Reaching Underserved Patrons – English-Language Learners

by Barbara Shatara, Programs & Partnerships Librarian Fletcher Free Library Burlington, VT

Libraries serve communities as unique as the individuals who live and work there.  Even libraries within the same city can be very different from one another.  One of our super-powers as librarians is the ability to craft our materials, services and buildings to best reflect the needs of our own unique community.   Keeping the library vibrant and vital is a dynamic process.  When members of your community aren’t participating in your programming or coming through the door, there are a several options for making sure the library reaches them too.


Step One:  Who Are You Missing?


Demographics change more in some places than in others, but there is almost always change.  If those using your library don’t fully reflect who you see at the grocery store or at the local high school, it’s time to check in with some local service providers.  There are many organizations who can help you identify underserved populations as well as market library programs and services.  School librarians, adult education organizations, cultural groups, the United Way, municipal economic and development offices, and immigrant service organizations are good partners.  Once you know who you want to reach, plan how you will tell them about your programs and services.


Step Two:  What Do You Want To Say?  And How to Say It.

In Burlington, Vermont, where I am a public librarian, there are over 45 languages spoken by students in our school district.  Sixteen percent of students in the district receive supports as English Language Learners.  While the total population of Burlington is largely White (about 85% as of 2020), we are welcoming increasing numbers of people through immigration and migration from other areas of the country.  Connecting new members of our community to the library requires us to “speak their language”.  And that doesn’t necessarily mean hiring translators.  Library youth programming appeals to kids regardless of English proficiency.

Marketing materials have more resonance when they align with the interests of an audience and contain graphics with which an individual positively identifies.  Let’s break that down using an example.  Building for Hurricanes: Engineering Design Challenge is one of the activities in STAR Net’s Our Blue Planet: EARTH STEAM Activity Toolkit.

Building for Hurricanes has some key components that make this an ideal program to market to low English literacy populations, especially in areas of the country prone to hurricanes :   personal connection, real world importance and collaboration.

Personal Connection: Youth living in areas of the country affected by hurricanes recognize the danger they pose starting at a relatively young age.  The devastation wrought by hurricanes is also a source of fascination for kids of all backgrounds, regardless of where they live.  If you put a picture of a building or town devastated by a hurricane on your marketing materials, it will catch the eye of any kid.  No words needed.

Real World Importance:  Recent studies report today’s youth are more concerned about climate change than any other previous generation.  One study, released by the University of Bath noted that of the 10,000 people aged 16-25 surveyed, 59% were very or extremely worried and 84% were at least moderately worried about climate change.  I’ve observed this anecdotally, and I have also noticed activism increasing among younger and younger kids. Activities that have real world importance align with the interests of many youth.  Building for Hurricanes provides a way for young people in your community to take part in an activity related to climate change and the ways humans can address an increasing number and severity of hurricanes.  Next to that picture of a building devastated by a hurricane, could be a drawing of building built to withstand a hurricane with the words – “Can You Build It Better?”

Get kids interested and they will be engaged in learning.  The steps in Building for Hurricanes are straightforward and can be translated into other languages if needed.  Alternatively, images (or video) of the steps can be created to show how the activity is completed.

Collaboration:  Building for Hurricanes is built for collaboration.  Teaming kids who are new to English with native speakers in this hands-on activity builds more than a tennis ball-supporting tower.  Group activities are opportunities to help kids improve language and social skills.

Lead with excitement when developing marketing materials aimed at youth.  The approach will work with kids of all backgrounds.  Ideally, marketing materials aimed at parents with low English-language literacy will be translated into the languages spoken in your community.  QR codes that point to a webpage with various translations is another approach.  If the publicity is written in English, aim for a 3rd grade reading level.  Spell out the acronyms – STEM may not be understood by all.  Use photos or graphics to describe the program – be sure to use images that depict scientists who reflect the populations you are trying to reach.

Reaching underserved populations takes trial and error, it takes time and sometimes it costs money.  However, once you build those connections to your library, the path becomes more familiar.