Cal Humanities

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more when it is in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

"The understanding of a culture comes from hearing the language, tasting the food, seeing personal interactions, experiencing the traditions, and so much more in context."

— Elizabeth Laval & Candice Pendergrass, Sikh Youth Public History Project

When the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020, most aspects of public life shuttered overnight, and maintaining a sense of community became more important than ever before. That year, ten libraries across California—all participants in California Humanities’ Library Innovation Lab (LIL) program—stepped in to bring patrons together through inclusive, accessible, and physically distanced programming. Throughout the pandemic, LIL events helped strengthen community among underrepresented and immigrant Californians, showcasing the social importance of local libraries and winning a prestigious Schwartz Prize from the Federation of State Humanities Councils in the process.

More than 50 California libraries have participated in LIL since California Humanities launched the program in 2016 with support from the California State Library. Through LIL, ten library programmers are selected annually to undergo a nine-month professional development experience and receive a $5,000 grant to organize a public humanities project at their library. Each LIL-sponsored project is designed to “provide welcoming experiences for immigrants and foster more inclusive communities” throughout the state.

“The work of the librarians and libraries who have been part of this program has been transformational, both for them and their communities,” said Felicia Kelley, California Humanities Project & Evaluation Director, who helped steer the LIL program. “By developing accessible and culturally relevant programs that engage immigrants and meet their needs, and promoting connections between immigrants and others, these libraries are helping to make California a place where everyone can feel welcomed, valued, and truly at home.”

Over LIL’s first five years, projects included an open-mic “story jam” about the immigrant experience in Fresno; a community-wide, immigration-centered book club in Contra Costa County; a collaborative mural and art installation in Watsonville; and a Ventura County celebration of Dia de los Muertos created in partnership with local indigenous Mixtec immigrants. In total, over 33,000 Californians have attended these free, culturally relevant events.

In 2020, LIL “innovators” faced the daunting task of quickly adapting their event plans to the virtual, physically distanced exigencies of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We worried at first that COVID might get in the way of our community-focused goals, but our event surpassed all of our expectations,” recalled Bobbi Luster, 2020 LIL participant, and manager of the Truckee Branch Library in Nevada County. “Forty percent of Truckee school students are Latinx, so our goal for the event was to help them and their families feel more welcomed and represented at their community library, and I think we achieved that.”

With a staff of only five library programmers, the Truckee Branch Library created a video featuring the stories of local immigrant families. Then, in October 2020, organized a drive-in movie screening of the video alongside the animated film “Coco.” On the same evening, librarians orchestrated a hugely popular, physically distanced “trunk-or-treat” event to celebrate Halloween and Dia de los Muertos. Thousands of Truckee families attended the event; roughly 30 percent were Latinx.

“Thanks to California Humanities and LIL, we were able to draw so many new community members to the library and to celebrate Halloween and Dia de los Muertos in a safe way,” said Luster, who noted that many event-goers have continued visiting the library throughout the year for outdoor bilingual story hour and other programming. “Although we still need to plan more events and outreach in order to lower barriers for our underrepresented patrons, this was a great way to get folks in the door.”

Across California, at the Studio City branch of the Los Angeles Public Library, LIL participant and librarian Emily Aaronson worked on a project dedicated to African, Latinx, and Russian immigrant community members. The LIL grant allowed the library to offer a series of remote writing workshops that encouraged writers to share their immigrant experiences and organize a virtual reading and showcase where participants could share their work with the broader community.

“[Our] project morphed a great deal during the course of the grant period, and we ended up with a really special combination of events and amazing participants,” said Aaronson. “These workshops were an incredible experience and seemed to have an amazing impact on participants, from their experience taking the workshop, to participating in a reading night, to submitting for the anthology we created.”

Attendees were “moved to tears” and “mesmerized” by participants’ work at the public reading, said Aaronson, who hopes to continue similar programming in the future.

As a result of these and other LIL events’ success, the program was recognized with the coveted Federation of State Humanities Councils Schwartz Prize in 2020 for “outstanding contributions to public humanities.” This marked the fifth time California Humanities has won the prize. One judge noted that over its five-year history, LIL “has made major strides in meeting immigrant communities where they are while building capacity for culturally-responsive humanities programming in libraries and communities throughout the state.” Other judges added that the “value of [this] programming for immigrants is significant,” and one attested that the program’s “extensive reach goes well beyond the library walls and into the hearts of the communities in which they serve and interact.”

For Bobbi Luster, the value of LIL programming to the Truckee community cannot be overstated. “Our LIL project marked the first time that the library was at the center of a huge community event like this,” Luster said. “It truly proved the importance of the library in fostering community and building connections at the time we needed them most.”