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Posted By Paula Kelly, Whitehall Public Library, 412-882-6622, Thursday, September 24, 2015
Updated: Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Library Type


Cost and Funding

Approximately $70/mth on average


The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council markets the program in their ESL classes.
The Baldwin-Whitehall School District provides the bus service at a reasonable rate, and The Friends of the Whitehall Public Library donate funds to underwrite the cost of the bus.


The Whitehall Public Library in Pittsburgh Pennsylvania serves a unique user population of multi-ethnic resettled refugees who reside in a nearby housing complex. Local refugees are low English proficient and lack transportation. The library, through a number of creative community partnerships, developed a LEARN (Library Easy Access for Residents In Need) Bus program, providing monthly bus transportation as well as a unique library experience for refugee patrons. This program relies upon cooperative efforts with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council (GPLC), the Baldwin-Whitehall School District, and the Friends of the Whitehall Library. Two library staff members also volunteer as ESL tutors in GPLC classrooms located within the local housing complex, creating a ‘library face’ within the refugee community. This has enabled opportunities to develop personal relationships and trust, a major key to the program’s remarkable success. The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council not only helps to promote the program within their ESL classes, they also provide staff and volunteer support for LEARN Bus nights.

The library contracts with the Baldwin-Whitehall School District to provide bus transportation. LEARN Bus costs are underwritten by a portion of the Friends of the Whitehall Public Library’s annual donation. In addition, patrons who have serendipitously observed the program have been impressed. Community interest in serving this population has vastly increased. Subsequently, the library has acquired many new volunteers who assist on LEARN Bus nights.
The most recently resettled refugees are primarily ethnic-Nepali Bhutanese. They come from a rural background, and the vast majority have no prior concept of a library. Realizing this, ESL lessons developed by the librarians/ESL tutors are used in ESL classes. Students have been genuinely excited to learn for the first time about their public library, and have quickly spread the news throughout the community. There are between 60 and 90 LEARN Bus visitors each month.
The library also understood that it needed to address refugee visitors’ ages and language levels, and in response, significantly reconfigures library space for LEARN Bus nights. Stations are created throughout the library, thus making the space as a whole more inviting, and less overwhelming, for LEARN Bus patrons. The library creates the following stations:

• Public Computers are reserved;
• Arts and Crafts: We set up craft tables and projects (a particular favorite of the non-English speaking older women);
• Games: We set up variety of board games (including a popular Hindi game, a carrom board, that was requested by an older refugee and ordered especially for the LEARN Bus program);
• Wii Games: We set up the library’s Wii gaming area in the children’s library;
• Children’s story time or special children’s program - LEARN Bus visits coincide with the library’s weekly Family Night Story time; providing an opportunity for engagement within the greater community, we have hosted many ‘community helpers’ i.e. police, firemen, etc. to introduce themselves and explain their services. We try to do this in conjunction with ESL classroom curriculum. We have also hosted local ESL public school teachers, giving them an effective opportunity to engage with their students’ parents and caregivers.
• Library Material Displays: We set up 3 large tables to display pre-selected library material suitable for this population including: ESL material, popular DVDs, citizenship resources, math and history books, photo-filled coffee table books, and many children’s resources.

The library is also mindful to provide plenty of library staff and volunteer support at each station to ensure a successful LEARN Bus visit for all participants.

Feedback from the residents and GPLC staff has been incredible. LEARN Bus patrons consistently ask when the next visit will take place, as for many residents this is the only opportunity for a family evening out. Many of the older adult patrons rarely leave their apartment complex due to language barriers and lack of transportation. The library now represents a special destination point, a social and educational opportunity in a civic setting where residents can feel a part of the greater community. Because the LEARN Bus coincides with the library’s Family Night Story time, refugee families are participating in library programs along with other community members. . A brief documentary of the LEARN Bus program was professionally filmed last year and can be seen on YouTube.

The Whitehall Public Library’s LEARN Bus program provides a successful model for other public libraries serving diverse populations, both in terms of community partnering efforts and the program’s structure. The key to its success was through effectively marketing the library in a way in which its message was clearly communicated and understood; to date well over 100 new library cards have been issued to LEARN Bus patrons.
ESL literacy is enhanced through circulation of library materials, participation in programs, and by engagement with staff, volunteers, and the community-at-large. Furthermore, the library works with GPLC tutors to offer timely programs and materials that re-enforce ESL classroom curriculum.

The LEARN Bus program has grown. In September, library bus transportation was provided for over 70 refugees attending a three-week series of Saturday afternoon citizenship classes hosted by a USCIS officer. The library hopes to provide facilitated English conversation programs, and $2,000 in LSTA grant money has been awarded from Commonwealth Libraries for the development of family literacy backpacks which will circulate from GPLC’s ESL classrooms. The library consistently explores additional ways to provide and fund ESL programs and services, and is very proud to shine a positive light in celebration of the community’s unique diversity.

The LEARN Bus program has received recognition from Pennsylvania’s Commonwealth Libraries in the form of the 2011 Marietta Y. King and Alberta Walden Still Diversity Award for Public Library Service to Older Adults in a Diverse Community, the 2012 Community Partner Award from The Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, the 2012 Pennsylvania Citizens for Better Libraries Public Relations Award, and a 2012 Community Champion Award from the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.

Tags:  Adults  Basic  Children  Civic & Social  Information  Teens 

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