A national initiative to improve childhood literacy has now found its way to McKeesport, in Pennsylvania’s first permanent laundromat library.
According to a Pennsylvania state study, just 50.8 percent of McKeesport public school students are at a proficient level in English language arts and literature measures, compared to a state proficiency average of 63 percent.
The unorthodox library aims to combat "summer slide" when a student's reading comprehension and literacy degrades while not in school. Olympia 24-hour Coin Laundry, a family-owned business in south McKeesport, is the host of the new initiative.
The laundromat's once-unembellished waiting room now houses a bright tree-shaped shelf stocked with books to be borrowed or taken home permanently. A tablet running children’s programming is connected to one of two child-height tables. Kids can read, draw, and stay otherwise occupied during the down time while clothing gets laundered.
Carrie Lane, services coordinator at the Allegheny County Library Association, says that the laundromat library allows them to “meet people where they are.” Moving forward, Lane says, groups including the Pittsburgh Women Infants and Children Program (WIC) and the Carnegie Library of McKeesport will be hosting educational programming on-site, in addition to the permanent library services. A schedule is forthcoming.
The only previous laundromat library in Pennsylvania was housed in South Park’s Sudsy's Laundromat, and was more of a “pilot” according to Lane. The library was open for only one summer. This time, however, the library is here to stay. Because educational needs extend beyond student’s summer slide, says Lane, programming and services will continue year-round.
According to Adam Echelman, executive director of Libraries Without Borders, a grant from the Grable Foundation to Libraries Without Borders in 2017 helped to launch Pennsylvania’s Wash and Learn initiative. He says the library provide typical library services to children-in-tow, and connect adults to all the participating organizations in the initiative, including WIC, WQED, and the National Libraries of Medicine, to name a few.
The owners of the laundromat, Bryan and Heidi Calhoun, said that they got a call out of the blue from Libraries Without Borders with the offer to set up a library in their waiting area.
“I thought it was some sort of a joke, or a scam of some sort,” said Bryan Calhoun.
Trial runs in the space started in January, in preparation for the official June launch. The Calhouns said that these days, about half of the clientele bring children along with them, but now they expect "more and more" will be coming with their kids, thanks to the library. Bryan said that on launch day, a family even popped in the after children saw the inside of the laundromat and wanted to stop and play.
“Our goal is to be in every laundromat in the country,” said Libraries Without Borders’ Adam Echelman. In fact, he says, they’re already looking into other laundromats in the Allegheny County area.