Libraries are go-to places for financial education in their communities. Across the country, different branches and library systems take varied approaches to financial literacy, depending on the needs of the local population.
Virginia Beach Public Library got its start in financial-literacy education through a grant. In 2014 VBPL was one of 21 libraries to get funding (in its case, $66,100) as part of the Smart Investing@Your Library initiative administered by the ALA and the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority Investor Education Foundation.
Ashley Barrineau, adult-services coordinator at VBPL, says that the key to a successful financial-literacy program is to select the right topics and position them carefully. Classes on getting out of debt or improving one’s credit score, for instance, “can make the attendee feel embarrassed and disenfranchised from the onset,” she says.
Instead, class names such as “Couponing,” “Eating on a Budget,” and “Declutter Your House and Home” resonate. “Once we get them in the door and they see what they can do with the information,” Barrineau says, patrons are more open to the subject of financial literacy. The decluttering class, for example, “has an unexpected tie to financial literacy,” Barrineau says. “The idea that the organization of your life and material possessions has an impact on your bank account is part of why we included it in our class repertoire.”
Knowing the local community is also critical. Petula McShiras, supervisor of the Littleton Immigrant Resources Center at Bemis Library in Littleton, Colo., which is also a Smart Investing@Your Library grantee, incorporated financial literacy into the library’s ESL curriculum, partnering with a local organization to help people achieve financial goals.
The result: ESL for Financial Success, a 14-week program that covers the basics, such as writing a check, and more complex issues, including renting vs. owning a home, health care costs, taxes, and budgeting. This combination helps attract attendees “whose desire is to learn English to integrate more into society,” McShiras says. “It’s financial literacy as a life-skill component.”
Another essential element of programming: vetting instructors. “You’ve got to be very careful,” says Kathleen Kalmes, financial resource specialist at the New York Public Library. “A lot of people say it will be education” but are in fact pushing financial products.
To avoid this pitfall, Kalmes has cultivated a network of experts who also participate in NYPL-facilitated offerings such as tax-prep assistance. Kalmes notes that the library seeks outside sources for financial education because librarians are there to give information, not advice. “We at the library do not do any counseling,” she says. “We can’t be in the advising ballpark.”