Founder, Library Links and AmeriCorps VISTA Member
San José, California
Photos by S. Smith Patrick
Photos by S. Smith Patrick
What is your organization and what inspired you to start it?
The Library Link program at the San José Public Library was inspired by a community member — Ellen, a grandmother at a library storytime who always stepped up to translate for her fellow caregivers who spoke Mandarin and Cantonese.
Library Links are bilingual volunteers from the community who support caregivers of young children (e.g. parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, neighbors, friends). They act as two-way channels, facilitating the exchange of conversations, resources, and ideas between the library and the diverse community it serves. They create a safe space where every caregiver — no matter their background or spoken language — feels empowered to join in on the conversation and share their own ideas and experiences.
When I was a child, I wish I hadn’t had to choose between the language my family spoke at home and the language I saw reflected everywhere else. My own Vietnamese skills and my connection to my heritage would be so much stronger if my grandmother’s language, culture and voice had just as much of a place at the table.
The Library Link program is a way to actively promote the diversity in our community and let all caregivers know they’re in the right place, and they belong.
What did you do before you started the program?
Before coming to the San José Public Library as an AmeriCorps VISTA member, I worked at a Vietnamese-American nonprofit, developing programs to serve San José’s immigrant communities.
What problem are you trying to solve? Why is it needed?
In the San José area, caregivers of young children speak 103 different languages, the most common ones being Spanish, Vietnamese, Mandarin, and Cantonese. About 57% of San José residents speak a language other than English at home.
For our library to provide equitable access to its early education resources and create a safe, trusted, responsive space for all, it must address its cultural and linguistic gaps in service and meet a diverse community of caregivers where they’re at. With their cultural and linguistic capacity, Library Link volunteers are able to connect and engage with underserved communities and make sure programs are relevant to their daily lives.
How does the program work?
Bilingual volunteers are recruited from the library community and the local community at large. Everything starts with a conversation — library staff sits down together with a volunteer and asks them: What are your strengths? How do you want to grow? What impact do you want to make in your community? Once we identify their strengths, goals, and expectations for their service, they’re trained and placed in an early education program where they help with a variety of roles including interpretation, translation, program facilitation, outreach, and peer education.
Our main goal is to promote caregiver connection, participation, and empowerment. In initial surveys, caregivers said they learn more, participate more, feel more comfortable reaching out, and feel their respective cultures are reflected in library programming when Library Links are present.
Library Links have been instrumental in gathering caregiver feedback about early education programming so that library staff can continually adapt and improve it, tailoring it to their community. This demonstrates the two-way nature of the Library Link role — volunteers share library resources with the community, and share community voices with the library.
What makes your approach different or unique?
The Library Link program creates an environment where all, whether they’re volunteers or community members, feel a sense of belonging and mattering. At its foundation, the Library Link program seeks to model empathy, build relationships, and create a safe, trusted environment.
Focused on how people can strengthen and empower a community from the inside out, the Library Link volunteer program recognizes every community member’s role as creator and producer of the change they want to see. Library Links co-design their volunteer role, ensuring it reflects their unique interests, goals, and strengths. The role is intentionally designed to be flexible and adaptable, open to anyone with a desire to serve.
Moreover, the Library Link program seeks to not only be culturally relevant, but culturally sustaining, actively lifting up other cultures and languages. With Library Links, the intergenerational work is inextricably bound up with intercultural work. As members of the communities they serve, Links are able to tap into the history, culture, language, and unique strengths of their communities.
What is your big, audacious vision? What does the world look like in 5-10 years, if your program achieves what you want it to?
I envision a society that uplifts other cultures and languages, allowing those historically at the margins to have an equal place at the table. I envision early education library programming that better reflects our city’s incredibly diverse population, so that children growing up navigating two or more cultures know that they don’t have to choose.
I see a library community where every library visitor feels that they belong and feels a sense of ownership of the library. I envision responsive, adaptive programming and a participatory environment where library visitors feel heard and supported, and staff continually identify and address systemic and emerging barriers to communication and access.
I see strong, robust networks where community members are linked to each other, to the library, and to local community organizations.
Paint a picture of a moment when your organization is doing exactly what you intend it to do.
It’s a moment after a library storytime, when families stay and play for a while with toys on the rug. A caregiver who usually doesn’t speak with anyone else suddenly lights up and waves over the Library Link. The caregiver speaks animatedly, and they catch up on how the other is doing, what new mischief the child has gotten into. The caregiver’s shoulders relax; the smiles come naturally.
This moment of connection — of being seen and heard, of meeting people where they’re at — is the foundation upon which we build our community.
How can people get involved with your work?
You can become a Library Link volunteer if you live in the San José area. You can spread the word about what we’re doing to organizations and community members, and identify ways in which a Library Link role can help create more equity and access in your own community. You can create a Library Link program at the public library in your city. I am developing staff and volunteer training manuals for the Library Link program, detailing recruitment and training best practices and lessons learned. Please feel free to keep in contact with me for more information.
What advice would you give someone who wants to replicate what you’re doing in their community?
A community’s strength lies in its people, and both your volunteers and the people you serve have the power to shape and change their own communities. Your role is to enable and empower them in their role as leaders. As much as possible, I believe in identifying how a community can meet its own needs, then building on existing assets, strengths, and connections.