Before the pandemic, a typical storytime at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Greenpoint branch might have 40 attendees: babies, toddlers, and caregivers gathered for songs and stories read aloud. But when children’s librarian Tenzin Kalsang started an online Tibetan-English storytime during the height of the pandemic, up to 20,000 people were tuning in. Kalsang, who was born in Tibet, volunteered to lead a bilingual program in Tibetan and English when the library moved storytime online in the spring of 2020, even though it would be a completely new experience for her. Through her personal network on Facebook and word of mouth, her bilingual sessions became a viral success, reaching families and students as far as Germany, India, and Australia.
As the library opens back up for in-person visits, Kalsang’s online storytime is on indefinite hiatus. Preparing for regular programming with COVID-19 safety protocols requires significant time and effort. While she hopes to return to her bilingual storytime one day, in the meantime, she’s busy fostering community in other ways. Tricycle recently spoke with Kalsang to learn more about her storytime and what’s on the horizon.
What led you to become a librarian? I was born in Tibet. We didn’t have a public library in Tibet when I was born, so the concept was new to me. But I studied Buddhism, and Buddhism has a lot of texts that are really important and precious, and accessing them is really hard. My initial goal with going to library school was to digitize or somehow make them more accessible to the public. Preservation and accessibility were my initial goals. But deep down, I’ve always loved kids. Then I got to learn more about the public library programs in the United States, and found them so wonderful.
Why did you start a bilingual Tibetan-English storytime for kids during the pandemic? I’m a Tibetan and I live in Queens, and I know there are a lot of Tibetans and Tibetan-speaking immigrants or Americans from the Himalayan region like Nepal, Bhutan, and many parts of the Northeast part of India… who, because of their social-economic status, can’t afford to come to the library and sit with their kids for storytime with us. They want to bring their kids, but they can not. So nothing existed like this—the Tibetan-English bilingual storytime.
Then the pandemic hit and we did all our programs online, and we were brainstorming how to serve a greater population with this technology. A lot of people sent requests, so we tried to respond to the needs of the community. Then for me, I was like, I know the language, there aren’t books in Tibetan for kids, but maybe I can try translating. I knew people were there, but without many resources. So I did my first one in April 2020.
How did families watch? Most of them were on Facebook. Some were on Zoom. We shared the storytimes live and then kept them up for 48 hours. I tried to do the Tibetan storytime as much as I could, at least a few times a month, but a lot of people were asking me to keep it up. So we kept my videos and the multilingual videos up for a longer time. But now, since it’s been over a year, we can’t keep them up because of copyright issues. Recently I talked about choosing Facebook. I knew most of the people, Tibetans and immigrants, had a Facebook account. It was easy and the best way to reach people. I thought, if we went online, it had to be accessible. If you had to register, they may not do it.
I read that your storytime went viral. What was the response like from the community? How many people were watching? I had no clue how to do this when I started. I would do storytime for 30 minutes, then sing songs, then more books. I don’t have physical, translated Tibetan books. I was just trying to translate right away. Say it’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See. I read the first line in English, and then I would say it in Tibetan. I’m not an expert and there’s no reference for these at all. But no matter how challenging it was, the comments kept me going. Parents were so happy. Kids were happy. It wasn’t just from the New York City area. People were watching all over the globe. I had school teachers contacting me from Australia and Germany… They recorded my version of the story and shared it with their students. And also in Indian and Nepal. Monks were using my storytime to learn English! We received so many comments and so much appreciation. Our Facebook page was full, and I tried to reply as much as I could. First we were recording how many people watched it within 48 hours. The average was 20,000 people. Then we started tracking down the live views, which was usually around 1,000.
How did you choose the books? I tried to do one book in a series, like Llama Llama Red Pajama or Pete the Cat, so if they liked the character, they would want to read more. I also read books about emotions and feelings, like kindness. Kindness is such a big part of our culture, but do kids really talk about it? They might know it as a big concept, but not in day-to-day life. There’s another book called Where’s Buddha that we have in the library that the kids really like. We say in Buddhism that Buddha is everywhere. Buddha is up, low, inside. . . . But everything was kind of new to me. I had to learn the songs, then I was the one translating and needed to make sure the tunes were correct.
What’s a typical day like for you now? I’m currently at the Greenpoint branch, which is my temporary branch. I thought if I was in Queens that I could make programs for [the Tibetan community there]. But I was chosen here. And I’m not just working for Tibetans. I did a Japanese crane project for a COVID Remembrance Month.
As a Tibetan refugee, having lived in different situations, I have seen a lot. My first branch was in New Lots in East New York, and when I was there I went to shelters and correction centers. One program I do now for seniors is “Coffee and Conversation,” which just warms them up and puts a smile on their face. The library isn’t just about the books and storytime. It’s about being a community center. It’s a warm place where people can come. It’s really deep down to my heart.
What’s next? A lot of my teachers and friends reached out to me after my storytime, and I’m working with a volunteer-based group in India trying to write kid-friendly books in Tibetan—to keep all the records of the nursery rhymes that I sang, and maybe try to publish it as a book.
[For the online storytime], I just read regular books. Even though I wanted to, because that was the target audience, I didn’t read Tibetan or Buddhist books because there isn’t much. I wanted to show them, this is what they look like, this is your culture, but there’s nothing like that. So hopefully I can write something. It’s wishful!
The things in the books are important, but the most important thing is community, interconnectedness. If you’re not healthy and coming together, what’s the point of a book? Even the Buddha himself said it’s all about actions, so community is the most important. For me, I was brought up by the Tibetan community, so even though I’m not working directly with the Tibetan community right now, this is my community right now, and as a whole we are one big family—New York and the whole world. Community gives us a sense of wholeness.