A Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning: Interviews with Contributors

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Libraries Unlimited recently published an edited volume called A Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning, edited by M. Elena Lopez, Bharat Mehra, and Margaret Caspe, with a foreword by R. David Lankes. One of the many wonderful things about the book is that the chapters have a natural connection to issues of equity, diversity, and inclusion. We had a chance to catch up with several of the contributors to ask a few questions.

Participating contributors:

Lisa Guernsey, director of the Teaching, Learning, and Tech program and senior advisor to the Early and Elementary Education Policy program at New America. Chapter 13, “Media Mentors Start by Listening to Parents”

Nick Higgins, chief librarian at Brooklyn Public Library in charge of public service across Brooklyn. Chapter 7, “Closing the Distance: Reaching Incarcerated Loved Ones”

Misty Jones, director of the San Diego Public Library, overseeing the central library and thirty-five branches. Chapter 18, “Removing Barriers for Youth and Families through Elimination of Fines”

Becky Stahl, youth services librarian at Benson Memorial Library in Titusville, Pennsylvania. Chapter 11 (with Jessica Hilburn), “Age Is But a Number: How to Create Multigenerational Family Programs in Your Public Library”

Felton Thomas, Jr., executive director of Cleveland Public Library. Chapter 14 (with Laura Walter) “Lending an Umbrella to the Community”


  1. One of the exciting things about A Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning is that many of the chapters strongly connect with equity, diversity, and inclusion—concepts that are so important to how libraries welcome and serve all people. Would you tell us in a few sentences how your chapter addresses EDI, whether explicitly or implicitly?

Nick Higgins: There are many unjust systems that ensnare families, making it difficult, if not impossible, to connect with one another in meaningful ways. The justice system separates individuals from their families and communities and creates collateral burdens for family members to shoulder while their loved ones are in prison and long after they return to the community. The justice system also overwhelmingly targets people of color and poor people. We see the family engagement work we do in libraries as part of a strategy to deflect the reach of the justice system into our neighborhoods. By helping to strengthen relationships among family members, while at the same time providing communities the resources needed to dismantle oppressive systems, we move toward a more equitable society.   

Misty Jones: Libraries have always been striving to reduce barriers to service, yet one of our long-term practices, overdue fines, created those very barriers we want to eliminate. I detail in my chapter the overwhelming negative impact of fines in lower socioeconomic areas and the need to look at fines through the lens of equity. For example, I discovered that our overdue fine policy was preventing nearly 40% of patrons in one of our most underserved communities from accessing library resources. Libraries can’t achieve their goals of inclusion by keeping outdated policies that promote exclusion.

Becky Stahl: Our chapter, “Age is But a Number: How to Create Multigenerational Family Programs in Your Public Library,” has a major focus on making library programs equitable for people of all ages. When members of our community mentioned that they had multiple children who fit into different age categories for different programs, they had to decide between bringing one child to the library, or keeping both at home, and the latter option was usually the easiest. Parents also commented that they also wished to get in on the fun at our programs, so we decided to develop our all-ages programs, where we made the programs available to everyone of every age. In our chapter we discuss ways libraries can adapt their programming so that it can be inclusive for everyone in their communities.

Felton Thomas, Jr.: In Cleveland, which has one of the worst poverty rates for children, we have to be the great equalizer at the library. For us, equity means making sure all young people (for instance, those whose parents have PhDs and those whose parents are trying to get GEDs) have the same opportunities to share in programs and collections. We have to make sure simple things like umbrellas don’t get in the way. [See Thomas’s chapter with Laura Walter for the umbrella story.] For us, equity is always making sure that we find ways the community can use us and making sure we don’t create barriers. We can get caught up in the ideas or philosophy, but it’s more important to consider what stops people from getting access to us. For some folks it’s easy to get access to the library, and for others it’s not.

  1. Our book copy says that public libraries can “increase their impact on knowledge development, innovation, and social change by promoting parent and family engagement in children’s learning.” Let’s add “strengthen equity, diversity, and inclusion” too. Would you make that practical for us? Can you offer one or two examples of on-the-ground services or programs that librarians can try right away?

Lisa Guernsey: In the Harford County project, we became more informed by leaving the library and talking to parents in places like Head Start centers and elementary schools. We worked with contacts at a local elementary school with predominantly lower-income student populations and discovered we could catch up with some parents by meeting them after the school had hosted a family day and teacher appreciation luncheon. At another locale, we scheduled a short session with Head Start parents after they had attended a parenting workshop. In short, we realized that we would learn even more about how families interacted with their libraries and what resources they needed most by going directly to the parents, respecting their time, and matching up with their schedules. In one case, we relied on the generosity of a parent who offered to translate for another parent, to ensure we heard the perspectives of parents who did not speak English. (A tip for future work: Budget for translators.) Where we could, we provided snacks they could give their kids during the discussion sessions or take home with them later. 

