LITERACY AT THE LAUNDROMAT

Wash and Learn & Laundromat Library League

Laundromats have become a literacy hot spot in communities all over the country – as people convene, bring their children, and often spend 2-3 hours. The premise of today’s program – the Laundromat Library League is simple - makes children’s books available to children who have little or no access to books at home.  Invite Children and caregivers – while at the laundromat - to enjoy a book, take it home, and eventually pass it on to another child. Over the past five years, they've spread into 24 states with nearly 500 volunteers. And they've donated 90,000 books.

Created by Libraries Without Borders, Wash and Learn aims to transform the 30,000 laundromats across the country into literacy hubs. Laundromats are now centers of conversation around reading and learning, and miniature versions of public libraries and all of their resources. 

RESOURCES & LINKS

TRANSCRIPT

Molly Ness

Laundromats have become a literacy hotspot in communities all over the country, as people convene, bring their children, and often spend two to three hours there. Today I feature two different programs, Wash and Learn and the Laundromat Library League who have re-envisioned family laundromat time as literacy time.

 

Molly Ness

Welcome to End Book Deserts, the podcast featuring the innovative people and programs, who spread the love of books and reading culture in our nation’s under-resourced areas.  I'm Dr. Molly Ness, lifelong reader, book nerd, teacher-educator, and the founder of End Book Deserts.

 

Molly Ness

Walk into a laundromat in a major metropolitan area, you will see people folding laundry uncomfortable plastic chairs, and the rhythmic tumbling of washers and dryers. What you might not expect to find are bookshelves, computers, young children gathered for story hour, and even parents taking adult literacy classes. Yet that’s exactly what’s happening across the country today. Realizing that families typically spend two and a half hours at a laundromat and that families typically frequent the same laundromat; our featured programs today have re-purposed the laundromat as a literacy space. Join executive director, Adam Echelman following the story of Wash and Learn. I should note that Wash and Learn falls under Libraries Without Borders, an organization that works in 30 countries. Next, we talk with Arlene Rengert of the Laundromat Library League, a more grassroots approach to literacy at the laundromat.

 

Adam Echelman

It was a very concerted effort to understand where folks were hanging out. Where gaps in library services might exist? Who wasn't going to the library? Why weren’t they using library services? Where book deserts were? Where other assets and community resources might not be? And we wanted to create a space of learning in a community- in this case, we were in Morrisania in the Bronx. And we found the laundromat was a really- really unique place for that. You know laundromats are unique for a variety of reasons. I think first and foremost, people are stuck there. On top of that, people often go back to the same laundromat every week or every other week. So, we see the same families. And laundromats are open all the time. So even when the public library might close or another nonprofit organization doesn't offer a program, it's still a space where people are milling about. And finally, laundromats are really local. No one really travels 20 miles to go to a laundromat unless you're in a rural area. But in most major cities, I believe the numbers are 90% of families travel within one mile to go to their local laundromat. So, if you're thinking about one particular neighborhood you would know pretty well who’s going to be in that space. So, taking all the factors together, we started building what we describe as pop-up libraries. So, putting some books in the laundromat. We install computers and help set up the Wi-Fi. We put some tables in and above all, we work with a local library branch to see how they could bring some of their services from the branch into the laundromat. And what started in the Bronx then expanded to Detroit then to cities like Minneapolis, Saint Paul, the Pittsburgh metro area. Now we're in cities like Baltimore, San Antonio, Texas, Oakland, California, Durham, North Carolina, and so on. And really what we focus on is taking work of libraries and the work of local institutions that partner with libraries and really try to make sure that people are working outside the walls of their institution. It’s really our name- Libraries Without Borders...

 

Adam Echelman

Laundromats are also predominantly low-income. Families who use the laundromat don't have the capital to buy a washer/dryer. You know it’s 800-900 dollars- a thousand. It can be expensive. And families just don't have the money to draw or they don't have the space in their apartment or their house. And so, I think that's an important caveat to add here. Yes, we're reaching folks who are bored but we’re also serving low-income families. To answer your question about what you might see, it really depends. And what my work is- the work of Libraries Without Borders in the U.S. really focuses on is supporting local organizations and supporting the local library often to design a program that meets the needs of that community and that space. So, I'll give you a couple of examples. In Oakland, California, our partnership with the Oakland Public Library, we provide bilingual story hour because the community that were in-so in the Fruitvale area is predominantly Spanish-speaking. We also have an ESL teacher that's hired and on staff who offers English language classes once a week for families at the laundromat. There are about 9 families that we- and they actually run a course because it's a convenient space for them and they're killing two birds with one stone- getting their laundry done and also practicing their English. Meanwhile, in a city like Baltimore, you focus a lot on digital literacy, and we use the laundromat more as a hub of connectivity. So, we have librarians who work like 10 hours a week inside the laundromat across the city and there they are teaching people how to operate a computer and that’s in part due to the demographics of the space as well. There's a lot of single adults who are hanging out in these laundromats as opposed to young children that we see in cities like St. Paul, Minnesota where we have so many kids and kids from all around the world. So English language storytelling often is the best avenue because you just have so many different languages, you can't pick one. And also, just- you know there’s so many kids, so that's what we need to be doing.

