Guest Blogger

Making a Difference Together

Can I tell you about the best thing I’ve ever done? I stood up in a Youth Services meeting and asked for help.

In the fall of 2012, by chance I’d learned about a seasonal shelter for homeless families within our service area. The Road Home’s Community Winter Shelter, I’d heard, was a converted warehouse; instead of storing bags of onions or drums of chemicals, we stored people. Appalling description, isn’t it? I didn’t know how much community support the Road Home has, or what a wonderful organization it is, and I certainly didn’t know that The Road Home is a nationally recognized leader in rapid rehousing. I just knew I wanted to do something to promote early literacy to families.

I drafted a proposal suggesting that we do weekly early literacy storytimes in the shelter and submitted it to my branch manager and our administrator. We secured approval from the shelter, and then I took the project to our youth services committee. I was nervous, but I knew I couldn’t do it alone: I have neither the off-desk time nor the emotional resources to visit the shelter myself every week. I braced myself and asked my fellow librarians for help.

How did it go? Easiest sell ever. I stood up, described the shelter, told my peers what I wanted to do, and how to sign up. I sat down, and my colleagues stepped up. Last season, twenty librarians visited the shelter to donate books and present early literacy storytimes at the family shelter. We presented 33 storytimes and donated hundreds of books. The work is hard, but rewarding. I’ll always be grateful I found the courage to ask my colleagues for help.

Tips for Working with Homeless Children & Families

  • Understand that these families live in chaotic circumstances.
    • Our goal is to engage the children as future readers and library users.
    • Some days the most valuable thing we accomplish is giving the parents a break so they can go take a shower.
  • Children living in unstructured environments often deal with the extra pressures they face by trying to control their environment. We try to be especially patient with kids who act out.
  • Many children in the shelter are not used to group activities, and are easily distracted.
    • We plan storytimes that are shorter, with more music and gross motor activities.
    • We accept that some kids can’t focus. It is OK to let those children play with toys while we focus our attention on other children who are engaged in the storytime.
  • Listen to the parents’ concerns and reinforce that you understand they want to help their kids get ready to read.
  • Parents appreciate having something to look forward to. We schedule our programs in advance and promote them with posters.


Our guest blogger today is Heather Novotny.  Heather is a Senior Librarian, Children’s Outreach & Programming, at Salt Lake County Library Services.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at


  1. Renee Grassi

    Excellent post, Heather. Thank you for sharing such great tips and strategies, too! This is so important for us to remember as we serve our library communities. Our Library Director just this week shared this video with us. It’s a 40 minute video introduction called “A Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.” It’s a great tutorial for any front-line staff member who serves the public.

    1. Liesl Seborg

      Thanks for sharing that excellent video! I have shared it with the management and all librarians at my library system.

  2. Heather Novotny

    Thanks for sharing that video, Renee!

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