Library can offer more than books
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 22, 2005

Jahna Berry
At the Escalante Community Center, toddlers zipped across the floor clutching brightly colored toys. In one corner of the room, parents got advice from a nutritionist. In another, a mother browsed a selection of children's oversized books.

This, said Nicholas Escalante, is what a public library should be.

"We are trying to bring our services out of the library," said Escalante, who was hosting A Family Place, a free program that helps expose new parents and young children to library resources.

The program is just one that the library worker has used to help transform the Tempe Public Library's community outreach efforts, library director Teri Metros said.

For nearly five years, Escalante has helped build programs that lure minorities, bilingual residents, seniors, families and youths.

"He went out and sold what we were doing," Metros said. "He talks to the moms. He talks to grandmas, he went to churches."

Escalante, who is bilingual, is known to give tours of the library in Spanish. Now, Metros said, people come to the library's front desk asking for "Mr. Nick."

Nationally, libraries have struggled to find ways to reach underserved groups, said Diantha Schull, president of the New York non-profit Libraries for the Future.

"It's very, very important, especially for libraries that serve communities with people who come from places that don't have public libraries," Schull said. "Getting them to come there means a different kind of outreach."

Enter Escalante, who received the Arizona Library Association's Outstanding Services Award in 2004 for his outreach. He also talks to other library workers about rethinking their role in the community.

Escalante, the library's community education coordinator, downplayed his role. Tempe Public Library was already on the right track, he said. It established learning centers in community centers, such as the Escalante Community Center, instead of opening traditional branches. That way, a broad spectrum of people learns about library resources.

During Thursday's Family Place session, Haruko Kubota of Chandler played with her 4-year-old daughter, Kei. Kubota grew up in Japan and says she didn't use the library much. However, she has been taking her daughter to the library for storytelling since she was 2 years old.

"It helps for her to look at books when she's little," Kubota said. Like other parents at the program, Kubota wanted to spark an early interest in reading.

Escalante, 38, a former social worker, never imagined that he would work in a library.

In 2000, Tempe was having trouble finding a bilingual children's librarian and had decided to broaden its search. Escalante was a social worker in Las Cruces, N.M., who worked with severely emotionally disturbed children. He was looking for a job in the Valley so he could live closer to his sister when he applied for the Tempe job.

Escalante's experience as a social worker came in handy. After undergoing "library boot camp" to get familiar with its services, he fanned out into the community to tell people about library programs. He also made connections with professionals, like the nutritionist who visited the Thursday workshop, who volunteer their time.

During his first year on the job, Escalante helped the library to become a Family Place Library,a 9-year-old program that was successful in other cities. He also developed others such as homework help, reading incentive programs and genealogy classes for seniors.

Escalante says he proud that Tempe's programs entice a mix of people -- from families who have used libraries for generations to people who have never owned a library card. While Escalante speaks English and Spanish, families that speak Russian, Turkish and Arabic at home wander into his programs.

"If I can get the kid in, I can get the family in. If I can get the family in, I can let them know about the library," Escalante said.