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Rolling Out the Welcome Mat at Broward County Library
Posted On September 1, 2020
The ALA/Information Today, Inc. Library of the Future Award is presented to an organization that plans, develops, and applies a patron-training program that explores IT in a library setting. The 2020 winner is Broward County Library system in the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, for its use of Amazon Echo devices in its branches as part of its Project Welcome initiative, which helps English-language learners and newcomers to the region get comfortable with library services.

Catherine McElrath, publication specialist at Broward County Library, writes in the award application that Project Welcome is designed to promote the library’s resources and support customers “on their path towards literacy, economic prosperity and a sense of belonging.” The initiative’s target participants are those in the largest non-English-speaking communities in Broward County—Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese families.


McElrath describes Project Welcome’s two parts: Engaging (welcoming and attracting newcomers to the library) and Transitioning (offering mentoring and a series of programming). Both are supported by the voice technology of the Echo (i.e., Alexa for Business) to help bridge language barriers, she writes. Library staffers can ask Alexa to translate words and phrases into the necessary language.

During the Engaging part, the library offers its marketing materials and other resources, such as a welcome video, in multiple languages (English, Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese). McElrath notes that Broward County Library is the first system in the country to have Echo devices at every public service point. To supplement them, library staffers have dedicated tablets that can translate languages Alexa can’t handle.

For the Transitioning part, McElrath writes that the Welcome Ambassador program provides volunteer mentors for people who have just moved to Broward County. They “help reduce the stress of cultural adjustment, strengthen linkages with vital services and resources, and open doors to community involvement and family activities.” This part is about showing new customers that the library “is a safe, welcoming, free place to access resources and services that can make adjusting to their new home easier.” The Transitioning part also features English and citizenship classes.

Vonda Ward Bryant, learning services coordinator at Broward County Library, leads Project Welcome. She says that the initiative finds and reaches out to customers via the library’s website, newsletter, social media, partner agencies, internal program announcements, multilingual videos, posters and other signage, fliers, and classes focused on citizenship, among other avenues. These methods, along with word of mouth and various outreach, ensure that those who will benefit from Project Welcome will be able to participate. However, Bryant notes, “Broward County Library English, Citizenship, and other language classes have reached more than 3,000 in attendance monthly, but that number only scratches the surface of the total number of customers who need and want to participate in these programs and services.”

Bryant says that her “goal is to make Broward County Library the library that welcomes everyone.” She cites the county’s demographics reporting, Broward by the Numbers, which shows that 33.7% of its residents are foreign-born, and more than 40% speak a language other than English at home.


Bryant and the library’s grants coordinator applied for an $80,000-plus Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant for FY2018, which paid for Project Welcome’s startup costs, including a consultant, a video production company, translation services, marketing, and the Echo devices. The funds also helped pay for the expansion of the library’s programs and services to cater to recent immigrants. Although Project Welcome had a core team of 10 library staffers, more than 40 staffers and 24 volunteers contributed to getting the initiative started, Bryant says.

According to Bryant, during the grant period—October 2018 to September 2019—the team faced multiple delays. The consultant couldn’t come on board until 2 months after they’d been chosen, due to the county’s background-screening process. The translation equipment (which the grant application had identified as scanners for translating documents and webcam-based interpretation services for customers) had to go through a long purchasing-approval process. Then the team had to find a video production company that could create multilingual welcome videos. The team eventually abandoned the idea of the original translation equipment and decided to go with a voice assistant, which is how the library ended up with Echo devices.

The local media services company, Broward Education Communications Network (BECON), which offers video content to the county public schools, agreed to help with the welcome video. “The Project Welcome video script was created, written, and translated by Broward County Library staff,” says Bryant. BECON “hired native speakers from a local tutoring agency to be the talent. Broward County Library staff and volunteers also served as extras in the videos as well as provided library program information to add to the video footage.”


The two major resources of the Transitioning part of Project Welcome have had a good level of interest. The Welcome Ambassador program “is designed to welcome and guide newcomers (English language learners) as they adjust to living in Broward,” says Bryant. “Welcome Ambassadors are bilingual volunteers who will be paired with newcomers and their families in order to share with them the important resources Broward County Library has to offer, help them navigate other Broward County agencies, services, and opportunities.” There are about 15 volunteers so far. 

Bryant notes that the library has “conducted trials with the Echo devices in select English Café classes.” English Café programming is a series of classes for intermediate-level English speakers. “Because of Project Welcome, the library has expanded its Basic English Café classes. … Seventeen branches have offered Basic English classes in the last year”—a total of 714 classes with attendance of more than 9,000.

“Staff training is also a key component of the project,” says Bryant. “Cultural sensitivity trainings have been developed and made available to all staff.” In addition, partner collaborations have allowed Project Welcome to offer “a series of programs in Spanish, Haitian Creole, and Portuguese related to immigration law, job training, computer skills, the American educational system, parenting skills, health issues, etc. By engaging professionals fluent in the target languages to present these workshops, newcomers will have access to essential information, even if they are not fluent in English.”


“The advice I would give to a library looking to implement [its] own Project Welcome is to research, survey, develop, plan,” says Bryant. Identify your local demographics from the latest census or other public data: who your customers are, what languages they speak, and what countries they come from, as well as their ethnicities, religions, sexual orientations, political affiliations, and cultures and traditions.

“Next, survey your community and determine the customers’ needs and expectations from a library,” says Bryant. “Determine if your staff represents (mirrors) your library community. If so, these staff can assist with developing relations with the community groups represented in the research. Recruit volunteers and collaborate with local organizations to establish a welcome task force that will work to develop, plan, and fund services to welcome all into your community. Provide customer service and equity, diversity, and inclusion training for all staff, volunteers, and partners. Develop a slogan or theme that all organizations in the community can use,” and don’t forget to periodically evaluate how the initiative is going using internal and external feedback.


Bryant says that during the pandemic, the library’s programming and literacy staffers have been “preparing and facilitating virtual programs, which will continue once we are re-opened. Broward County Library in-person events once the library re-opens are yet to be determined.” However, the library “will continue to offer programs and services in multiple languages” in some capacity.

Brandi Scardilli is the editor of NewsBreaks and Information Today.

Email Brandi Scardilli

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