Elizabeth Martin Stearns & Carmen Patlan | Movers & Shakers 2014 — Innovators

Posted in Library Journal March 11, 2014

Library Ambassadors

Elizabeth Stearns (l.) began looking for someone to help the Waukegan Public Library, IL, connect with the local Latino community out of necessity. She had worked at the library through two censuses and saw that by 2010 Latinos made up more than half of the city’s population. “We would not stay relevant if we did not reach this community,” says Stearns.

She knew it would be a challenge. Many people did not speak English well or at all. Rates of poverty and illiteracy were high.

Stearns says she tried a few public relations campaigns but soon realized she needed someone from within the Latino community to do outreach. In 2011, she found Carmen Patlan, who was then the Human Concerns Director at a majority-Latino Catholic church with more than 5,000 members.

Patlan had no library experience but had been a longtime advocate for a community that she says “often feels voiceless.” Stearns and Patlan discovered that, together, they could accomplish a lot.

“Anyone who has seen them work together knows that is how they work best,” says Peggy Barber, a library consultant and former long-standing communications director at the American Library Association, who nominated the duo.

Patlan quickly generated a “tsunami of use” by Latinos, says Barber. Far from just creating a few ESL classes, Patlan helped expand library services to include the “Social Worker Is In” one-on-one counseling, computer literacy classes, health programming, and Leamos, a self-taught Spanish literacy program.

Patlan understood that her job was not just to create programming; she also had to change the attitudes of Latino immigrants toward the library.

“To immigrants, unless you came from a wealthy family with access to schooling, libraries are not viewed as accessible or relevant to their needs,” says Patlan. “They think of libraries as librerías, or bookstores, which they can’t afford.”

Much of the library’s success in reaching Latinos has come from the Promotora/Ambassador volunteer program, which empowers individuals with strong ties to their communities to help raise awareness around the issues that affect them. “Social media and all the technology tools will never replace actually engaging with your constituents on an ongoing basis,” says Stearns.

Last year, Stearns and Patlan won the library the prestigious National Medal for Museum and Library Service.

Now, the two women want to create a training institute to help libraries across the country replicate their programs.

“We discovered that it is not enough to know your customer is Latino, or whether they speak English and have a library card,” Patlan says. “You need to know how they feel about their children’s education, what their job and family aspirations are, and what worries them daily.”