August 25, 2015
Melissa Solis Connects the Dots: Library, Literacy and Community
“Anyone in a library degree program would really benefit from volunteering in an adult literacy program in a local library. Understand the people in your neighborhood, and understand different educational experiences: not everyone gets the same opportunity.”
San Diego, California
MLIS Student, Expected Graduation 2016
Melissa Solis has the characteristics that good librarians are made of: she loves helping people and connecting them to information. For her commitment to diversity and inclusion and her dedication to working in the public library sphere, she’s earned Friends of the Leisure World and Blanche Woolls Spectrum scholarships, to be used to continue her iSchool MLIS degree. And as befitting a lifelong learner, she’s soaking up all of the knowledge she can from professional members of the LIS community through her work, community involvement and active participation in groups like the San Diego Council on Literacy, and LIBROS, the San Diego and Imperial Counties chapter of REFORMA.
Learning On the Job
“If you’re somebody who’s curious and likes learning,” Solis says, “being a part of library associations gives you new ideas and helps you solve problems.” And she needs all the problem-solving expertise she can get.
Solis works in an adult literacy instruction role at a public library south of San Diego, in a system that supports a multicultural environment with a strong Latino, Spanish-speaking population. “We work with adults that often have less than a high school education,” Solis explains, “and we train volunteers to teach them how to build their literacy skills.” That could be anything from basic reading to preparing for GED or citizenship test. So, to gain a sense of what other people have done in terms of serving this community, Solis read a book on immigrant services to public libraries, which directed her to REFORMA, the ALA-affiliated national organization to promote library services to the Latino and Spanish-speaking community.
“If you’re someone new in an organization like a library, you have to develop a community of practice," Solis explains. “Which means you find people who are supportive, knowledgeable; get to know them and learn from them.” Solis knew there was an opportunity to develop services that were more relevant to her library’s community—to improve library spaces to make them more open to everybody, to explore cultural heritage and bring value to the library—and she sought out the people who could help her. (Solis is pictured at right on a tour of Chicano Park at the REFORMA National Conference in San Diego, April 2015.)
“The challenges I’m facing aren’t really new,” she says. “A lot of people have faced them before and have a lot of wisdom to share. Our profession is known for that. It’s nice when you do reach out to people to have them welcome you so wholeheartedly; it makes you want to do that in return. And they help motivate you by assuring you that can overcome challenges and solve problems. You just need to learn through it.”
Challenge came almost immediately to Solis. Soon after being hired, she was assigned to work with a software developer to customize a library database. Solis says that she’s extremely grateful for the iSchool for preparing her to navigate the process. “Each experience builds and leads to something, but you don’t always know what that will be,” she says, citing three key iSchool courses that paved the way for her to succeed in her role.
Armed with knowledge from INFO 244: Online Searching, Solis was able to easily communicate with the database developer and explain exactly what the library needed and why the changes mattered. “He listened to me, and made things more efficient so I could spend more time working with people instead of playing with my database all day,” she says. “If I hadn't taken the course I don’t think I would’ve been able to do that.”
Solis was able to apply skills learned through INFO 281: Community Informatics to a bilingual English-Spanish computer readiness class she oversees at the library. The course proved to be wildly successful, thanks in part to a partnership with local organization Computers to San Diego Kids (C2SDK), which donates a free computer to anyone who completes the class. “Adult literacy is challenging to measure,” she says, “But with that one program, and community informatics, I can show a full-circle change making an impact on my community.” (Solis is pictured, above, at a library career & college readiness class for adult learners prepping for the GED.)
For Solis, “informatics” goes beyond showing outcomes of programs libraries provide, or keeping track of the number of people served: “It’s showing how you changed a life. It gives us a chance to know what we're doing for the people we serve, and share that with the community so other people know what’s happening, know what we’re doing.”
And rounding out her skill set, INFO 282: Seminar in Library Management with Dr. Carol Sawyer taught Solis how to reflect on her own experiences, learn tools for better collaboration, and motivate other people to really think hard about roles and outcomes. That in particular has proved helpful as Solis trains volunteers to work with the library community.
Solis’s future is firmly connected to public librarianship and community involvement. She strives to practice “cultural humility,” which to her is the personal touch of getting to know and understand members of your community. “Anyone in a library degree program would really benefit from volunteering in an adult literacy program in a local library,” she says. “Understand the people in your neighborhood, and understand different educational experiences: not everyone gets the same opportunity.”
“I do think there's a foundational skill set that you learn in library school that can be directly applied to making things better,” Solis adds. “Because that’s the big thing: You don’t stop learning after library school; you keep doing it and get involved. Communities of practice give you the chance to do that for your entire career.”