Spotlight On: Whitehall Public Library

Written by Jocelyn Codner, Research Assistant – Vibrant Pittsburgh

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.

Read more here.