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Va. Librarian Translates Love of Books

Librarian Goes Mobile To Entice Hispanic Readers

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 13, 2005; Page C08

Like a Scout leader assembling a cookie display, librarian Michael Andrews carefully arranged books on a small table at Todos Supermarket, a multipurpose Hispanic store in Woodbridge.

As patrons did their grocery shopping, cashed checks or sought help with income tax forms, Andrews tried to get their attention one recent afternoon.

Michael Andrews, a librarian in Prince William, practices his Spanish counting hippopotamuses with Kelly Cordova, 5. (Photos Katherine Frey -- The Washington Post)

Señor! ¡Señora!" he said quietly, hoping to guide a reader to a Harry Potter novel translated into Spanish or to "Con Mi Hermano" ("With My Brother"), Eileen Roe's children's book written in Spanish and English.

For nearly a year, Andrews, 56, has been using his elementary Spanish and a van full of library books to get the county's burgeoning Hispanic community interested in the public library and thereby build the beginnings of trust between new immigrants and local government.

For several hours a week, he and a group of volunteers transport books and set up displays such as this one at locations across the county that are popular with Hispanics.

The effort, dubbed "the Viva! Van" for the vehicle that carries the books, is one of the ways Prince William County is reaching out to the community whose numbers have exploded in the past five years from 9 percent to 16 percent of the population.

Since the Viva! Van started last April, it's given out more than 1,500 books and has had contact with about 800 adults and 800 children, Andrews said.

The idea came from a county group called Hispanic Outreach Leadership Action (HOLA). One of its officers is Lydia Gonzalez, 67, president of the local library board.

Gonzalez said she came up with the notion because she knows what it feels like to be an outsider in a new community and how one connection to a local institution, such as the library, can make a difference.

The daughter of Puerto Rican immigrants, she moved as a young bride from Spanish Harlem to Rocky Mount, N.C., where the Hispanic population is still less than 2 percent. The bookmobile became her salvation. The friendly greetings of librarians behind the wheel somehow bonded her to the southern community, Gonzalez said.

So, when HOLA was looking for a way to reach immigrants last year, Gonzalez suggested starting a Hispanic bookmobile, and that idea grew into the Viva! Van.

Prince William used a $20,000 grant to fund the project. Of that, about $15,000 went to buy more than 7,000 Spanish language books. The rest went for other items, such as plastic bins to carry the books, promotional materials and maintenance of the van, which had already clocked 96,000 miles as a courier vehicle for the library.

Andrews and other volunteers are at Todos every Monday, and the van also travels to English as a Second Language programs at various schools as well as to Hispanic festivals and other events.

The books are "lealos y regreselos," or "read and return," meaning borrowers can return them to any of the county's four libraries. There are no late fees or library cards. Organizers said they did not want to scare anyone away by asking for names or identification.

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