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#OnTheRoadULC: Featuring San Jose Public Library // Two Librarians & A Microphone Podcast

San Jose Public Library, located in one of the most diverse cities in the nation, expanded their Partners in Reading program to better serve the unique needs of their community. 

Their adult literacy program, Empowerment Through Writing, gives adults who read below ninth grade level a chance to improve their reading and writing skills. By participating, learners are able to share their story, put their words to paper, and present their narrative in an emotional and powerful event during International Literacy Day.

Not only are the majority of those in this program learning English, how to reading, AND how to writing, for the very first time, they’re also overcoming the fear, guilt, and angst they have carried with them as they disguised a gap in their lives. The literacy team breaks down those barriers. 

Tune in to be moved, empowered, and inspired as Jill Bourne, Director of San Jose Publish Library, and LJ’s 2017 Librarian of the Year, shares how they’re bridging the gaps in their community to better understand one another.


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Learn more about their innovation here.
An adult learner describes the challenges of living with limited literacy skills. Source


Jim Heuer [00:00:17] Hi, everybody. This is Jim Heuer, host of the Ingram Library Services podcast, Two Librarians and a Microphone. I'm here with librarian number two, Donna George. We are excited to come to you live from the Urban Library Council Annual Forum Annual Forum in Baltimore, Maryland. Ingram Library Services is a proud sponsor of the innovation award that the ULC bestows upon their members. Today, we have one of the Top Innovators from San José Public Library. We have with us Jill Bourne, director of the library. Jill, welcome.

Jill Bourne [00:00:48] Thank you.

Jim Heuer [00:00:49] We're here to talk about the Honorable Mention that San José won for their program, Empowerment Through Writing, which was bestowed upon them in the Education Adults area. Jill, could you tell us a little bit about this program?

Jill Bourne [00:01:03] The Empowerment Through Writing program is actually a subset of our Partners in Reading program, which is an adult literacy initiative that's been around for, actually this year, we're celebrating our 30th anniversary of Partners in Reading, and with funding from the State Library in California, many libraries have some variation of this type of program. Ours is really special because it's continued to grow, to change the unique needs of our community, and the shape of adult literacy expanding from working adults who never were able to learn to read and have that fear and that, really that sense of shame that they carry with them as they cover up this gap in their lives, right? All of the wonderful things that we as librarians know reading brings to individuals and families. They never had that, and then, added to that, in San José, one of the most diverse cities in the nation, we actually have a huge ESL population,

Jill Bourne [00:02:01] and our adult literacy program took on the ESL question, as well. And so, a huge number of our learners are learning English and learning to read and write for the first time. It's a part of the program, again, is this idea that learning to read for an adult who has had to support their family for their entire life, so far is an experience that causes anxiety, that makes them feel bad about themselves sometimes, and added to that, the idea of writing and actually having their story told in their own words and writing it themselves seems like something that they could never achieve. Several years ago, the team took on this process of publishing a book of learners' stories each year, and they actually work with their tutor to write down their own story…and they added it, they get that whole process of learning through writing, and then they get to see it in print, and we have a book release party, and then those books go into our collection.

Donna George [00:03:06] That's fantastic. It sounds like your library has had a long history with working with literacy and specifically adult literacy. What did you notice about this program? Did you get different participants, or what was different about this, and how did the community react?

Jill Bourne [00:03:20] It's interesting. All of adult literacy programs are very rewarding for the staff, the community, and audiences. This one, because it has that legitimacy behind it and its part of a library, it actually plugs adult literacy activity into the history and tradition of the library and into the broader community because anybody can check out their book. They're a published writer. When we have the book party, there is not a dry eye in house, I can tell you, and that includes me, and I always say, I get to see a lot of beautiful things in my career as a librarian, just moving stories here and there, and this program kills you cause it's not just the fact that they wrote it and they get published, it's that they get their story heard. So many of them had real struggles getting to the place that they're at, and it gives you that appreciation for why being able to tell stories is important,

Jill Bourne [00:04:18] why representation of all the aspects of our community…and how if people do not have literacy, and they're not able to tell their story, our community suffers. We have gaps in our community and our understanding of each other. It is something that brings out all the learners. We have over 700 tutor-learner pairs, but also of just library people, of our friends of the library. They sponsor tables, and the cheers for people when they get up and read a section of their story. They're all nervous. A lot of them tear up because it's both getting to tell their story and the release, and the pride and the anxiety all comes out, and like I said, it's just one of the warmest and most amazing experiences that we have.

