Expanding “American Corners” in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and beyond
By Lynn Volkens
Gilpin County Public Library (GCPL) is usually closed on Mondays, but on July 15, 2013, Library Director Larry Grieco opened the doors to a very special group of international visitors for a private presentation and tour of GCPL. GCPL has twice been chosen to represent a small rural American library, thanks largely in part to Grieco’s efforts in promoting the library. The last time was in 2010 when GCPL hosted a visit from a Mongolian librarian. This time, twenty-two men and women from countries in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and several islands spent about two hours at Gilpin’s library. They were here as part of the United States Department of State International Visitor Leadership Program. The group was a mix of educators, librarians, public relations professionals and lecturers, but all had at least one thing in common. Each is the coordinator of a cultural exchange and education program called “American Corner.”
Depending on the country and the facility hosting the “American Corner,” the program might provide reference materials related to the United States, educational programs about American culture and democratic values, information about the history and traditions of the U.S., our education system and American institutions, literacy programs, English language classes, American guest speakers, access to print and multi-media materials, a reading room and much more. Some of the coordinators have developed programs designed to entice youth and college students specifically, such as a TV Lunch Date series in which American television programs are shown and discussed; Lyric Talk – a program based around the lyrics of songs that are popular with students; film nights; and stand-up comedy workshops. The coordinators are working hard to make their facilities an integral part of their communities, where people with different languages, different religious beliefs, different ages, different educational levels –all feel welcome. Thus, the visit to GCPL.
GCPL has been called “the heart of the community” and “the gem in Gilpin’s crown.” It has won national recognition as an award-winning “Best Small Rural Library” not just because of its traditional library function, but because of the many extra programs and services it provides. Members of GCPL’s Board of Trustees, Friends of the Library, and Board of County Commissioners explained the history of how GCPL came to be, the support given by local residents, the funding revenues for the library and the collaborative effort it takes to keep the library running. Grieco explained the many services provided and the extensive use by the community of GCPL’s meeting room. The international visitors asked questions about the children’s story hour and summer reading program, funding efforts of the Friends of the Library, the Artist-in-Residence program, artist exhibits (currently GCPL is featuring the children’s art show), the professionally critiqued film series and more.
GCPL’s staff and associates learned about programs and libraries in other parts of the world. Each of the visitors was asked to introduce him or herself and tell one thing about his/her library or American Corner program. Many talked about the outreach to their communities, providing a meeting place, encouraging literacy, cultural education and linking to other facilities in the world. Gilpin’s group was surprised when one of the visitors complimented GCPL on the number of senior citizens attending the presentation. In some places it is only the youth who use the library, and then mainly to prepare for exams, he said. GCPL’s Friends of the Library couldn’t function without the many senior citizen volunteers of its membership. The Trustees board also has several volunteer senior citizen members.
Once the introductions were over and the formal presentations done, the visitors were invited to tour the library and grounds. Library staff members were stationed throughout the building to explain the various collections, and show the children’s room, the Colorado history reference room, the computer area and the periodical/reading room (the “fireplace” room). Shortly after 11 a.m., the group re-boarded their bus and headed off to Black Hawk for lunch. They were two weeks into a three week tour which had begun and would finish on the east coast and had been visiting mostly large libraries. For 17 of the 22, it was their first visit to the United States. The group was headed to Atlanta next. A few confessed that they had worried, when they heard they would have to get up very early in the morning and travel two hours to Gilpin County, (and already being tired), that they would be too sleepy to enjoy their time here. They left with excited voices, animated gestures, bright smiles, exuberant “thank-you’s” and many photographs-so did the Gilpinites.
It was hard to tell who enjoyed this visit most – the locals, or the visitors. The three interpreters traveling with the group said the visit to Gilpin would likely be the most memorable part of the trip. As for the Gilpinites, it isn’t often that so much a part of the world pays a visit, and certainly not all at once. These friendly, enthusiastic and informed visitors made quite an impression. “That was wonderful!” was the expression that seemed to sum it up best. For those wondering just which countries the visitors were from, here’s the list: Bangladesh, Belarus, Boznia-Herzegovina, Burma, Chad, Guinea, Haiti, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Malaysia, Mexico, Nigeria, Oman, Palestinian Territories, Poland, Russia, Rwanda, Thailand, Trinidad and Tobago, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam.