By Tom Holmes
If you want to see a good example of diversity, Forest Park style, "check out" the 100-year-old public library.
Located at the corner of Desplaines and Jackson, the Forest Park Public Library (FPPL) serves an increasingly multicultural clientele with increasingly diverse resources. For example, the library's youth-focused "Remembering MLK" program on Jan. 16 will include listening to selected Martin Luther King speeches and readings from Martin's Big Words: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by Doreen Rappaprt. Meanwhile, a special event celebrating Bali, with traditional Balinese dancers, was held on Jan. 8 and a Chinese New Year celebration is planned for Jan. 29.
Every day after school the teen room downstairs, called "Teen Territory," is filled with middle-school and high-school students who represent a wide range of backgrounds, including many African American and Hispanic students from Proviso East High School.
And nannies whose first language is Spanish bring their charges to Cuentos Para Todos (Stories for Everyone). The nannies, according the library Director Pilar Shaker, look forward to hearing stories in their primary language and the parents of the children the nannies take care of appreciate the opportunity the program gives to help their kids become bilingual.
Persons with disabilities find usable resources like wheelchair-accessible computers and a magnifying reader. Although the library itself is wheelchair accessible, Shaker would love to get the funding to install automatic openers on the washroom doors to make things even easier.
Shaker said the library also serves a number of homeless patrons, many of whom have found their way to the library because "they know it is a place where they will be welcomed to use the computers and other resources regardless of their homeless status." Others with special needs served by FPPL are those with mentally illnesses who find the building a safe place to hang out and be treated with respect.
Respect for diversity was the motivation for Community Outreach Librarian Alicia Hammond inviting Rich Alapack, founder of We All Live Here, to create chalk art on the south side of the building.
"Alapack's campaign is about celebrating the differences between us," Shaker explained, "and understanding that those differences add richness to our community. It also helps us understand that we all share the responsibility for creating healthy community."
Shaker said her staff feels pulled in more than one direction. They are hired to be librarians on the one hand, but they also feel pulled to do the social work that many of their patrons need but which the staff is not trained to do. One thing staff members are good at, she said, is referring patrons to resources available outside the library, like Housing Forward for homeless people or the state of Illinois for devices to assist persons with disabilities.
A resource high on Shaker's wish list is a staff social worker, a position that bigger libraries with larger budgets, like next door in Oak Park, are able to fund.
Because the patrons served by the library cover a range, FPPL staff try to provide resources appropriate to that diversity.
"Our collections, programs, and mission," Shaker said, "are intended to be relevant to all members of our community regardless of culture, race, gender, political affiliation, etc. The staff here works hard to build a collection that is balanced and provides perspectives from every angle of an argument, and to create programming that celebrates unique pockets of culture within the community without being exclusionary."
She is constantly looking for "niches," i.e. groups in town who may be underserved by the library.
A growing demographic group in this area, for instance, is Hispanics. "We weren't getting a lot of adults checking things out in Spanish," she said, "but then we realized the children of those Spanish speaking adults spend their days in school speaking English, and because those parents want their children to be bilingual, we have acquired a collection of stories that can be read in both Spanish and English."
To meet the needs of low-income families, FPPL has "hot spots" that can be checked out — devices that, when hooked up to a computer at home, can provide wireless access to the internet, which enables a wide range of library cardholders to access thousands of resources.
For the business community, particularly small business owners, FPPL has a database that includes 30 million profiles and an online background check that can be conducted on a job applicant in 60 seconds. Also free of charge is a connection to the Illinois Small Business Development Center at the Joseph Center, which "provides business consulting, networking opportunities and training programs to assist entrepreneurs in improving business performance, productivity and profitability."
FPPL also offers workshops, seminars and subscriptions to assist job seekers.
Available online are 80 magazines, such as Architectural Digest, Diabetic Living, Entrepreneur, ESPN The Magazine, House Beautiful, Mother Jones, Motor Trend, Outdoor Life, Teen Vogue and the Yoga Journal.
The library's website boasts, "Media On Demand," which is FPPL's virtual branch filled with over 20,000 unique titles, and eBooks are available in a variety of formats to work with most popular devices. ComicsPlus Library Edition enables access to thousands of digital graphic novels and comics through any web-connected device as well as access to movies, TV shows, music albums, digital books, audiobooks, and comics through a new partnership with Hoopla.
"Based on our most recent numbers," said Shaker, "approximately 10 percent of our circulation is made up of titles downloaded by patrons. Our online databases are accessed about 4,000 times each month by patrons from home and in the library."
As the library heads into its second century, the Forest Park Public Library is trying to keep up with the times.