Dudley Literacy Center - Interview with JoAnn Butler, Head Librarian
Posted: February 7, 2011 Nancy J Conrad
Tell me a little about your background.
Meet JoAnn Butler, Head Librarian Dudley Literacy Center
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
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
I 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
thinking more globally, more encompassingly? How did you do that?
My professional and personal experiences seemed to
prepare me for a focus on literacy. The library collection
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
In Brookline there's a high interest in
reading. Also Brookline has a large international community and a
population. For example, doctors, professors and regular folks live
there for a couple years and then they move on to other things.
My grandfather was from Cape
Verde. Listening to him talk about learning English, the languages he
spoke, there was a personal connection.
Even when I spent time at the
Upham's corner library in the late 1960s the community was in
gentrification. It was changing.
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
Let'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
Yes, 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
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
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.
Suppose 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 language
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
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
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
I believe that is one of the things that goes wrong
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
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
I 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?
All good librarians should conduct what is called a
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.
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.
In 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
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
You 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 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.
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.
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
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?"
Our 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
Literacy Center functions
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.
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
organizations need our citizens to understand and be comfortable doing
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
Ms. Butler, thank you for your time and for the vision you shared with us for a better world.