Virtual Collaboration with the iSchool’s Diverse Community Leads Yolande Wilburn on an LIS Adventure

Community Profile

Yolande Wilburn always wanted to go back to school for a master’s degree, and she looked to her own childhood for career inspiration. “I love the library, grew up there as a child, and found it to be a great way to escape,” Wilburn says. “My family wasn’t wealthy, and I’d go to the library and read all I could about places, and it was like being there.”

After doing her research on MLIS programs, Wilburn decided the San José State University School of Information was the best program for her, allowing her to complete classes around her work and family responsibilities. “In my undergrad years I didn’t enjoy the experience of 300 people in a lecture room,” she laughs, “I really enjoyed [iSchool classes] because they gave me a real sense of being in a classroom where colleagues collaborated.”

Wilburn began the program while living in California, but soon moved to Chicago, working as a page and then librarian at the Chicago Public Library. “One of the great things was that I was taking classes with students working in other countries, and going to school,” she says. “I got to hear about what was going on in libraries in Afghanistan, in Germany, in Seattle. It was a wonderful way to get involved, for me.” Wilburn took that experience of collaborating with a diverse community of LIS students, of seeking community perspective on LIS issues and concerns, and applied it to her professional life with each new position she took on.

To Make a Makerspace
Wilburn’s grant writing course (INFO 282) with Patty Wong came in handy on the job as she researched, wrote and won an IMLS/MacArthur Foundation grant to build the Chicago Public Library’s first makerspace. “I had an iSchool professor that spoke about real diversity within the library community, working with diverse groups—not just racially,” Wilburn says of her inspiration. “In this country we have to cater to specific groups, but there other marginalized groups that you don’t always think of.”

The multiuse space was envisioned after Wilburn went out into the community and witnessed artists using the library as workspace, business people taking advantage of the free wifi, and skilled workers needing tools to re-enter the job market. She determined that the maker lab was just what was needed. “People were coming from Michigan and Kansas to visit the maker lab, test it out, and see what they could do,” she says. “The community really sustains it, because it is what the community needs.”

The Call of the (Library) Wild
After the makerspace project, Wilburn adventurously accepted a position as a librarian at the Higher Colleges of Technology, a state university in Dubai, UAE. There, Wilburn called on her teaching skills to work with with the adult student population on improving literacy. “Dubai is very much an English-speaking country,” Wilburn says, “but literacy is an issue within the Arabic-speaking Emirati population as well.” In addition, Wilburn taught students to use the library’s digital resources and conduct effective research, and worked on a project to embed information from the library into online classrooms.

“When I went to Dubai—it’s a different world there,” Wilburn notes, and she had to adjust her librarian approach accordingly. Due to high shipping costs, print material is limited and Dubai students use ebooks, allowing the library to be more open, similar to the makerspace environment. “It’s about really looking at what your community’s needs are: that’s what I learned at SJSU. What worked there [in Dubai] was having a community space for people to work together and share the learning experience…it suited the space, and the community better. ”

Wilburn even met a fellow iSchool alumnus in Dubai. “That’s what I love about SJSU: that you can meet people halfway across the world, and then when you go to those countries, you know someone there. Even in Dubai, [the SJSU] iSchool is a well-respected program.”

We Need Diverse Resources
After Dubai, Wilbun took a position as community library manager at the AC Bilbrew Public Library, serving the Willowbrook/Athens Park area of Los Angeles, California, which also encompasses Compton and Watts. Home to the African American Resource Center (AARC), the library houses materials that relate to the African American experience.

“The BRC and the other County of Los Angeles Public Library resource centers are striving to maintain the sense of heritage in the community,” Wilburn explains. “Neighborhood residents talk about when they’d bring their kids to [the Living Legends programs], see Coretta Scott King, Cicely Tyson and other legends who have been honored over the years. It was a positive and uplifting experience for the community.” The series ended in 2008, but in honor of the tradition, Wilburn and Bilbrew library recently hosted a Black Book Expo, where local African American authors displayed their books, talked about what they do as writers, and were able to inspire other writers in the community.

Wilburn again noted her specific community’s needs and responded to them: another project she is excited about is an outreach program with the sheriff’s department, opening up the library as a place where the community can meet and establish a dialog. “The community has issues with police,” Wilburn says, “and being able to bridge that gap by holding community advisory meetings has allowed people in the neighborhood to air their concerns, talk to the sheriffs about issues and…create a better relationship.”

Wilburn is all about reaching out to people in the community. “People see libraries as that place people can come and feel comfortable,” she says. Her advice to other librarians? “Go out and talk to other people! See what they’re doing, and how can we bring our audiences together to provide better service, a better relationship.”