Cultures come together at community libraries across Allegheny County

| Wednesday, March 27, 2013, 9:02 p.m.

Images of flags burning and people rioting in the streets flash across the screen.

This is one depiction of Muslims on television. But local libraries are working to provide a better education for Americans about the faith and its people.

“We have to know about each other. Muslims, after Sept. 11, wanted to have a low profile. But we have to embrace each other,” said Najlaa Ebrahim, central city program coordinator with the Greater Pittsburgh Literacy Council, and a Muslim who lived in Iraq for 14 years.

A collection of books, DVDs and scheduled programs at more than 800 libraries nationwide is designed to foster awareness, tolerance and respect for the Muslim culture.

The “Bridging Cultures: Muslim Journeys Bookshelf,” an initiative of the National Endowment for Humanities, also was awarded to 18 of Allegheny County's 45 libraries, including Baldwin Borough, Whitehall, Monroeville and Northland public libraries, Allegheny County Libraries Association marketing and community partnership coordinator Charity Leonette said.

To complement the materials, each library has planned programs to foster discussion about the Muslim culture, faith and history.

“The fun thing about this is, they're each approaching this in a different way,” Leonette said. “This is a really exciting opportunity to show how libraries are bridging cultures.”

The pilot program promotes discussion about the Muslim culture across the country.

Yet, discussion about culture and history is nothing new for libraries.

“Libraries across our region do programs like this often,” Leonette said.

Some libraries already had a copy of some of the materials they received from the grant, because they base their collections on the needs of their communities, Leonette said.

Baldwin Borough and Whitehall public library officials see many refugees using their libraries from the Residences of South Hills and Whitehall Place, formerly Leland Point and Prospect Park apartment complexes, respectively.

While many of the people now are from Nepal and Bhutan and of a Hindu faith, there are Muslims who frequent both libraries, directors say.

“I thought it was important that people get a better understanding of the Muslim culture,” said Baldwin Borough library director Joyce Chiappetta.

Baldwin and Whitehall libraries partnered for a program with students from Baldwin High School's Literary Guild on March 13 for a book discussion on “Persepolis,” a novel about a girl growing up during the Islamic Revolution in Iran.

The group of 18 high school students and their adult counterparts discussed what it would have been like to grow up in Iran during that time.

The book opened many of its readers eyes to a new genre — the graphic novel, which they often shied away from — and a new culture.

“It shared a different side of the culture that you normally wouldn't think of,” said Jackie Marx, 16.

Twice a year, adults from Baldwin library and members of Baldwin High School's literary guild meet to discuss a book, said high school English teacher and literary guild sponsor Keith Harrison. This book was different.

“They really liked it. Almost all of them said it is a portrait of Iran that we haven't seen before,” he said.

It was important for the students to see this view, he said.

“I never would have picked this out,” Whitehall library board secretary Debby Recker said. “But once I picked it up, I couldn't put it down. I loved it. It blew me away.”

There were discussions among students and adults, as they shared their feeling about the book and the Muslim culture.

“I hope it gives them the opportunity to open their minds to new ideas,” Chiappetta said.

Monroeville Public Library held its kickoff with a panel of local Muslims who shared their experiences with a group of 25 people, said adult services librarian Mark Hudson.

Several additional programs surrounding various themes about the Muslim culture are planned at the Monroeville library during the next few months.

These will align with other programs and a bigger picture put in place by the Pennsylvania Library Association's PA Forward program to create community centers at local libraries, Hudson said.

“I see this and a lot of our other programming as aligning with civic and social literacy,” he said.

Stephanie Hacke is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-388-5818 or

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