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The Oakland Public Library's Mam Festival. Photo by Khai Pham.

Library Innovation Lab grantees share highlights from last year’s programs

On Thursday January 24 and Friday January 25, 2019, staff from twelve libraries from communities across the state gathered at the Sacramento Public Library to discuss and share the results of their work as part of the 2018 Library Innovation Lab: Exploring New Ways of Engaging Immigrant Communities Through Public Humanities Programming.

The cohort of library staff members participated in the year-long program, which provided training, support and resources. Each library received a grant to help them research, design and launch innovative new humanities-based programs to engage immigrants in their communities. From a cultural festival in Oakland reaching the largest Mam community in the world outside of Honduras, to a Bollywood film series in Delano, to publishing a collection of work by Santa Cruz library patrons about immigration experiences, the cohort’s projects were innovative, moving, and most importantly, showed us what these libraries can do with a little investment and a lot of inventiveness.

Read on to see some of the highlights from the past year of the Library Innovation Lab.

Zine Fronteras, the publication created by Santa Cruz Public Library patrons.

Immigration artwork and stories in ink at the Santa Cruz Public Library

Library Assistant Lorena López Rivera, helped bring the Zine Fronteras project to fruition at Santa Cruz public library while both in library school and working 30 hours a week at the library. Speaking about the project, she says it was created to build bridges. She and a colleague, Iván Tonathiu Llamas worked together to create the publication focus, complete with a communications plan and the help of a public relations firm, translating the call for submissions into Spanish. Despite a few snags—trials and errors with partnerships and learning about the deadlines and demands of self-publishing in real-time and a short window for submissions—the zine came together in ten days with 74 pages of original stories, poems, and artwork by Santa Cruz residents. The written contributions are in Mixteco, Zapoteco, Spanish and English, the visual art was both two and three-dimensional, and the final print edition was done as both hardcover and paperback, with copies entering circulation at all the local library branches including the local history collection and juvenile hall and city jail libraries. An article in the Santa Cruz Sentinel described the release event and the process of creating the zine, quoting López Rivera as saying that it “became very personal, because I saw myself reflected in what we were putting together.”

Left; Ocho Venados, a powerful Mixteco ruler. Right: the mural at the library, painted with input from the Mixteco patrons, shows the ruler holding a book instead of a spear. Photo: Yvonne Tello.

Building relationships and celebrating traditions in Ventura County

Yvonne Becerra, who works at Ventura County library, said she learned so much through her experience in the Library Innovation Lab. The library set out to engage the Mixtec community, an immigrant community from Oaxaca and Puebla in Mexico many of whom speak neither English nor Spanish. “The library was disconnected from our own local immigrant community,” Becerra said, explaining this could be because the library had few resources in Mixteco, and likely because many of the Mixtec locals are recent immigrants who didn’t use the facility or resources. The library began providing space for weekly women’s groups to meet. Then, a local group of young girls were invited to do a dance performance, and their families asked if they could use the library parking lot to rehearse. Soon, the families were coming to the library three or four times a week to practice, arriving early and staying until dark after the library closed, with the dancers’ siblings playing, checking out books, and making the place their own.

By the time Día de los Muertos came, Becerra said, it was their library. A couple hundred people came to the celebration, which was beyond expectations, with complimentary Gorditas & hot dogs, adults’ and kids’ dance performances, a book giveaway, Mixteco lotería and attendees giving input on Mixteco mural designs for library. None of it was done in English. Becerra said she felt amazed that this group of recent immigrants, who had barely used the library before the start of the program, recognized that it was for them. The community now says they can’t wait until next year, and other libraries have been reaching out to Becerra asking if they can have her help replicating the program in their branches.

Dancing across difference at the Sutter County Library

An annual women’s multicultural program, “Dance Around the World,” has been taking place for going on 15 years at Sutter County Library. While the dance was very well attended, it was not known to the wider community of Sutter County. To mark this significant anniversary, Literacy Services Coordinator Ayla Elkins worked with a local filmmaker to document three different women whose stories of immigration intersected at the library and whose distinct cultural dance practices connect them to each other. An Aztec dancer, an East Indian woman, and an Indonesian dancer were all profiled in the film, which premiered at the library during a torrential downpour. Despite the rain, about 60 people attended and enjoyed live performances by the Hmong American Association and a ballet Folklorico performance by husband-wife team Patria Insurgente. The film was received with applause, and the library is already looking into how they can expand upon the film and program for the coming years.

A page from the Korean cookbook created as part of the Oakland Public Library’s Mosaic series.

Sharing language, recipes, and rock & roll at the Oakland Public Library

At the Oakland Public Library, three different branches included programming focusing on underserved immigrant communities in the area. At the Cesar Chavez branch, a cultural festival focused on the Mam community—the largest population of Mam outside of Guatemala lives in Oakland. The festival drew 250 people for weaving demonstrations, language lessons, food, live music and dancing. The all-ages family event with all ages resulted in the most-visited blog post ever on the library’s website. Since the festival’s success, the library aide Henry Salas, who is Mam, has been contacted by the San Francisco public library to see if they can replicate the event there.

At the Asian Branch library in Chinatown, the focus was the local Korean community, a population that did not engage much with the branch prior to the initiative. A relationship was created with a nearby Korean church, where library staff held a lunch box making program, a Korean language storytime, and a call for adults to submit recipes to make a community cookbook. The cookbook included moving and beautiful stories, meanings for particular dishes, family histories, photographs and hand drawn illustrations. The program resulted in changed collection policies at the Asian branch where Korean materials will be more of a focus.

Afghani rock band Kabul Dreams performs live at the Golden Gate Branch of the Oakland Public Library. Photo: Erin Sanders

The Golden Gate branch, in North Oakland, sought to engage Afghani Americans—the Bay Area has the largest concentration of this immigrant group in the US. The program featured Kabul Dreams, self-billed as “Afghanistan’s first rock band, giving a live music performance at the branch, including storytelling about their refugee experience. Erin Sanders, the Branch Manager, shared that a parent who brought two kids to the program said it was “awesome” that their middle schoolers could attend a rock show during the day time without alcohol and that they could share this experience as a family. Future potential programs may focus on dance, the African diaspora, and the second-generation immigrant experience.

Patrons got to try their hand at henna tattoos at the Delano Branch Library.

South Asian highlights in Kern County

The Delano Branch of the Kern County Library System used their Library Innovation Lab grant to create a pilot program focusing on South Asian culture through film, food, storytelling, and celebration. Fahra Daredia, Library Associate showed three popular films: Devdas, Once Upon a Warrior, and Bride & Prejudice, which were all popular among adults. They held a Diwali celebration with storytime, craft Diya candle making, offered Indian snacks for young people to try, made Rangoli or art patterns on the floor, did henna ink tattoos, and had a Bollywood dance and music activity. A henna class for teens and new activity kits for kids to take home were both popular, as was a film series during the holidays. During the month when kids are out of school and the casino is one of the only other places with activities, the Library became a hub for young people.

The cohort from the Library Innovation Lab also resulted in generating shared resources for future programming—the Anaheim Public Library featured local cultural group Our Indian Culture at several of their events, who are now looking into partnering with Delano. The programs resulted in an increased interest in books related to South Asian culture, especially cookbooks, which were few and far between at the Library prior to the programs. There has also been an increase in requests for programs related to other large immigrant groups in the area, including Latino and Filipino communities.

Culinary creations and community at Florence Library in Los Angeles 

Maria Arredando & Chef Farhana Sahibzada at a cooking demonstration. Photo by Julian Zamora.

In the unincorporated region of Los Angeles County called Florence-Firestone, the branch library serves 63,000 people, half of whom are foreign-born. Julian Zamora, the Community Library Manager, saw that the library had previously held successful food programs but that there was not always a lot of money for these events. In hopes of promoting a sense of community, safety and security, as well as focusing on serving intergenerational library customers, he created a program series focused on the immigrant experience through food. The series was a hit with cooking demonstrations taking place right inside the library. Local chefs made specialties, from Indian and Pakistani to Hong Kong street food, from Mexican to Vietnamese home cooking. Patrons got into it, cooking samosas and chutney for the entire library after learning the recipes for the very first time and making a whole batch of chile verde from scratch right among the stacks.

Other programs integrated similar themes with a focus on immigration issues, from a poetry reading with a group whose work focused on politics and food, to an immigrant rights workshop, and a book talk with local culinary historian and chef Bill Esparza whose recent book L.A. Mexicano explored how Mexican food has expanded and taken on a life and tradition of its own throughout the US. Throughout the series, library patrons were encouraged to bring in photos and recipes of their favorite dishes, which were displayed on the library walls in an exhibit, “A Lens Into Mi Vida.”

Library Innovation Lab is supported in part by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act, administered in California by the State Librarian.

Additional support is provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Wells Fargo Foundation and the generosity of individual donors throughout California.

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