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Dispatches from PLA 2016: Beyond Bilingual Storytime and ESL

by Asa Heward, 2015-2016 Spectrum Scholar on May 25, 2016

In this Extraordinary session at the 2016 PLA conference, presenters Ady Huertas (San Diego Public Library), Simone Groene-Nieto (Denver Public Library) and Zoe Jarocki (San Diego State University Library) offered eager attendees their advice, experience, and expertise on how libraries can best serve underserved Spanish-speaking communities. As a member of my library’s multicultural committee, this session directly addressed the efforts, challenges, and misconceptions I have encountered when targeting this demographic.

What are underrepresented groups?

The presenters kicked off the session by defining what an underrepresented group is. As a minority and a person who is well versed in humanities and social sciences, I realized that I had been using the terms under the pretenses of a misguided notion I had been carrying for many years. Besides debunking a misconception, thoroughly defining these groups beyond highly marginalized populations opened my mind to a diverse mix of segments that I could be reaching out to. Some of the groups the presenters identified and had experience serving included white collar Latino business people, Chicano student organizations, immigrant and refugee youth, and LGBTQ youth.

How to draw them in?

Whether you’re a professional or paraprofessional, it is known that the key to drawing the public is through effective outreach and programming. Traditionally, our approach has been that if we come up with an interesting concept and package it with a catchy title, the people will come. The presenters suggested that our bright ideas alone are not enough, and can be problematic for appealing to underserved groups. Instead, we must leave the library and venture out into the community while asking its members and leaders, “What can the library do to best serve you?” In building programs with the community, you learn who the key players are, what the challenges facing the community are, and more importantly, how the library can build trust!

Fit programming and marketing

Just as people come in all shapes and sizes, so do libraries. The presenters went on to assert that in accomplishing the goal of reaching underserved groups, it is important that you host programs in a manner that best suits your library and the communities you are trying to serve. In my experience serving on a committee that plans cultural programs for the library system, our strategy has been to tailor events according to the space and available amenities at our locations, with careful consideration of the comfort of our attendees.

As libraries continue to adapt its mission and services to the information age, the same effort has to be made when marketing programs to underserved groups. In addition to building a rapport with the community, the presenters encouraged attendees to ask themselves two fundamental questions when marketing programs to these groups: “How does this group communicate amongst itself?” and “How are they successfully marketed to other groups and organizations?” Sometimes a simple flyer or a post on the right social media platform can go a long way.


As the presenters wrapped up and attendees shared their experiences and suggestions with their table mates, I began reflecting on the dynamics of the Spanish-speaking communities I serve. In speaking to members of this community, I learned that fears concerning immigration status is the major barrier between the library and this community. It was suggested that not requiring programs to sign up or register for programming to mitigate this challenge. The only question I now have left is, how do we reach these communities when they represent a sizeable percentage of a population yet, are sparsely dispersed throughout a region? I look forward to embarking on the extraordinary journey in finding the answer(s).

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