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A photo of Janet Tom, a member of the Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board.
Janet Tom is a member of the CCDI Advisory Board. Image courtesy of Janet Tom.

CCDI Advisory Board Member Spotlight: Janet Tom

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The Connecting Communities Digital Initiative (CCDI) Advisory Board advises CCDI staff on program administration, supports initiative outreach activities, and helps the Library imagine ways that it can deepen connections with Black, Indigenous, Hispanic or Latino, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color. Its members include nine professionals ranging from senior scholars to leading librarians, archivists, and early-career professionals in Libraries, Archives, and Museums.

Janet Tom received the I Love My Librarian award in 2020 for developing programs at the San Francisco Public Library that transformed lives and communities.

In this interview post, Janet offers her thoughts on how public libraries can build community, shares her process for developing programs at the San Francisco Public Library, and discusses the importance of reference librarianship.

What made you want to get involved with the CCDI Advisory Board?

When I first spoke to Laurie Allen about the Library’s new Of the People: Widening the Path program, I was excited to hear that they wanted to expand their collections of the stories of Black, Hispanic, Asian American, Native American, and other ethnic minority groups.

At the Summer Fuse event last July, I heard the grant recipients describe their projects and how they will combine materials from the Library’s collection with technology to create a new story about their respective communities of color. I talked to the Junior Fellows about their projects and was so impressed by their Story Maps. I believe that when these new stories come to light, it will contribute to a deeper understanding of American history.

I am honored to be working with the other members of the Advisory Board to promote and further the goals of CCDI.

At the San Francisco Public Library, you created highly popular initiatives like the Death and Dying Series, the Chinese Alzheimer’s Forum, and the Healthy Living Series. How does your work show how libraries can serve critical information needs while also building community?

Libraries are considered to be a repository of knowledge. In olden days, this meant books and other written materials served as that source of knowledge. Nowadays, in addition to books, one can obtain information through audio-visual materials, online databases, exhibitions and more. However, one of the most effective ways libraries can serve the critical information needs of their community is by producing programs that address topics of interest to them.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 10,000 people turn 65 every day in our country. Having become part of that statistic recently, I began thinking about program topics that might specifically interest seniors, who happen to be a large percentage of our users at the San Francisco Public Library.

I started a series of programs on death and dying because I had recently read about green burials as an alternative to regular burials and wanted to learn more about it. This led me to learning about other alternative methods of body disposition, such as donating one’s body to science, human composting, aquamation (also known as alkaline hydrolysis or water cremation), and more.

I began meeting people who worked with the dying– remarkable people who show care and compassion in their work every day. I went to meetings, attended end of life fairs, spoke to religious leaders, and a series of programs began to take shape.

A graphic illustrating the 2019 "Death and Dying Discussion" series with an image of a dandelion blowing in the wind.
A flyer of the 2019 Death and Dying Discussion Series. Image Courtesy of Ellen Reilly.

The Death and Dying Series took place at the San Francisco Public Library in 2019, covering eight topics, ranging from “what happens to my body when I die?” to “last wishes: start the conversation now!”

Our library, in effect, became a community living room for each program, providing a safe and welcoming space to the 100+ people who came. Many came to several programs and some attended every single one.

Another critical need where libraries can meet and build community at the same time is by having programs that are relevant to patrons who speak languages other than English. For example, the Alzheimer’s Association was looking for a larger space to hold their annual Chinese Alzheimer’s Forum, which is conducted in Chinese and English. We invited them to use our large auditorium which gave the Association the opportunity to invite more people. In subsequent years, attendance has ranged from 125-150 people.

A photo of people registering for the Chinese Alzheimer's Forum event, took place at the San Francisco Public Library. Image Courtesy of Xiaorong Ou.
Registration at the Chinese Alzheimer’s Forum event, which took place at the San Francisco Public Library. Image Courtesy of Xiaorong Ou.