Nick Higgins: Librarians and library administrators can immediately make it easier for families (and other community members for that matter) to provide input on services, programs, and even collections that they find in their library. Creating a community advisory board that meets regularly is a good start. Giving that group a certain amount of authority to inform the direction the library takes in service design is necessary. At a smaller scale, hosting caregiver meetups where community members can break bread together is a good way to strengthen the ties the library has with the community. It could also feature a guest from a local community-based organization who can help facilitate conversations around topics of equity, diversity, and inclusion—or simply conversations around access to benefits, other resources, and supports.

Misty Jones: One of the easiest ways to promote EDI in children’s learning is to make sure your storytimes feature books that are not only reflective of your community but also expose children to characters that are different than them. The key is that this needs to be done all the time, not just for special occasions. Don’t only read stories with Asian characters during Asian Pacific Islander Appreciation Month. Invite different cultural groups to create displays in your libraries. Another great way to strengthen EDI is through outreach and connecting with your community. Find out what they need from the library and then create services to meet those needs. During the pandemic, we discovered many communities that relied heavily on the Library for computer access, and libraries being closed meant their access was eliminated. We expanded the wi-fi and created outdoor computer labs in communities where digital access is low.

Becky Stahl: The first thing I would do as a programming librarian is take a look at the programs you already offer and ask yourself if they can be adapted for a wider audience. If you already host adult programs, can you add activities or make the subject more interactive for children? If so, try offering this program and advertise it for both adults and children and see who attends! When we first started doing all-ages programming, we started with simple passive programming, such as sticker art sheets and coloring pages, but it was so nice to see families interact with each other at the library and have discussions about the art project they were working on. While these moments may seem small, they can absolutely help to create an environment at the library where families feel comfortable interacting with each other.

Felton Thomas, Jr.: During COVID, the community couldn’t access storytimes online. We decided to return to the old-school days of dial-a-story, which could be done through phone calls. Even in families who didn’t need to do it this way, the parents remembered, and dial-a-story had a big following. We saw some police officers using the library’s wi-fi; you don’t know who needs access. There were kids sitting out at 11 pm trying to do homework; that had to end. The library started checking out hotspots, laptops, and other devices. We can get so caught up in diversity, which is a big part of it—there is a racism component—but for many kids from all around the city, it’s access and equity. Kids came together from all over the city, from Catholic schools, private, public schools. Before COVID, it would’ve been unbelievable to see kids doing homework on phones in the grocery store. Even a young white kid might have to wait for midnight for a laptop to do homework. All the other kids in the family and an aunt might have to go first. The library can make it easier on the family. We got a grant that specifically focused on training our staff to better assist families with children aged zero to three. Along with experts from Ohio State University, we created a curriculum and trained key staff members as facilitators to administer special early literacy training.

  1. If library colleagues mentioned wanting to increase family engagement at their library, how would you describe what they could learn from reading this book?

Lisa Guernsey: This book is full of ideas related to listening to and empowering families in under-resourced and overlooked communities or from social groups that have been or continue to be marginalized. Learn about “photovoice” projects that enable families to take photographs and share stories from their perspectives. Gather ideas for developing culturally and linguistically relevant books and other media for your collections. Learn how to create community dialogue sessions on special topics. Gain insight into how to use “design thinking” and co-creation sessions with families to learn along with them. And more. This book is a great way to get motivated and, as the editors say in the introduction, “bring intentionality to how libraries engage families.”

Nick Higgins: I think people will take away from a reading of this book practicable ways to deepen relationships with families they serve. At the heart of all of the essays in this book is a sense that the most impactful strategy in our work with families is to find ways to leverage and honor their stories, create ways for them to access helpful resources without barriers, and to treat families as the critical community stakeholders that they are.

Misty Jones: There is a wide breadth of information in this book from a variety of different kinds of libraries and different communities. The information ranges from research studies to case studies of actual programs and services, but every chapter contains something that you can apply right now in your library, even if it is only in the smallest way. I encourage everyone to read each chapter and think how you can tailor it to fit the needs of your community.

Becky Stahl: This book is a great choice for learning more about family engagement because it offers so many resources and case studies. The book is structured in a way that makes it easy to navigate, and it gives a good framework to start with for anyone who is searching for ways to increase family engagement at their library. I love that there are case studies from librarians all over the country who have implemented programming to enhance family engagement at their libraries. I’m most excited for the “Leading for Impact” section and reading about libraries who have created more equitable programs by serving the homeless and removing barriers for youth at the library, such as late fines.

Felton Thomas, Jr.: The best thing I can say to folks about the book is that it exposes you to a litany of different ideas. It’s not a one-size fits all, but an all-size fits all. No matter what kind of library you’re in, whether it’s urban or rural, the book has an idea or concept that you can tweak and make your own.

In A Librarian’s Guide to Engaging Families in Learning, edited by M. Elena Lopez, Bharat Mehra, and Margaret Caspe, with a foreword by R. David Lankes, chapter authors show how public libraries can increase their impact on knowledge development, innovation, and social change by promoting parent and family engagement in children’s learning.

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