Upham's Corner Online

Dudley Literacy Center - Interview with JoAnn Butler, Head Librarian

Posted: February 7, 2011     Nancy J Conrad

Q Tell me a little about your background.
Meet JoAnn Butler, Head Librarian Dudley Literacy Center A I have worked in libraries in Boston (Upham's Corner and Mattapan) and Brookline for over 25 years.  I have a bachelors degree in communications from Simmons College and received my masters in library science in 2005. I came into the Dudley Literacy Center in July of 2005. It was a job that became available because my predecessor left the state. It was posted and I applied for it. 

The job appealed to me for a couple different reasons. Prior to that I had a lot of library experience in children's literature. That was with Brookline Public Library. I was a library assistant there for between 24 and 25 years. With children's literature, as you're trying to get children to read, to become interested. many of the practices we used transfer well to adults for whom English is a second language or adult basic education.

In Brookline we used the Fry readability scale.  You have a child read a page or couple paragraphs and you ask them t count on their fingers each time they run into a "troublesome" word.  If they encounter five words that are difficult on that page, the entire book is usually assessed to be too difficult. 

The same applies for adults
  • Who are native English speakers who are trying to continue their education or restart their education
  • For whom English is a second language to get some idea of their reading level
Literacy training crosses age boundaries
QI don't understand.  How did you bridge that gap? How did you realize that approaches to literacy (reading) in kids carries over to adults?  Were you trained? Were you thinking more globally, more encompassingly? How did you do that?

AMy professional and personal experiences seemed to prepare me for a focus on literacy.  The library collection should always reflect the neighborhood around you. So you have to pay attention to the demographics that your library branch supports and make purchases isupporting the existing community and the changes in the community.
  1. In Brookline there's a high interest in reading. Also Brookline has a large international community and a transient population. For example, doctors, professors and regular folks live there for a couple years and then they move on to other things.

  2. My grandfather was from Cape Verde. Listening to him talk about learning English, the languages he spoke, there was a personal connection.

  3. Even when I spent time at the Upham's corner library in the late 1960s the community was in gentrification. It was changing.

  4. When I left Upham's corner, I was at the south end library. At that time the neighborhood was moving towards becoming a Spanish-speaking community. 
Libraries with "foreign language" material
QLet's say you want to help the community and to bring residents into the library but you know they don't speak (much) English.  If you purchase material in the non-English language, aren't you supporting them speaking a language they shouldn't be speaking anyway?

AYes, people like to be demanding and say:  "Look you need to be able to speak English."  That's fine but learning a different language doesn't happen all at once.  There is a natural progression to learning the language. That's why we have 12 years of school including kindergarten because people need to build their vocabulary. We are all content learners. We are alll life-long learners. 

So it's fine for people to be told you need to speak English but you need to support them in that effort and give them the tools, the information.  The concept of a natural progression and building your vocabulary is important in any form of literacy.

QSuppose somebody is here and doesn't want to learn to speak English but wants to read. Is the library's role to support them in the language they know? In the language they're most comfortable with?
Physical component to learning a languageAYes, absolutely!  Copley Square, for example, has a very large world language collection.  So assuming that somebody can communicate what book they want in a foreign language, we can always get that book from the Copley branch or use the inter-library loan capability as well.

Here's another reason to support the community of non-English speaking residents.  According to the journals of adult education and teachers of learning a second language, there is a whole physical component to learning language. It can be physically taxing and tiring on people. So what better way for them to relax than to have the option of speaking their first language or reading a newspaper in their first language. 

We can use the analogy of learning a new language with learning to be a distance swimmer. You start out in your chosen endeavor but you have to rest which means going back to your normal life.  You can't simply spend 100% of your time deep in water or deep in a language you can't speak.  Yes, there are submersion programs but that's usually for specialty groups.
Immigrant populations
Q I believe that is one of the things that goes wrong in our society is that we allow people to come to the United States as immigrants and then we say: "Well, you're on your own. Sink or swim."  How do you respond to this comment as it relates to "literacy"?

A You have segments of the population that are learning certain vocabularies in English to support their ability to provide for their family. There are organizations around that teach English vocabulary "with focus."
  • Boston public schools has a program that is English for Parents so  that those parents can work with the teachers and understand a little bit.

  • You have immigrants that are beginning a job at a hotel and they need the language of the hotel in order to be able to work there. That therefore supports the family, make some tax payers, quite possibly could lead them to be small business owners. In other words you create a better citizen.
Featuring other "learning" sites
QI was reviewing some of the literature in the literacy center here. You have a flyer that Madison Park is having a cooking program and other flyers indicating where you can go to get computer literacy training. And you have a book on family literacy, etc. As a result people can walk in and be guided to additional resources. To what extent should a literacy center become a referral center?

AAll good librarians should conduct what is called a "reference interview"  to find out the library patron's understanding of what they are looking for.  Sometimes people understand very well what they want and need.  Sometimes patrons are lost and need "guidance" to help them understand how information is organized. 

Q Should a literacy center provide a guidance service? Anyone can walk in and say: "I need help with something." It's almost like job counseling or career counseling.
Information counseling
AIn a literacy center, we provide information counseling followed by the dissemination of information. A lot of organizations use libraries as a depository.  For example the federal government does this for documents and other sources of information they deem useful for residents and taxpayers. Once again it goes back to creating good citizens or informed citizens.

We get information almost every day through e-mail and other sources.  A lot of material is time sensitive. So we display it and do our best to make sure the information is readily available. If it's not time sensitive, if it's something that's done over a longer period of time, then perhaps we can go ahead and catalog it. Sometimes we use an old-fashioned technique called lateral files. 

More and more our focus is on providing techniques for finding information on the Internet.  We all know how to use search engines but for the non-English speaking patron, that's not so easy.  As an example, because we have so many people from Somali wanting help, we have created a guide that translates just the common keywords from the Somali language to English.
Types of Literacy
QYou defined literacy this way:  "Literacy is the clarification of a particular topic to meet the wants and needs of an individual." You also stated:  "In order to be a fully functioning citizen of the United States, you need a base level of literacy."  Give me some examples of basic literacy.
Financial Literacy
Financial literacy is one. People still don't use banks. They still hide money in the mattresses. Let's provide them with the information they need to understand how a bank operates, how a credit union operates, what a credit report is and why it is important.  Later on, we can look at what it means to make a large purchase such as a car or house responsibly.   We need to be able to demystify the banking system.  We need to make sure people feel empowered to deal with our financial systems comfortably.
Family Literacy

A family literacy program might help to break down the barriers of what a normal family looks like. For example a family does not always have two parents. A couple may not always consist of a boy and a girl. Families at times need to understand their own structures. There are many single parent households. What do they do hopefully to make the children understand that they shouldn't be listening to all the bad press out there? There may only be one head of household that we can still make it.
Civics Literacy

City and state government and how it operates - Civics - that's huge.  If people understand how it it works and how it shapes their thinking. A knowledge of how government works will enable citizens to know better how to contribute to the government.  It is important that we have a sense of community, what community means to us and how to create our community,

Grassroots organizations, for example, focus on the immediate community. They teach us how to relate to each other and to gather up the strength of the local group.  We learn to take care of each other without being intrusive.  If an issue arises, we can call upon our community relationshhips to join together as a collective voice to work on the larger issue.
Literacy as a "Right"

Even the word "literacy" itself is sometimes lost to people.  They don't know that you can go to the Dudley Literacy Center or even the regular BPL branches to get "information counseling."  It's empowering to realize that YOU ARE NOT ALONE.

The sense of community starts in the literacy classroom.  It's important (I make sure) that our courses are not rushed and that students get the chance to help teach the class.  The mantra "Each one, teach one" makes such a difference for us as teachers in the Literacy Center and for the students who have language barriers.  For example, you come to a class on basic computer skills.  Some people are language literate and can help the other people in class. That allows the language literate person to feel empowered by supporting the teacher.  It also improves the overall effectiveness of the class.

But there is more.  All basic areas of literacy lead to education.
Literacy leads to education
What do you mean by that?  How does literacy "lead to education?"

AOur education system is set up for 12 years of school and now they're encouraging 16 years of school. You have to remember that each year in elementary school builds on itself.  What you learn in the first grade carries over to second grade, to the third grade to fourth grade and on and on.

We want to find a way to help adult learners build on even the most basic literacy courses.  We want to find a way to help people hang in there, enjoy it, go through it and become more literate.   Literacy helps us break down either self-imposed barriers and societally created barriers - any sort of barriers that might come up.

Why aren't 12 years of school enough to break through all the barriers that prevent competent functioning in the world?

Twelve years isn't enough.  Sixteen years isn't enough.  The world keeps changing and barriers are going to come up all the time unless we continue in lifelong education. 

Yes, lifelong learners. What does it mean to be a lifelong learner? Read a newspaper every day. If you don't hold one physically in your hand every day, try to gather some news from the television or from the Internet.
Literacy Center functions
Q What functions does a literacy center provide?

A literacy center can look like a library but it  is really a cross between a school and a library.  Or you can think of it as a classroom and library combined together in one spot.  You can go to a library just to relax, just to get completely absorbed in learning.  People usually come to Literacy Centers with a stronger functional purpose, so we need to support that.
  • Books
  • Multi-media
  • Courses
  • Referral services
  • Keeping up-to-date with what's happening in the community
Actually it's this last role that is the toughest.  Too easily, any of us become isolated and we don't realize what businesses and governmental organizations need our citizens to understand and be comfortable doing (literacy). 

What I say is that the community needs to think of the literacy center as an important link in the structure of creating a literate population.  If a need arises or if an organization determines that a certain area of literacy is lacking in our citizenry, then we as a literacy center need to "pick up the slack" and provide assistance - information counseling, courses or referrals to proactively help close the gap.

Ms. Butler, thank you for your time and for the vision you shared with us for a better world. 

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