the community. We’re a known, trusted and friendly entity and that has carried a great deal of cachet moving forward. Obviously, successful partnerships also strengthen opportunities for grant money. Funders like to see partnerships, and a history of proven success stories carries a great deal of weight when seeking funds for new initiatives.

I feel so strongly that every connection you make within your community is a potentially significant one for the library. I try very hard to attend as many community events as possible to show my mutual support; efforts that often pay dividends for the library down the road.

You have worked hard to get the library message out and to promote the programs and services of Whitehall Public Library. Any tips how to reach out?

We do an outstanding job of self-marketing! There are only five full time staff members here, but one of them has the dedicated responsibility for all of our graphics and promotional work. We have great relations with the local press and are members of the local Chamber. Again, our Children’s Librarian and I try to show up to as many community and school-wide events as possible, and it seems like there is always at least one valuable connection made that we can ‘tuck away’ for later! We are good community partners, and do all that we can to support those organizations that we partner with. Also, I believe that it is every library staff member’s job, as well as the job of our Friends and trustees, to promote the library–I see evidence of that every day.

I know that you are now working on some new projects that might be replicated by other libraries; can you share a little about these initiatives?

To be honest, practically everything we do can be easily replicated. The Family Literacy Kits were inspired from a previous ALSC grant-winner, and the idea of customizing circulating kits for a specific audience knows no boundaries! Any library can offer their equivalent of a Café, and tap into local teens for technology-related services. Our neighboring library who also serves a community of refugees has now decided to provide their own LEARN Bus night. In fact, it coincides with ours so that we can cost-share for the bus that makes one large ‘library loop’.

If you foster and grow relations that reach far into your community, and combine them with creative thinking and a little hard work, then good things are just bound to happen!

Paula Holmes is ALSC Committee Chair, Library Service to Special Population Children and their Caregivers and Trustee for the Upper St. Clair Township Library


  1. Paula Holmes

    If you missed the YouTube video about the Whitehall Public Library here is the link:

  2. Barbara Klipper

    Great post! Wonderful idea to do an interview and let a committed, enthusiastic library director share her innovative ideas with everyone.

  3. Paula Holmes

    Thanks Barbara – WPL (Paula Kelly,her staff and trustees) is doing so much more that I couldn’t fit it into one article.

  4. Doreen Hurley

    It is so good to see Paula and her staff’s approach to this challenge! She has taken what some folks might have viewed as a “problem” and saw it instead as a wonderful opportunity for outreach and service. Terrific, Paula, for you, your staff and your lucky community! And thank you for taking the best that libraries have to offer and sharing it with your world.

    1. paula kelly

      Thanks Doreen, positive public awareness is always at the forefront of out refugee-related services, we are lucky to have such diversity, but unfortunately not everyone shares our view. Our short 10 minute DVD has done a lot to change public opinion.

  5. Many Ly

    GPLC’s students are fortunate to have the Whitehall Library staff behind them. Each person connected to the library is friendly, respectful, and welcoming of our students. Because of this, our students get the opportunity to experience things (interactive and enlightening activities and books) that they normally wouldn’t.

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