 

Molly Ness

So, when I think about the services that my public library offers, I know it is far- it goes far beyond just checking out books or a place to read or a storytime for my young daughter. Libraries really offer adult classes and tax documentation and if I need help figuring out things about my taxes or whatever, I can go to my library. Sounds like you are doing some of that work in your Wash and Learn centers in your laundromats. Let me push you to ask why- why do we need- why can't people just go to their library? Why do we need these services also offered at a laundromat? Why is the public library not sufficient in and of itself?

 

Adam Echelman: I wish that everybody could just go to the library, but the reality is that that's not the case. We know that there are barriers to transportation. Many families don't have the money to pay for the gas. They don't have the ability to hop on the bus and go to the library if they're in a community that doesn't have strong public transportation. Some families aren't aware of what the library does. Libraries are doing so many critical services and offering so many wonderful after school programs for children and teenagers and adults, but the reality is not everybody knows about those. And just like with anything communication is half the battle. And so sometimes the laundromat can serve as a pipeline back to the library. And then I think finally, there are some communities and some folks who might feel like the library is unwelcome to them. One example that often rings true is that in many cultures, public institutions and public libraries by extension are seen as corrupt or dirty. And sometimes in the U.S., that’s the case too. People just don't trust it because it's free and they don’t realize all of the key- all of the services that are designed for them and so it's not just bridging that gap can be- can be a victory on its own.

 

Molly Ness

To understand their impact, Wash and Learn has collaborated with one of my all-time favorite researchers, New York University’s, Dr. Susan Neuman. If you didn’t get the chance to listen to my first episode with Dr. Neuman, I encourage you to take a listen as she explains the sobering statistics and realities around book deserts.

 

Adam Echelman: So, together with Dr. Susan Neuman of NYU, Too Small to Fail of the Clinton Foundation and the Coin Laundry Association, we commissioned a study in New York City to understand the impact of literacy materials and literacy programming inside laundromats. And lo and behold, we found that our hunch was right. Children were observed engaging in three times more literacy activities in laundromats that included games and toys and books than those laundromats that did not. And this was not a- not a correlative relationship, it was causation. So, we were able to show that by putting books and words and games in a laundromat, it actually inspired children and families to read more. We also saw that there was this cultural of literacy that started to develop, which is to say neighbors would talk to neighbors and would say, “oh what are you reading?” Or would watch the behavior of one family and say, “oh I love what you're doing with your child. That's wonderful.” We also came to understand something we already knew distinctively but were able to show that many of the families at the laundromats we're working within New York had fewer than 20 children's books in their home. And again, getting back to that critical question that you're asking Molly about, what is a book desert? Where do they exist? How do they impact communities? And we realized that in a lot of these spaces, not only were they book deserts, but once you introduce books and not just books, but also literacy-related activities and games and toys that inspire literacy, that families really wanted these resources. They were actively using them. On top of that study, we've been doing a lot of other work to look into the other ways in which learning in laundromats might contribute to English language learning abilities like the example I gave in Oakland, California. We've been looking into the roles of laundromats in connecting children and families who may not have internet at home. Addressing issues like the homework gap which prevents many children and teenagers from doing their homework because of lack of access to computers and tablets at their house. And we've also been looking to the role of laundromats as a community hub and our role in creating a place that's safe in neighborhoods that aren't always safe.

 

Molly Ness

I asked Adam to reflect on the future of Wash and Learn.

 

Adam Echelman: I would like to say -there’s kind of two answers to that. I'd love to be in every laundromat in the country. There are you know- 30,000 laundromats across the U.S. and it would be wonderful to have programming and activities throughout all of those. I think it's really important to note that we're not the only people to ever work in a laundromat. Beginning in the 1990s, the Chicago Public Library started doing pop-up storytime inside laundromats. We work with many other organizations across the U.S like Too Small to Fail, The Clinton Foundation, or the Coin Laundry Association. Groups like Suncoast Reading Initiative and United Way- you know many folks are doing this work. And I think we're part of a movement if anything. That's really thinking critically about meeting families where they are, and I think we're getting there slowly. And I think the second question- the second answer that I want to provide is that it's not just about being in every laundromat. It's also about- it's about creating a space where learning happens organically. And by that, I mean a space in which people re-envision what a laundromat is and how it serves their community. You know what we can do at Libraries Without Borders is help- is help get things moving a little bit. Maybe we'll get that bookshelf in there. We’ll train the local librarian. We’ll build that initial partnership, but ten years from now, to keep these programs going, people really need to re-imagine where learning happens and how it happens in their community.

