New Jersey’s World Language Catalog

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By Arlene Sahraie, Library Services Director, Bergen County Cooperative Library System

Originally appeared in the spring 2009 edition of the New Jersey Library Association Newsletter

Technology has made our world smaller but our patrons are becoming more and more diverse. Libraries are poised to make a real difference in helping people new to America find a place where they can learn our language and culture and yet maintain ties to their language and culture.

In the Bergen County Cooperative Library System, (BCCLS), we have libraries in which more than 70% of the community speaks a language other than English at home and more than 50% of the community is foreign-born. These huge numbers cannot be ignored.

BCCLS libraries have embraced the opportunity to engage new immigrants in a number of ways: English as a Second Language classes; one-on-one English tutoring; Bi-lingual Story Hours; Spanish Language Book Clubs, and numerous outreach programs. Many libraries have been buying materials in Spanish for years, but we knew that we had to serve our increasingly diverse populations more directly.

We applied for and received a grant from the NJ State Library to collaborate with LMxAC (Libraries of Middlesex Automation Consortium) in creating an online non-Roman catalog that would allow people to search for materials in their own language. Our initial goal was to debut with Korean and Russian materials and then add Japanese, Chinese, Hindi, and Gujarati. With this grant, the World Language Catalog (WLC) was born.

However, when the BCCLS staff began talking about the WLC a few years ago, none of us imagined just how difficult it would be to implement and sustain.

BCCLS offers subscription collections for which we purchase books, DVDs, and magazines in Korean; books in Russian; and Bollywood films. BCCLS libraries spend over $90,000 annually on these subscriptions. That’s the easy part.

What are some of the challenges?

  • Creating collection development criteria
  • Cataloging the world language materials libraries purchase individually
  • Resolving software issues between the consortia
  • Marketing

“There’s a reason why nobody has done this,” I said to my boss, Robert White, Executive Director of BCCLS, “it’s very hard.” Over a thousand requests for materials were placed via the WLC in 2008. Circulation numbers for WLC materials are skyrocketing. New immigrants are finding the library and the materials they want. Everybody wins.

While we continue to implement the project, we entered the new year with more enthusiasm than ever, though it is not easy. Robert White continues his commitment to the project.

“English is unparalleled in its capacity to incorporate words from other languages and cultures. With the World Language Catalog, we are trying to realize a longstanding dream: that libraries provide as much access to materials not in English, as those that are. As good as translations can be, people need to remember that The Bible, The Iliad, Don Quixote, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Faust, and War and Peace were penned by authors who did not write in English. The World Language Catalog now shows us how much work we have to do in building collections and in programming. To use a Swedish word, we’re making the library “smorgasbord” bigger and better than ever.”

Joanne Roukens, Highlands Regional Library Cooperative Executive Director, has also been an avid supporter of the WLC. “Northern NJ is home to the most culturally diverse, multi-lingual, and largest non-English speaking population in the state. These customers can present challenges to libraries, as they have language and cultural barriers preventing them from seeking and utilizing services. Libraries often fail to connect with these groups in a significant and meaningful way. The WLC gives these customers something they’ve never had before – the ability to search for library materials in their own vernacular.”

But perhaps the most compelling words come from May Kwon, a library user who emigrated from Korea. “The library is the place where I learned to speak and read English and find books in my native language, Korean. It is important to learn to speak and read English so that I can be part of my new community. I read books in my own language to relax and to learn. It is very hard for me to read English. I have to read with a dictionary. I read the New York Times best sellers in Korean to relax. I read Newsweek translated into Korean so that I could learn about the presidential election in order to make the right decision when I voted. The World Language Catalog allows me to search for books in my first language.”

Visit the WLC at: