A Publication of the Public Library Association Public Libraries Online

Using Co-Design as an Approach to Better Serve and Engage Low-Income, Latinx Communities

by Nicole Wilhelms, Library Manager; Elena Cabodevilla, Inclusive Outreach Specialist; and Kathleen Robertson, Sheridan Library Supervisor (Arapahoe Libraries); Wendee Mullikin, Coordinator, Wonderopolis and Editing; and Emily Sedgwick, Content Specialist, Family Engagement; (National Center for Families Learning—NCFL) on July 18, 2022

The nation’s Latinx population is estimated at 58.9 million and is predicted to make up 28% of the U.S. population by 2060 (U.S. Census Bureau 2021). [1]. While this proportion has been increasing, institutional resources to support Latinx families have not been developed at a similar pace. For example, historically, Latinx populations are less likely than other Americans to have ever visited a public library and are much less likely to say that they see it as “very easy” to do so [2].

Through a project titled “Exploring a Program Co-design Approach to Better Serve and Engage Low-income, Latinx Communities,” supported by a Community Catalyst grant awarded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS); a collaboration including PLA, the National Center for Families Learning (NCFL), and three public libraries in urban (Dallas), rural (Forest Grove, OR), and suburban (Arapahoe County, CO) settings planned this project to identify the existing barriers to Latinx families’ use of public libraries and to find community-driven solutions.

The project incorporated several layers of investigation, including a literature review, interviews with libraries already serving large Latinx populations, and a survey of current practices—distributed to all members of the Public Library Association. Key takeaways from the investigative work of researchers Amanda Johnson and Pierce Houston (2021) [3] include:

  • A critical point raised by pilot libraries was the need to end barriers to access to truly engage with the Latinx community and support family engagement.
  • Work with social justice and equity organizations […] share library events/resources, build community trust and supply resources.
  • Building trust is important—end fines, host virtual programs, and make connections to schools or other community organizations to engage with families on their terms.
  • DEI education for staff and other professional development related to cultural sensitivity and understanding are important for staff to build deeper, more empathetic connections with the Latinx community.
  • Diversity and representation in library collections, programs, and cultural events are necessary. Parent partners expressed a desire to share the stories their parents read to them with their own children.
  • Only 20% of survey respondents reported their libraries actively involve families in the planning and delivery of programs.

Elevating Community Voices

“Raise up,” one of the basic tenets of PLA’s library family engagement framework, urges libraries to elevate family perspectives to develop and improve programs and services [4]. The grant-funded project used aspects of a co-design approach, which entailed designing with, and not for, the people most impacted by the issue at hand—in this case, library programs and services that meet the needs and goals of Latinx families. Representing suburban library settings, the planning and programming took place in Arapahoe Libraries. The Sheridan branch of Arapahoe Libraries serves a diverse population of approximately 5,600 residents—of whom 37.3% are Latinx. As part of the Arapahoe Libraries, the eight-branch system in the Denver metro area serves about 650,000 people across Arapahoe County.

The style of program design and improvement implemented by Arapahoe Libraries centers people with lived experiences and elevates their voices throughout the design process. To accomplish the project’s investigative goals in this setting, an Arapahoe Counties staff member leveraged their existing two-year relationship with Sheridan Rising Together for Equity—a resident-led community organization immersed in health equity-focused improvements in the Sheridan community—to partner with two amazing Latinx community leaders in carrying out information-gathering meetings with residents. To support community leaders, local providers interpreted all meetings, supplied a stipend and laptop for each participant, and used WhatsApp for easy communication. Together, stakeholders designed community conversations for 24 Latinx individuals, using a basic question format provided by PLA in partnership with NCFL. Community leaders got the word out, recruited participants, and supported dialogue during the conversations. Their commitment to elevating the voices of their community greatly impacted the project’s achievements.

NCFL partnered with the pilot libraries by supplying direction and offering support—such as training on identifying and working past biases. Through providing funding for interpretation and translation services, the organization ensured language justice for participants. An NCFL representative took part in the community conversations and supported facilitation with follow-up questions to gather more in-depth responses.

An Arapahoe Libraries staff member supplied bilingual support by coordinating registration and communication about the sessions to participants. Prior to the conversations, they provided a demographic survey in English and Spanish, as well as information about the protection of participants’ personal information. Each 90-minute conversation included live interpretation, so all were comfortable speaking their first language. Several staff members—responsible for delivering services—engaged in these conversations to hear directly from Latinx participants.

What We Learned

During the implementation of this grant, staff learned many things. One of the biggest challenges was pivoting due to COVID-19. Work on the grant was scheduled to begin in 2020—just as the Coronavirus pandemic closed libraries, keeping most families at home while observing social distancing. Plans to hold in-person conversations and gatherings were adapted to Zoom meetings, and staff put contingencies in place confidentially to ensure participants had access to the technology needed to contribute successfully—such as hot spots.

Through the interviews, participants who used the library shared what they liked about the organization, including friendly, bilingual staff; books in Spanish for all ages; programs for their children; access to printing; and English classes. They would feel more comfortable at the library with more bilingual staff; tutoring and homework help for their kids; more materials in Spanish; and bilingual programming. For those who hadn’t used the library much or at all, reasons included lack of time, no weekend activities, limited technology skills, unaware of events and offerings, and the Spanish collection was too small. Participants were asked about better ways to share information about the library. Ideas included using the WhatsApp platform, a Facebook page in Spanish or posts in Spanish, a Sheridan-specific Facebook page, and targeted outreach when parents and caregivers pick up kids from school.

Arapahoe Libraries may move forward by increasing the size and variety of Spanish materials through an upcoming physical space project and by using a new Intelligent Materials Management System and Central Sorter to keep titles varied. They are working to create more language staffing resources and services to patrons and want to explore promoting library services in other languages, offering technology classes in Spanish, bilingual programming, and GED and tutoring aid. Staff will continue to identify and implement actionable items and expand the resources provided to Latinx patrons.

The National Center for Families Learning is a national nonprofit that supports family success through education. NCFL partners with communities on initiatives where families develop their literacy and leadership skills. When parents and children are engaged in learning together, the whole family benefits. For more information, visit www.familieslearning.org.

This article is also available in Spanish here.


1.  U. S. Census Bureau. (2021, October 8). Hispanic population to reach 111 million by 2060. Census.Gov. Retrieved July 1, 2022, from https://www.census.gov/library/visualizations/2018/comm/hispanic-projected-pop.html

2.  Brown, Anna, & Lopez, Mark Hugo. 2020. Public libraries and Hispanics. Pew Research Center’s Hispanic Trends Project. Retrieved June 22, 2022, from https://www.pewresearch.org/hispanic/2015/03/17/public-libraries-and-hispanics/

3.  Johnson, Amanda, and Houston, Pierce. April 2021. Family Engagement Practices and Support for Latinx Families in Public Libraries. American Library Association, Public Library Association, and the National Center for Families Learning. University of Michigan School of Information: Mastery Course in Librarianship and Archival Practice. Unpublished.

4.  Weiss, Heather B., Caspe, Margaret, Lopez, M. Elena, and McWilliams, Lorette. 2016. IDEABOOK: Libraries for Families. President and Fellows of Harvard College. Boston, MA: Harvard Family Research Project.

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