The Healthy Living Series was part DIY (do-it-yourself) and part lecture. Programs included vegetarian cooking demos, making fermented foods, healthy eating, eye care, dental care, foot care, and building strength for seniors.  Speakers included cookbook authors, medical doctors, an ophthalmologist, a podiatrist, a dentist, and a physical therapist. They gave practical, easy-to-understand explanations of how to live healthfully and age gracefully. We always had a large audience of not only seniors, but people of all ages, in attendance.

After each program, there were always lots of questions from the audience. Each individual program encouraged people to learn more about the subject and, as they were already at the library, they could immediately seek additional information.

You won the I Love My Librarian award for your work at the San Francisco Public Library. What sorts of programming do you think resonate, particularly with public library patrons?

Public library patrons attend our programs for many reasons. They may need help preparing a resume so they can apply for a job. They may want to improve their English or take classes to earn a high school diploma. Project Read is a nationwide program which works out of public libraries to match a tutor and a student who wants to improve their literacy skills.

Libraries provide a learning space that encourages life-long learning. People love our “how-to” and DIY programs, which include arts and crafts, creating something by knitting, drawing, cooking and more. Family history is another very popular topic. Libraries often hold special days where patrons can bring in family photos that they can digitize on the library’s equipment.  We’ve had speakers who taught us how to make a memory book or write thank you letters, honoring those who made a difference in our lives.

As more and more of our lives depend on technology, people, especially seniors, flock to programs that offer one-to-one coaching on how to use email, social media, download books and more. Several years ago, our library had a program where teen volunteers worked individually with seniors on whatever computer/technical problem they had.  The program fostered friendship among the older and younger generations.

People also resonate with cultural programs that remind them of their home country’s celebrations and customs.  At our library, we feature books and offer lectures and cultural programs during Black History Month, Women’s History Month, Asian Pacific Heritage Month, Pride Month, Latino Hispanic Heritage Month, Native American Heritage Month and more.

You are passionate about the reference aspect of librarianship. What do you see as the purpose and impact of this work?

As a librarian, providing reference service to patrons is the core of our work to the public. In this one-on-one interaction, I am teaching a patron how to use the library’s resources. I’m also empowering the patron to become more independent and information-literate. One never knows what questions will come to us on any given day. One of the things I love about being a librarian is I am always learning new things!

What kinds of technologies have you seen patrons respond to?

Patrons have responded to technology for historical research, especially genealogical research, having e-book/e-resource access; and reading newspapers and magazines through digital platforms such as PressReader and Flipster. During the pandemic, when the SF Public Library was closed from March 2020 to May 2021, use of our digital resources soared.

CCDI is part of the Library’s Of the People: Widening the Path program with support from the Mellon Foundation. This four-year program provides financial and technical support to individuals, institutions and organizations to create imaginative projects using the Library’s digital collections and centering one or more of the following groups: Black, Indigenous, Hispanic/Latinx, Asian American and Pacific Islander, and other communities of color from any of the 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and its territories and commonwealths (Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, American Samoa, U.S. Virgin Islands). Learn more about CCDI here.

Comments (3)

  1. I’m a user of the San Francisco Public Library. One of the ways the library system creates community is by sponsoring regular book groups at the branches. A librarian hosts the meetings. I have been attending the group at my local branch since it was founded 29 years ago. Janet is the latest in a long line of librarian hosts. During the pandemic we went online and now that we are meeting in person again, we continue to Zoom in members who can’t attend in person or have moved away. This book group has become a real community, bringing together people from different backgrounds to share ideas and opinions about both fiction and non-fiction alike. We have great discussions. Every library should have a group!

  2. Janet Tom certainly deserves the “I Love My Librarian” award she was given. She’s quietly, effectively active all around San Francisco–at the Legacy Film Festival on Aging, at the San Francisco Veg Society’s World Veg Fest, and with the Sunset Book Group in SF, which she’s led for decades. She’s truly an inspiration. Thank you for featuring her in this issue.

  3. Janet Tom is a SF TREASURE – not only to the library system, but to the non-profit arts world which she has supported over the years through advocacy and her own volunteerism. Janet Tom seems to be everywhere – and wherever she is, one should be interested in being – it is always someplace interesting , edifying, and informative. She is a leader and an outstanding community member.
    Brava for shining this light on her!

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