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January 27, 2019

Bringing Literacy to Laundromats with Libraries Without Borders

What do libraries and laundromats have in common?

Like butter and potatoes, not much, but mashed together they’re brilliant.

Libraries Without Borders’ Wash and Learn Initiative does the mashing by bringing colorful spaces with story times, toys and books to laundromats, turning lengthy wait times into opportunities for early learning.

In the time between washing, drying and folding, the Laundry and Literacy spaces invite parents to sing, talk, and read with their children, all activities proven to benefit brain growth, vocabulary, comprehension, and even behavior.

While the importance of parent engagement is documented, the delivery of such early education programming sometimes misses the mark.

“We see the importance of meeting people where they’re at,” said Adam Echelman, executive director of Libraries Without Borders, a nonprofit focused on breaking barriers between underserved communities and access to information.

“Why create a whole program in a space people don’t recognize and may be inaccessible when you already have a laundromat where families are waiting?” Echelman said.

It also focuses on local families’ culture and technology needs.

“You can’t do it in English if the community is mostly Spanish-speaking, and you can’t have digital programs for kids without Wi-Fi access,” he said.

That’s why there’s a Wash and Learn Initiative in Minnesota delivered in Hmong, a Southeast Asian language commonly spoken in that community.

Active in about 30 laundromats in about ten states across the country, the program is as hyper-local as the laundromat itself.

It relies on local public libraries and librarians to learn about whom they’re not serving and which community needs more support. Laundromat owners share logistics, such as who uses their machines and when, to best tailor the program.

“It’s a captive audience,” Echelman said.

And a weekly grind.

It takes about two and a half hours for a family to get from wet suds to dry-and-folded, and most return to the same laundromat weekly for the same amount of time.

The opportunity to engage the same families over long periods and target a particular community is ideal and, unlike libraries, many are open 24 hours.

“It’s a defacto community center. It’s clean and safe and has free W-Fi. Put this together, and it’s a space that lends itself to community programs and education,” Echelman said.

The spaces were found to increase regular access to activities like reading and educational games that support school readiness. For some, it may be the only access to books their children have outside of school, making it especially crucial during school breaks and summers when many children suffer from summer slide and start the new academic year lagging.

Before the Wash and Learn Initiative, what you might see at the laundromat is “a lot of people staring at their phones or making calls. And many bored children,” he said.

While a formal evaluation of the program’s impact is still underway, Echelman noted families shifted their schedules to take part.

Once evidence is in, Libraries Without Borders would like to expand the initiative nationwide.

This story comes from a partnership between the Suncoast Campaign for Grade-Level Reading and the Herald-Tribune, funded by The Patterson Foundation, to cover school readiness, attendance, summer learning, healthy readers and parent engagement. Read more stories at

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