Jim Heuer [00:05:04] It reminds me a little bit of the StoryCorps idea that I've heard on NPR. Where people get into a booth and tell their story, but the idea of writing it out first... Did your staff, or did the 700 tutors, do they have to have…was there any different training, or how did that work for your tutors or your staff? Because I would imagine teaching someone how to write is slightly different than teaching someone how to read, or maybe it's not, I don't know, but--

Jill Bourne [00:05:28] What's amazing about this program is that it's so highly intensive, and the tutors go through a lot of training in order to have the skills to be able to teach someone to both read and write. But then the pairs work together intensively over the course of a year to decide what story they're going to tell, and they talk it through first as part of it and then start to work on how to write it down. They've already been working together on the reading/writing piece, of reading other people's stories, and then that translation into writing down your own story, it does seem to be both cathartic, but also, it really is almost like a graduation moment. You see a lot of them, they're like, "Not only did I learn to read, I can read my own story out to an audience and it's incredibly rewarding."

Donna George [00:06:17] Jill, it's one thing for a library to promote a love of reading. It's another thing to recognize there may be some reading difficulties in the community, and yet, another thing to provide space for people to come in and learn to read and write, but the scenario that you've described, of targeting those people and at the end of this process, there is a published book. "I started out by not being able to write at all or very poorly, and now I have a work published." This is magnificent. I'm loving this.

Jill Bourne [00:06:45] It's so interesting, because when we put out a call to our staff around innovations to promote for this initiative, this was one I hadn't thought of, the staff brought it up because you think of innovations as being radically different or technology-focused, and this is just something that our staff have been doing, but again, when you think about that, how it connects the learner, who's been on this journey, and kind of gets them to a point where it says, "Now you're a part of the community's stories. You're part of the community's shared resource." It's pretty inspiring for us too.

Jim Heuer [00:07:23] If I remember correctly, your facility is also a joint-use facility with San José State University. You have a partnership with them. I got to imagine that this program also is really exciting and interesting and intriguing to them as well, right?

Jill Bourne [00:07:40] San José State University is our great partner. We always say we're in this amazing marriage together with our main library, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Library. The San José State staff is a huge participant in the program. The San José State community, many members of them become tutors, and they support the program. They come to the events and support the learners the same way that our staff do. We're in it together.

Jim Heuer [00:08:05] If someone's listening to this podcast, and they say, "Hey, I want to do this!" What would be the first thing, other than picking up a phone and calling you guys, what would you suggest to them if they really wanted to delve into this type of project themselves?

Jill Bourne [00:08:17] It is rooted in a deeply successful program with a staff that absolutely understood their audience and understood what they were trying to achieve and how it made sense to get there. You'd want to figure out, what's your audience, who do you have managing that, and then if you have it in place and you've got the learners and you see that benefit, I would say just go ahead and start having the oral conversation about storytelling and how important it is…maybe bringing in a StoryCorps or something like that because it's easy for us to publish books, right? It's our bread and butter, but it's really about making the connections to that community and making sure that they're ready for it, for being able to be in a position of telling their story.

Jim Heuer [00:08:59] Wow, that's some great stuff. Pretty obvious why ULC is giving you guys this award, and we want to offer our congratulations. That's fantastic and really neat stuff, and thank you.

Jill Bourne [00:09:11] Thank you. And all the credit goes to our amazing literacy team at the San José Library.

Jim Heuer [00:09:16] Shout-out to the literacy team!

Jill Bourne [00:09:17] Shout-out!

Jim Heuer [00:09:18] Woo hoo, alright.

Jill Bourne [00:09:20] Thank you.

Jim Heuer [00:09:21] Two Librarians and A Microphone is brought to you by Ingram Library Services, it is a division of Ingram Content Group. Our producer/director is Rachel Cope, sound engineering by Craig Simpson, special assistance by Essence Brisco, and Elizabeth Wilcox. The research done by our librarians, Trisha Bengel and Donna George. I'm Jim Heuer, thanks most of all to you for listening. Please follow us on Instagram at @thelibrarylife, tag us in your #thelibrarylife moments, because we've got some cool stuff going on, on that social media platform. We're going to be giving away some exclusive books, ARCs, perhaps a signed copy. In order to make sure you're staying tuned to this podcast, we'd love for you to go to our landing page, but most importantly, the best way you can show your support for us, is we'd love some reviews on Apple iTunes. If you can go on there and leave us a positive review, that would really help. We'll see you in your libraries. Thanks everybody.