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Local librarians honored for bridging divides

Bridging divides and making connections are at the heart of this year’s recipients of the Utah Library Association’s Librarian of the Year and Community Engagement Librarian awards. From a young boy who dreamed of coming to America and wanted to make a change in his small village in Bangladesh to a young woman who moved from social work to work as a librarian with a goal to get books in the home, this year's recipients exemplify the best in their field.

Being a 'connector'

Safi S.M. Safiullah, manager of the Salt Lake City Public Library’s Marmalade Branch, was named Librarian of the Year in recognition for his efforts toward community engagement and lifelong support of libraries and education around the world.

Safiullah knows what it is like to not have education easily accessible. As a youth in Bangladesh, Safiullah would walk 3.5 miles to attend his primary school. In 10th grade, Safiullah took the initiative to ask for bamboo to build an elementary school in his village. Land was secured and within six months, a five-room school was built. The following year the school was ready to serve the children in the rural country.

“When I think about it, I feel this is sort of impossible,” Safiullah said.

But Safiullah has a knack for doing the impossible. As a child, he dreamed of traveling the world and going to America for an education. After high school, Safiullah left his native country on a government exchange scholarship with the University of Benghazi. After he earned his undergraduate degree in Libya, Safiullah attended the University of Manitoba and earned a master’s degree in history in Winnipeg, Canada. In December 1985, he arrived in Salt Lake City, not knowing anyone. He chose to attend the University of Utah because of the Middle East Center and earned a Ph.D. in history.

“Education is so important to me. Education brought me here, from that society to this society,” Safiullah said. “I am sort of like a world citizen. Because of education, I am here today. … So, time to give.”

And give he does. As the ULA Librarian of the Year, Safiullah has instituted several programs and partnerships to celebrate the different segments of the community. Some of the events celebrate holidays such as Diwali, Eid Al-Fitr, Chinese New Year, Day of the Dead and Vietnamese Independence Day. Some celebrate community members such as Utah’s Nobel Laureate Mario Capecchi, trailblazing women in Utah and former mayors of Salt Lake City. Others celebrate cultures, including programs about Egypt and Libya and Black History Month and a graduation program for Hispanic students at West High School. And for the 10th anniversary of 9/11, Safiullah brought together around 30 partners, including Utah Valley University and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, to celebrate religious and cultural diversity and tolerance. More than 1,500 people attended the event.

“I really think he is a connector,” said Deborah Ehrman, deputy director of the Salt Lake City Library. “He really makes people understand what we are trying to accomplish and to use the library as a venue but also to use it as a place where the community is connecting groups of people who may not have thought to come together on a topic that is timely and on people’s minds.”

Safiullah said he was very pleased and honored to receive the Librarian of the Year award, but he was quick to point out that he was able to achieve that accomplishment because of the help of others.

“One thing I have in me is that when I approach the people, they probably see my heart,” Safiullah said. “I really want to do something for the community’s welfare. I get things done. I do not look for my benefit but I look for the welfare of the community.”

“The library wants to be at the center of community, and Safi has really helped us in our programming,” Ehrman said. “Reaching out to populations that he has recognized and identified has made our programming stronger.”

Embodying 'the spirit of outreach'

Stephanie Anderson, Salt Lake County Library youth outreach and programming librarian, was awarded the 2017 Utah Library Association’s Community Engagement Librarian award last month.

Anderson, who is from Utah, worked in social work for five years before she transitioned to working as a librarian. Her first stop was at the Byington Reading Room as a library assistant. She would work with high-risk, low-income families who would visit the South Main Clinic that housed the WIC office, the Health Department, food stamps and Medicaid. There, among the homeless and parents who struggled with substance abuse, Anderson had a goal.

“We wanted to get a book in the hand of these children in hope of increasing literacy in the home,” Anderson said. “We really just wanted something that was theirs and (to) really foster that love of reading.”

Working with Nyssa Fleig, the Salt Lake County Library program manager, Anderson was encouraged to think about the communities that were underserved and recognize a need that was not being met. From there grew a preschool story time at the Sunnyvale Neighborhood Center, a community center with an emphasis on services for refugees and immigrants, then a connection with Christmas Box House, and eventually a partnership with Salt Lake County youths working with children in foster care.

“She embodies the spirit of outreach, seeing a need and seeing how she can address it,” said Fleig, who nominated Anderson for the ULA award.

Although they had just a small budget, Anderson started to purchase books she thought the teens would like. She recalled a particular teen who had visited the Christmas Box House for several months. She said at first he had a “too cool for reading” attitude. But after she talked with him and found out his interests, Anderson found a book she thought he would like and told him to give it a shot. The youth took the book and came back the following month and bragged about sneaking a light and reading under the covers.

“That little bit of positive reinforcement and encouragement, we were able to build that rapport, and it was a really incredible experience,” Anderson said.

In 2015, Anderson received her first award from the National Association of Counties. The award represented her work with Primary Children’s Hospital and a partnership with the Salt Lake City Library. The idea was to offer a story time that would be broadcast live to children who could not leave their hospital rooms. The children were able to call in from their rooms and interact during the story times.

“It was incredible to receive that award and that recognition,” Anderson said. “It reaffirmed I was going in the right direction.”

As she moves forward in her work, Anderson wants to continue to make sure libraries are relevant and that they are meeting the needs of the community. One of her goals is to bring the library to the community and share her love of books with others.

“Stephanie really works on building relationships and getting to know people as individuals,” Fleig said. “You are watching somebody make an impact on somebody else’s life that’s going to stick with them forever. That is so powerful and incredible.”

Email: crandall@deseretnews.com