This semester I’m enrolled in the course, IST 613: Library Planning, Marketing, and Assessment. I’ve been assigned to revitalize a youth literacy program for four to seven-year-old English language learners who come to Syracuse from all over the world.
Three weeks ago, a group of us library science students visited the Boston Public Library. We were ecstatic to find an ‘Immigrant Information Center’ on the second floor (read Kara Conley’s blog, Library Science Road Trip: Boston, for more details).
This past November, I attended the New York Library Association’s annual conference in Saratoga Springs. I sat in on a session titled, ‘Developing Staff for Immigrant Reference Services,’ presented by Mark Jamison from Queens Library.
For this month’s Library Friday, I had the pleasure of interviewing Mark Jamison to discuss this recurring theme that keeps surfacing in my courses, travels, and practice as an aspiring librarian: libraries are for all people.
Can you tell me about your educational background in literacy, and how you wound up at Queens Library?
After I finished my undergraduate degree in modern languages, I decided that I wanted to move back to New York City. Soon after, I enrolled in the language and literacy master’s program at City College. In one of my courses, we had to research an adult literacy program. I worked right next to one of the Queens Library branch locations. When I went to the library to observe, and it just so happened that they were giving a field trip of sorts to show people all of the different library services, so I walked with them on that tour. I had only been in Queens Library that one time … just moving there from Manhattan.
Since most of my time that day was spent learning about library services versus the adult literacy program specifically, I went back another day to observe a class. As time went by, I ended up volunteering and teaching the class. Eventually, I came on as a teacher and taught high school equivalency and computer classes. My position transformed once again into a full-time literacy specialist. I was responsible for creating curriculum and connecting students with different library services.
What was your day to day work like as a Project Coordinator for New Americans at Queens Library, and what is your new position?
I was the Project Coordinator for an IMLS grant Queens Library received. We are in the final reporting phase for this project. That was the basis of the presentation you saw at NYLA.
My task was to coordinate and facilitate cultural competency training for 400+ Queens Library staff members. This way, they’d be well versed in the tools and resources that are available to recommend to different immigrant groups. Librarians and customer service specialists came together at these training sessions to brainstorm what they could provide to the communities they served.
My new title is Job & Business Academy Manager. I provide resources to assist people in workforce development, small business development, and other entrepreneurial services. Writing a resume or cover letter, business planning, interview skills—we support all of this and more. We realize that job applications are different here than in other countries.
Queens Library has fourteen Job and Business Academy locations that provide families with internet access and help people look for jobs. A lot of people don’t have access to a computer at home.
Since NYLA, have any changes been made to the cultural competency training for Queens Library employees? What is the next step with this initiative?
We are in the revision phase. It was a very extensive curriculum so we are looking to repackage it. That way we can share it with other libraries and organizations.
I’m also working to build a refresher curriculum for internal use by Queens Library staff who may have already gone through the training. The original training was divided up into twelve weeks, with three hours of training per week. We are looking to shorten that.
Whenever we hire new staff we are making sure they understand the culture of the library and their role inside the library. The training will not be mandatory, but it will be available to those with an interest. In New York state, public librarians need to complete sixty hours of continuing education every five years, and we want our staff to continue to learn and meet those requirements.
In our studies at SU, we talk about libraries as safe spaces where people (especially underserved populations) may have access to community resources. What else do you believe libraries provide or can/should provide to underserved groups?
Underserved groups really rely on the library as a place for them to come to learn, or get out of the cold. A library is a central place that works to meet the needs of people of all different backgrounds.
Queens Library is for everyone. We had a rally a few weeks ago, in the wake of all of the travel bans and discrimination currently underway. This initiative is really being pushed by us, and we are going to market it even more so that our customers in Queens, people in New York state, and in many ways, people all over the world, realize that our staff welcomes all. We offer our services for vulnerable and underserved populations. This has been a lot of my personal upbringing, and my work at the library.
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I know you said that Queens County is the third most diverse county in the U.S. (after two counties in Alaska). So awesome! How does having such a diverse patronage effect library programming, decision-making, etc.?
They drive programming significantly. We are fortunate to have a very large system. Having such a diverse patronage really allows us to engage with our community. Every library branch is in a different neighborhood which represents a different culture and history. However, we keep close track of demographics and shifts. If new people come to an area, the needs and services shift.
In terms of programming, we have our New Americans program, which has been running for thirty to forty years. The New Americans program offers immigrants different cultural arts activities, coping skills programs, and language learning. We try to do as much as possible to bring in as many people as possible.
We also have system-wide programming that brings these diverse groups of people together. For example, we just wrapped up a Yiddish festival, where we went to several library locations that had large Yiddish populations. The festival was super successful—some events had more than 100 people in attendance! We also had a ‘Broken Heart Week’ during Valentine’s day this year, which was the first time we were holding this event. We had libraries across the system bring in different speakers and presenters. Our thought was to bring people together because everybody has had a broken heart at one point. It doesn’t matter your background, age, or culture.
All of our programming is open and free. We strive to not only meet the needs of our patrons but to provide recreational programming that’s enjoyable to all.