 

Arlene Rengert

Well, we have as our, more or less, mission statement just a few words providing books to children, or bringing books to children.  And that is different from a library that somebody has to take the child to the books.  And the ‘why’ laundromats is because that is where people go and spend some time, people who are caregivers, sometimes they have children with them, sometimes not, but they’re spending time there so they can notice books, they can read them there, and we have signage in both English and Spanish that encourages the children of a caregiver to take books home.  It’s not about somebody keeping track of the books, or the books coming back, it’s literally providing books to children.  And each of our books has what we call a book sticker on the front of it that says, “Read it, love it, pass it on.”  It’s not about the books coming back, and sometimes we have to explain that over and over again to maybe a well-meaning laundromat attendant who thinks that she or he should be telling them to, “now bring this back when you come,” and we have to sometimes explain that.  But the ‘why’ laundromats, is because it’s where people with children that don’t go and spend time, and it is probably the population that does not have their own laundry facilities at home, and doesn’t have the time, much money, or awareness, budget to have children’s books at home.

 

Molly Ness

At their 200 sites, Library Laundromat League relies on an army of volunteers and stewards.

 

Arlene Rengert

All we provide is books.  The books in most cases are in a cardboard box with simple decorated banker boxes you buy at stationery stores for not much money.  And we reinforce them with, making them last longer with colored duct tape going around them.  We have simple words like, “read a book,” “take a book,” “reading is fun.”  We have decorations, if any, with a magic marker, butterflies or something like that.  Why are they not fancier, it’s because in most cases these boxes can’t be taken and used for something else, like carrying your wet laundry around?  So, they stay in place.  And so, what you see is, you see this decorated box.  You see a laminated sign, either on it, or above it, or beside it that has English and Spanish versions, and I can send you the words for that if you want.  But it’s “take a book,” “read a book,” “enjoy the book,” and then you see that the books have the “read it, love it, pass it on,” slogan on the front.  And that’s all you see, we hope.  We have stewards that commit to visiting the site twice a month, is what we ask, some people do it more frequently, sometimes twice a month is too much, to remove anything in the box that are not our children’s books.  If they’re good books, adult books, put them somewhere else in the laundromat.  If they’re pizza ads, toss it, and that’s what we say.  We tell the laundromat owner we will never put anything other than the children’s book in that box, and we’ll take out anything somebody else puts there.  

 

Molly Ness

An absolute grassroots effort, Arlene reflects on the growth and future of the Laundromat Library League.

 

Arlene Rengert

Before I die, I think there should be at least one laundromat in every state that has books.  We are about half the states right now.  We have at least a starter site.  And we have people working with the others.  I predict that within the next month we’ll add four or five more states.  We got a small family grant last year to underwrite the postage costs or any other costs of starting sites in states that are not contiguous to Pennsylvania.  We now are doing more successful fundraising in general, so we think we can…we don’t need that grant anymore once we run out of that, we can keep on mailing to states by media mailing rate that’s not very expensive.  We have some documents that we can send to people to help the onsite person merge into getting donations from local schools.  We wrote a “Dear School Librarian” letter, which is signed by me, nationally, referencing the person whose name and address is at the bottom, who would be the one to come and get the books if they have enough builder books.  We have a similar version of that for the public librarians.  And we’re about to do one for nursery schools, pre-Ks, to encourage them to have a book drive, when we have somebody to come help with that so that nobody has to do the writing work, or do any graphics, so it’s easy for this to become self-sustaining.  And in the future, I would see that you know, a lessening of the dependency on us, as whoever is in charge grows.  In one of our states, we’re going to add soon, there’s a book club that’s going to take this on, and we’re giving them everything to start, but they’re expecting that they will not need us anymore after that.  

 

Molly Ness

In the spirit of building reading culture and reflecting on their reading identities, both Adam and Arlene eagerly share the books that have had a profound impact on them.

 

Arlene Rengert

It’s an early childhood book.  It’s not one that transformed me necessarily, but it’s one that has stayed with me since I first had it read to me, and that’s The Little Engine That Could.  So, I think I can, I think I can, I think I can, mantra, which has taken me through many, many challenges, including, oh yes, we can go national.  I think I can.  So, that…and…anyway, I still do use that mantra and still value that book. 

 

Adam Echelman

Yeah, I've been saying that my one book that inspired me was a book that I read as a kid with my father when I was four or five and it was called The Lonely Skyscraper and it was all about a building. And every generation, something else would come into the neighborhood, and every generation something else would get torn away. And it was always kind of moving and changing and you'd see season after season what was happening through the lens of this one building. And I think with a lot of books, the reality is that I can't really tell you that much about the story of the book, but what I remember was that my father reading to me and sitting in his bed late at night and falling asleep over the story, over the words of the story. And that is what- that is what literacy is about to me. It's about the family and connections between the parents.

 

Molly Ness

The work of Wash and Learn and of Laundromat Library League provides a literacy bonding experience to families all over the country. Thank you to both Adam and Arlene for their time and effort. For more information about either of these programs, please visit www.endbookdeserts.com

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