Spotlight On: Whitehall Public Library

Local Library Provides a Welcoming and Inclusive Service for Pittsburgh’s Immigrant and Refugee Populations

By Jocelyn Codner, Research Assistant

Vibrant Pittsburgh had the great pleasure of recently visiting with Paula Kelly, Director of the Whitehall Public Library, as part of our mission to familiarize ourselves with the wonderful work local organizations are doing to welcome and support Pittsburgh’s immigrant and refugee populations.

The Whitehall Library in Whitehall Borough, nestled between Brentwood and Castle Shannon, is in a unique position to build impactful programs that increase the quality of life for many immigrants in the Pittsburgh metro area. The community is home to New Americans who have immigrated to Pittsburgh from around the world, including such countries as Bosnia, Nepal, Bhutan, and various countries in Africa. The neighborhood continues to grow and evolve as new populations find their homes in Whitehall. Since beginning its targeted outreach in 2001, the library has worked to adapt to the changing immigrant populations and their cultures, traditions, aspirations and needs. In 2002, the library began its much celebrated LEARN (Library Easy Access for Residents in Need) Bus Initiative. In partnership with the Baldwin-Whitehall School District and the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the library sends a bus to pick up residents that immigrated or settled in Whitehall who are interested in learning more about the region; sharing stories about their home countries; meeting elected officials and other civic leaders; and enjoying a full evening of activities and socializing with their neighbors of all ages.We learned from the Whitehall Librarians that for many of these families, LEARN Bus nights act as their only night out all month.

The program has evolved over time. After seeing a drastic decline in attendance around 2010, library staff decided to be more strategic about their outreach. They did some library-focused target marketing within ESL classrooms, developing lesson plans to introduce the library; stressing that library services were free and helpful and that libraries were welcoming places. This helped to build strong relationships between Library staff and their immigrant and refugee neighbors. The next LEARN Bus saw nearly 100 participants. They have also regularly partnered with South Hills Interfaith Movement’s (SHIM) on a wide variety of outreach services.

Over the years, the LEARN Bus has had to be flexible and adaptable to the changing populations, of the community. The Library’s responsiveness and willingness to adapt have not only made programming a huge success, but also ensured that the participants of the programs are getting the most possible benefits from staff and the library. The program is now shared with the Baldwin Public Library for their refugee patrons. In addition, the library is currently collaborating with both Baldwin and Brentwood Libraries to host a “We’re All Neighbors” program, a celebration of our communities’ local diversity. As our refugee populations shift, libraries are working together to maximize benefits. There is a lesson to be learned from our public Library -- as the demographic mix of the region changes, the region will need to change to meet the needs of a more diverse citizenry. To learn more about the LEARN Bus program, take a look at this video that details the program.

Honoring and Preserving Stories, A Whitehall Library Inclusion Tool

The spirit of collaboration with other area organizations continues to be strong in the Whitehall Public Library. Recently, they collaborated with the Baldwin Library, the school district’s ESL teachers and local police to host a tech education event for the parents of immigrant students. The parents were taught about the technology their children are using in school, the district’s Web portal and internet safety. While there are so many other incredible programs and services being delivered to their community by the library, what struck Vibrant Pittsburgh staff was the Saving Stories program.

The Saving Stories initiative is simple in concept, but huge in scope and impact. In collaboration with grade school ESL teacher Renee Christman, the library worked to develop a variety bilingual story books written by refugee community members. Illustrations for the books were contributed by local art students. There was a great lack of materials and resources in many of the languages spoken in the community. Some of these languages do not have an official font for computer generated text—a huge barrier to crafting materials for education and entertainment. As of now, the Whitehall Public Library has eight physical picture books published in Nepali/English and Karen/English. They currently hope to publish additional stories in Arabic, Dinka, and Pashto among others. These books are being used by teachers in the local schools and are available for checkout by the community.

This simple gesture, creating something as basic and fundamental as a picture book, goes a long way toward welcoming newcomers to the community and giving them the tools they need to succeed and grow here. It lets them know that Pittsburgh respects their culture and where they came from and wants them to retain as much of it as they please. A lot of culture and history is lost when people emigrate to the United States. History has shown that many first-generation immigrants feel pressure to assimilate and may not teach the next generation the traditions, stories, and customs from their native country.

The Saving Stories project helps to preserve and honor some of that which is lost, as well as educate the broader community on some of the customs celebrated by their immigrant and refugee neighbors. You can learn more about the Saving Stories project on its website here. The library has been presented with numerous awards, with Kelly being personally recognized as a 2012 Pittsburgh Pirate Community Champion and a 2014 Jefferson Award winner for her work with immigrant and refugee populations. She was also Whitehall’s 2016 Citizen of the Year. We at Vibrant Pittsburgh are excited and encouraged by the Whitehall Public Library’s work, and we hope that everyone will take a moment to explore the incredible work they are doing. Together, we can work toward a more welcoming and supportive Pittsburgh.