Blogger Renee Grassi

American Sign Language (ASL) in Your Library

Did you know that American Sign Language (ASL) is the third most common non-English language used in the United States? ASL contains all the basic features of language–it has its own pronunciation, word order, and complex grammar system–making it a completely separate and distinct language from English.  Just as we serve patrons in our public libraries who may speak Mandarin, Spanish, Polish, or Arabic, we may also serve those whose first language is American Sign Language.  How, then, can we make our libraries an inclusive and welcoming place for those patrons?  We can incorporate ASL into library services, library programming, and include it in staff training.  Even if we may not notice (at first) any of our library users whose first language is ASL, we still have an opportunity to introduce and expose families to a hands-on second language that is engaging and fun.  How do we do that?  We learn, of course!

Learn From the Experts

While we may not have had the opportunity to learn about about American Sign Language during library school, there are plenty of opportunities for us to learn from the experts now in our library careers.  We could connect with our local special education teachers and ask for recommendations of centers in our area that teach American Sign Language.  We could also sign up for an ASL class at local community colleges.  Here is a more detailed list of other learning opportunities and resources to supplement your learning.

  • Registration is open for this six-week Basic American Sign Language e-course is available through ALA Store.  Attendees will how to interact effectively with deaf patrons, learn how to use various signs in a library context, and understand how the library can use ASL as a service that ties into the broader community.
  • Little Hands & Big Hands: Children and Adults Signing Together by Kathy MacMillan is an authoritative guide on sign language that helps readers engage with children up to age 5, regardless of their hearing ability.  Published by ALA Editions, this resource includes activities, such as games, finger plays, songs and crafts, which help children develop language skills.  Another great tool is Once Upon a Sign: Using American Sign Language to Engage, Entertain, and Teach All Children by Kim Taylor-DiLeva.  This book is an introduction to ASL in the library, and includes program ideas for infants, toddlers, school-age children, ‘tweens, and teens.
  • Signing Savvy, which is provided by Recorded Books, is a web resource and reference tool that helps improve signing vocabulary.  Among other things, it includes an easy-to-search dictionary for signs and short videos that demonstrate signs for you.  You can even register as an individual or register your library as a whole to give your community access to their complete list of features, which include more in-depth instructional videos, printable sign flash cards, and access to quizzes to improve your signing.
  • Compiled by ASCLA and available through the ALA Store, take a look at Guidelines for Libraries and Information Services for the American Deaf Community.  This document contains statements of general principles, that is meant to serve both as an encouragement to make services accessible for deaf persons and as a means to assess the completeness and quality of such services.

Learn from Each Other

One of the things I love most about libraries is that we love to share.  If another librarian is interested, we are happy to share how we developed a new program or service, so that they can better serve their own community.  Our collective knowledge as librarians is limitless!  Here are some libraries and librarians that have already shared their excellent programs, services, and resources to better serve those patrons in our libraries that speak ASL.

  • Librarians have been using ASL in existing storytime programs for years.  Check out Kiera Parrott’s ALSC blog post, where she shares her ideas for Using Sign Language in Early Literacy Programs.
  • Partnership is often the key to success when developing new programs for children with special needs.  Read With Me, Sign With Me program is an example of a partnership program at its finest.  Deaf Family Literacy Academy and Memphis Public Library collaborated to offer sign-augmented storytimes.  Sign Language Storytime at the Austin Public Library is a program that models a similar partnership. Their StorySign program features a deaf storyteller signing the storytime, while an interpreter voices the story for the hearing.
  • Some libraries have branched out, offering sign language classes and workshops for older children.  The Chesapeake City Branch Library is one of those libraries.  You can read about their four-week program series here: Free Library Program Teaches Kids Sign Language
  • If you are looking for resources to supplement existing programs, check out the llinois Service Resource Center.  Their center has made available ASL Literacy Packets based on seven popular children’s books, including A Fine Fine School by Sharon Creech, Rainbow Fish by Marcus Pfister, and The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. Each packet includes descriptions and demonstrations of the signs in the story, and three literacy activities – including all necessary handouts or manipulatives.  The packets are available free online and can be viewed as an e-book or download as a PDF.

If you are planning a new program or service project to serve underserved groups in your library community and need funding, consider applying for a grant.  The ALSC/Candlewick Press “Light The Way” Grant is awarded to a library that is conducting exemplary outreach to underserved populations through a new program.  It can also be awarded to a library who wants to expand upon work that is already being done.  The Early Childhood Reading Grant is awarded by the Target Foundation.  Each Early Childhood Reading Grant is $2,000, given to a school or library program that fosters a love of reading and encourage young children to read together with their families.

How is your library being inclusive to patrons that speak ASL?  Share your ideas below!



  1. Renee

    We have had a great children’s program at our library for a couple years now that incorporates ASL. John Tierney, Ed. D. and his Burt the Raccoon puppet show is a hilarious, entertaining, and educational show. He is based in RI, but I am sure he could travel to MA and CT if any other libraries are interested in having him. I have seen him about 5 times and love it each time!

    Taken from his website:

    “John L Tierney, Ed.D. is a puppeteer and story teller from Wakefield, RI.  A Graduate of the School of Education at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, he holds a Bachelor’s degree in Education, a Master’s degree in early childhood/special needs and wrote his dissertation on Puppetry in Education for his Doctorate.  He has worked as a teacher of children with autism at the Groden Center in Providence, RI and as an outreach teacher with the Hitchcock Center for the Environment in Amherst, Ma.  

    As a teacher/puppeteer, John relays information about nocturnal animals, a forest food chain and tree identification through American Sign Language, storytelling, mime, audience participation and funny dialogue. “

  2. Renee Grassi

    I really like the idea of incorporating ASL in family program, as well–or seeking programmers that have this particular focus and specialty. Thank you for sharing, Renee!

  3. Pingback: Using American Sign Language in Storytime | Jbrary

  4. Dawn Prochovnic

    This is such an excellent summary! Thank you so much. I’ve shared it out to my FB accounts (and my “just started” Twitter feed). May I have your permission to reference this post on my own blog?

    I also wanted you to know about my publisher’s free online resources to help plan sign language events at your library ( Lastly, I wanted to share a link to a feature on my blog called “Start to Finish Story Time” where I provide several lesson plans for sign language story times (with more to come over time!):
    Please let me know if I can ever be a resource. I love connecting with other folks who are passionate about early literacy and sign language!

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