Unsung heroes of Silicon Valley: Lizzie Nolan
Elizabeth Nolan, senior librarian, field questions from kids to Sharks players at MLK Library's Wee Explore PlaySpace Groundbreaking Celebration. Nolan works to bring many resources to San Jose's library system. Photo courtesy of SJPL.

When Elizabeth ‘Lizzie’ Nolan heard about school closures in mid-March because of the coronavirus crisis, her first thought was to create a reading program for homebound students.

Nolan, a senior librarian at the Martin Luther King Jr. Library, created ‘Spring into Reading,’ an initiative that encourages kids and adults alike to read, log their minutes and potentially win prizes ranging from school supplies to AirPods.

The program has garnered 1,500 students and counting, Nolan said.

“I had a thought that it’s just going to take some time for schools to do distance learning and get caught up, so parents and families were looking for something to do with their kids,” she said. “A reading challenge is a great way to do it because we don’t prescribe what to read or how to read.”

To Nolan, freedom to explore different types of reading is crucial. She’s dyslexic and has had to seek out nontraditional book forms.

“I love reading, I love learning. But it had been a struggle in school,” Nolan said. “I fell in love with graphic novels, and I fell in love with audiobooks too. It’s just a different way to get a story.”

Nolan’s involvement with education has been long-lasting. Growing up in Buffalo, many of her family members were teachers.

“My great aunt was my fifth-grade teacher and when she had heart surgery, my dad was a substitute for her,” Nolan said. “Having work that is important and meaningful has always been a part of my family culture.”

Prior to her path as a librarian, Nolan worked at The Sunlight Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that advocates for transparency in government. But when the 2008 recession hit and she got laid off, Nolan searched for other work. Her friend recommended she become a school librarian, and the rest is history.

“It was something that I hadn’t considered,” Nolan said. “I just really fell in love with public libraries and the community service that they do and the work that they do with youth.”

After working several years with the D.C. public libraries system as a children’s librarian, Nolan and her husband moved to California in September 2015. Twenty minutes after they reached San Jose, Nolan got a call saying she was hired as a part-time librarian.

“It was really kind of a fairy-tale ending,” she said.

Nolan has worked at a number of San Jose public libraries, including Willow Glen Library, Biblioteca Latinoamericana Library, Almaden Library and Vineland Library.

As senior librarian at MLK, she leads a staff of 12 and manages the Teen HQ and children’s room. Both areas offer a plethora of resources, from a recording studio in the Teen HQ space to storytimes in the children’s room.

The library also provides lunch to students during the summer, a collaboration with a number of organizations including Silicon Valley YMCA.

Doreen Hassan, the organization’s associate executive director for programming and community development, said working with Nolan has been “a lot of fun.”

“She’s very passionate about serving communities through library resources,” he said. “She’s a good person.”

Nolan also oversees the annual Summer Learning project — an eight-week literacy program that encourages students to read, preparing them for the next school year.

In fact, Nolan said, Spring into Reading is the Summer Learning program’s “little cousin.”

Jill Bourne, the city’s library director since 2013 who first interacted with Nolan during her interview to become a senior librarian, was “thrilled” when she heard about Spring into Reading.

“(Nolan) embodies the spirit of our library team: Innovative, driven to do more, committed to removing barriers to access, to share the joys of learning with our communities and always striving to lift everyone up,” Bourne told San José Spotlight.

To Nolan, positive feedback from Spring into Reading participants is encouraging and fulfills her goal of giving back during difficult times.

“I’m proud of that,” Nolan said. “I live in the community. but I also serve it.”

Contact Loan-Anh Pham at [email protected]ail.com or follow @theLoanAnhLede on Twitter.

Editor’s Note: Amid the unprecedented coronavirus pandemic, we are highlighting public officials in San Jose who have become unsung heroes by stepping up to help their community in a time of crisis. This is the first of a 5-part series. 

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