Alumna Carissa Purnell Heads Salinas Public Library’s Youth Outreach Efforts

Community Profile

For iSchool alumna Carissa Purnell, playing a mean game of Madden09 on the Xbox is just as important as knowing how to create Web pages using Joomla and Drupal when it comes to doing her job well.

Purnell was recently promoted to the newly created position of Youth and Technology Coordinator at the Salinas Public Library in California. Her job essentially is to act as the liaison between the library and teens in the Salinas community, which is battling a high drop-out rate and gang violence. As a Spanish-speaking 25-year-old who grew up texting, Purnell can relate to teens and help them feel comfortable using the library.

“The reality is that until they are comfortable, teens aren’t going to be honest and genuinely open about what it is they want — not just from the library, but their own expectations for themselves and their futures,” she said.

Reaching that level of comfort means students can come into the library and ask for help, whether to complete college applications, research scholarships, or find new ways to express themselves through digital tools.

“Home computers have become an expectation in our current education system,” Purnell said. “But in communities like mine, that unlimited access isn’t a reasonable expectation, and our library is flooded with demand to use computers for basic word processing and simple PowerPoint presentations.”

Purnell, who graduated in December 2009 with her MLIS degree, decided to become a librarian after working in community organizing in the San Francisco Bay Area while in school. She realized that libraries “play a huge role in serving as access points to information in underrepresented and disadvantaged communities” and empower patrons in a cost-effective way.

Purnell is currently writing grant proposals, hoping to garner funding for a series of programs that the library’s teen patrons helped her design, from hosting a skateboard airbrushing seminar to a community forum on institutionalized racism. She also works with a spoken word and poetry slam group called “Teen Salinas Speaks,” building them a website so they could get organized and present themselves on a larger scale. After Purnell built the initial website, she taught them how to use the Drupal content management system, and now the group maintains and updates the site on their own.

The teen group has returned the favor. They’re campaigning to raise funds to expand Salinas’s Cesar Chavez Library and even created a video asking Oprah Winfrey to help.

“I don’t think teens realize when they update their myspace site or edit images from their phones to put online, they are essentially ‘programming,’ and ‘digitally editing content,’ and possess a set of skills that fuels the technology industry,” Purnell said. “They bring a unique and creative perspective to their uses and manipulation of online sites, like myspace and Facebook, but need to focus and recognize their skill set and be given the tools to expand and fine tune it for an academic and professional application.”