Colbert Nembhard, a librarian, with children at the Crotona Inn homeless shelter in the Bronx, which he visits each week as part of a New York City literacy project.
Colbert Nembhard looked more like a traveling salesman than a librarian in his dark suit with his rolling suitcase on a recent Wednesday morning in the Bronx.
He had strolled 10 minutes to the Crotona Inn homeless shelter from the Morrisania Branch Library, where he has been the manager for 25 years. As he dug through the dozens of books stuffed inside the suitcase, an announcement crackled over the intercom inside the shelter, where 87 families live: “Mr. Nembhard is here to read stories and sing songs to your children.”
Mr. Nembhard made do in a small office filled with file cabinets and dated desktops that also serves as a computer lab, a children’s classroom and a community recreation room. Tacked to a bulletin board were paper plates, colored and cut into fish shapes. A “Happy Birthday” balloon, almost out of helium, floated a foot above the floor.
For the past eight years, Mr. Nembhard has turned the shelter’s day care room or its dimly lighted office into an intimate library, tapping into the imaginations of transient children with the hope of making reading books a constant in their lives.
New York City has been criticized for failing to prevent homeless children from falling behind in their education and for contributing to missed school days, often because children accompany their parents when they travel from one agency to another seeking assistance.
Mr. Nembhard’s partnership with the homeless shelter, operated by SCO Family of Services, began informally, and has served as a model for a citywide initiative to place small libraries at shelters for families.
In September, the Library of Congress recognized the city’s Department of Homeless Services for best practices in literacy for its Library Pilot Project, an initiative that has created small libraries in 30 shelters for families with children since March 2015 with the help of a donation of 3,000 books from Scholastic Inc.
The progam includes the Crotona shelter, where Mr. Nembhard was already a fixture. His example gave volunteers a blueprint for how to go to shelters and read to children.
“It’s a pleasure to come in here,” Mr. Nembhard began on that Wednesday, never removing his jacket during a presentation that was just short of a Mr. Rogers routine.
He began to sing, “Good morning to you,” and followed with “Wheels on the Bus.” The children joined in with a chorus of “round and round, round and round.”
Toddlers, fidgeting in their chairs or in their mothers’ arms, suddenly became fixated. They could not wait to flip open “Dear Zoo,” by Rod Campbell, a lift-a-flap book, to discover an elephant, a giraffe, a lion and other animals.
Then came Mr. Nembhard’s magical blue glove — magical thanks to Velcro and the five monkeys attached to it — and later he brought out finger puppets. Avani Blair, 2, and Taniyah Blair, 1, stared in amazement.
“I like it, too. I feel like a big kid,” Aaliyah Blair, 24, their mother, said. She said they had become homeless about two months ago after an eviction.
Mr. Nembhard knew most of the children by name. “You build relationships with them so that when you see them they feel comfortable,” he said.
Patricia Wright, the child care coordinator at the shelter, chimed in, “He’s seen them come. He’s seen them go.”
But Mr. Nembhard wants children to have a lifelong relationship with libraries, which, he said, offer much more than books, including free wireless modems they can use at home during the school year.
In eight years, he has signed up many parents and children for library cards. “Oh, my God, I can’t put a number,” he said. “But I would say it’s a lot.”
As a teenager living in New York after his family moved from Jamaica, he saw an ad for a page position at the New York Public Library.
In college he had planned to become a social worker, but turned to library science as a career instead, earning a master’s degree in 1987.
As a branch manager, he saw the role that libraries played in social services. Many people, particularly those who are homeless, would come to the library to complete their résumés, conduct job searches and look for housing, Mr. Nembhard said.
But he said he realized that some people who were homeless did not find the library comfortable or convenient. “We bring the library to them,” he said.
For children at the Crotona shelter, the smiles begin every Wednesday morning at the sound of his suitcase’s wheels going around and around down the hallway.
“Once the kids see that rolling bag,” Ms. Wright said, “they know.”