Class Consciousness: Inviting
them for a visit, and maybe to stay
Convert your library into a
popular laboratory . . . You must connect your institutions
with the educational wants of the people. There should be, in
every great community, organized instruction through public
libraries . . .
--Herbert Baxter Adams, speaking to the ALA in 1887
Your library--I know this--is a wonderful place.
You and its other supporters have made it a charming haven, filled
with big ideas and small pleasures. Your first-time visitors walk
in wide-eyed; they leave reluctantly, vowing to return. Anyone
who comes in once with an open mind feels a sense of belonging,
a home. You've seen it happen a thousand times.
So how do you explain the findings of a recent
survey of library use in the US--that among households with no
children, barely one-third included anyone who visited a library
in the past month? And that of those same households almost half
had not used a library in the past year?1
Plenty of your neighbors have never been inside
your little haven. Many probably believe it has nothing for them.
If your community includes people who speak little or no English,
you can bet that a good many-quite likely most-share this
Now then, movie fans: In Pleasantville,
why was there a long line outside the public library? Simple--it
offered people something they wanted and couldn't get anywhere
else. Your library can do the same for Spanish-speakers.
Give the people what they want
I'm not referring to collection development, important
as that is. Savvy anglers from Izaak Walton to Richard Brautigan
have always known that the tastiest bait is
wasted if the fish don't see your lure.2
Building an attractive foreign-language collection is a costly
and difficult enterprise. And it's a vain one, if the target patrons
of that collection never see it. Maybe you have a nice stash of
Spanish-language music, books, and videos; that means nothing
to people who are reluctant to enter the library in the first
place. They won't know what they're missing. Word may filter out
to the community eventually, sure--but if you want to attract
a lot of Spanish-speakers to your library, offer something they
know they want: English classes.
To draw linguistic minorities to your facility,
you couldn't do much better than to offer ESL instruction. If
you have the space (a good language class is a noisy proposition-lacking
a separate classroom, you'd have to do this outside of business
hours) and a good teacher, you can quickly be a magnet for a whole
new class of people.
It seems natural that public libraries would be
lairs of learning, not just for individuals but groups. Yet, in
the aforementioned survey how many of those who said they had
visited a library, do you think, went there to take a class or
meet a tutor? Make
a guess.3 Not many libraries, it seems, are doubling
as classrooms-and for some, this is a squandered outreach opportunity.
[If your library has hosted classes of some kind, I'd like
to hear about your experiences. My own position is biased. In
my years as an ESL teacher, I did what I could to get students
to snuggle up to libraries. I
even had the thrill of seeing an English class change a library's
Setting up an ESL class
By forming cooperative arrangements with local
colleges who use library facilities as extension sites, many librarians
have been able to expand their collections of Adult Basic Education
(ABE) materials and even add equipment to their classrooms with
the college footing the bill.
Another option in a college town is to call the
school's Education or ESL department and offer your room for teachers-in-training
who may be eager to design their own practicum. Such a model is
unusual but not unheard of. A sympathetic professor with energetic
students, infected with the "Hey kids! Let's put on
a show!" mentality, can conjure up a good class out
of thin air and an empty room.
Alternatively, you could make your classroom available
to unaffiliated instructors. In any case, be aware of existing
ESL offerings and avoid scheduling classes at competing times--particularly
if the 'competition' charges tuition and you don't. Try to ensure
that your classes expand the local opportunities to study
Once the class is scheduled, you'll want to make
sure word gets out. That's out. Don't be content with
flyers posted on the shelves of your Spanish collection. Try to
reach that large group who will turn out for an English class
but wouldn't dare come to a library for its own sake. Ideally
your instructor will manage publicity, but remember that this
is library outreach, too. See to it that pithy flyers are available
in stores, churches, and other ESL classes. That local newspapers
get press releases, and broadcasters get PSAs.
What's this class gonna be like?
One of the beauties of adult education is its
patent lack of rigidity, the fact that it need not remotely resemble
your grade school training. Even that label adult education
sounds too restrictive-I've never taught a night class where kids
weren't welcome. Some adult students don't have a choice about
bringing children-either they can't get a babysitter, or they
want that kid sitting right beside them for a sense of security.
Your mileage may vary, so your policies will have
to fit your library. It's a given, though, that the classroom
should--like the rest of the building--be as comfortable and accommodating
as you can manage. Plenty of chairs and hot coffee are a pretty
good start. Similarly, your outreach purposes are best served
by wide-open enrollment (the open-entry open-exit model, in ABE
jargon) that expects learners to show up when they can and drop
out when they must. This means more students going through the
class, many of whom might just continue to patronize the library
once they know where it is, and have felt its aspect change from
mysterious and forbidding to warm and welcoming.
Cooperate with the teacher, and expect the same
in return. Good educators are always hungry for inspiration--show
off the resources you have for instructors and learners. Offer
to help incorporate the library itself in lessons. Encourage the
teacher to see to it--systematically, if necessary--that new students
get library cards and know how to use them.
Contemporary language teaching emphasizes experiential,
communicative language use in practical contexts. The exercise
of applying for a library card fits these criteria and is likely
to be embraced by your instructor, who might even be inspired
to build a lesson around the procedure.
More on ESL and ABE . . . and ENNL, and ESP .
Yes, if you enjoy arcane abbreviations, you'll
love reading about adult education. But eminently sensible
and useful scholarly writing does exist, and it can give you a
good grounding in the practical and philosophical issues surrounding
such instruction. One good starting place is Public Libraries
and Community-Based Education4, yours free
from the U.S. Department of Education. Marianne Celce-Murcia's
book, Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language5
includes good articles by Sharon Hilles and Dr. Mary McGroarty
with insights regarding what attracts adults to night language
classes. And of course, anything by Paulo Freire will reaffirm your bedrock
belief in the value of grassroots language and literacy instruction.
1Use of Public Library
Services by Households in the United States: 1996 U.S. Department
of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Publ.
# NCES 97-446, March 1997, p. 7
Return to text
2Of course no animals
were harmed in the making of PLUS, the website that endorses the
sportfishing practice of catch, coddle, apologize, and release.
3Answer: On the order
of one to two percent! [Ibid, p. 9] The good Professor
Herbert Baxter Adams is, one can only imagine, twirling in his
4Humes, Barbara A.
et al.: Public Libraries and Community-Based Education,
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Educational Research and
Improvement, Publ. #PE 96-8015, March 1996
(1991). Teaching English as a Second or Foreign Language.
New York: Newbury House. Hilles's article begins on p. 402, and
McGroarty's on p. 372.
© 1999 Bruce Jensen, who welcomes your comments
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