From the Urban Libraries Council Exchange, February 2008
If you’re listening to the presidential debates, you know immigration continues to be a hot issue in America. Foreign-born residents now constitute nearly 13% of the American population, a rate not seen since 1910. A new report from the Urban Libraries Council (ULC) entitled “Welcome, Stranger: Public Libraries Build the Global Village” reports on trends for the spread of immigration into new cities, and the role public libraries play in welcoming and settling new residents.
“Although every library operates in a unique local context, patterns of library outreach to New Americans can be grouped under five broad strategies for successful immigrant inclusion and community adaptation,” say authors Danielle Milam and Rick Ashton, both of ULC.
First, libraries are playing a central role in the collection of formal and informal data on settlement patterns and needs of the New Americans in their communities. Libraries are on the front lines of their neighborhoods, gathering information directly from those in need of services. “Especially in cities that have not been traditional immigrant destinations, libraries are often leading their communities in the discovery and description of immigrants’ needs and concerns,” say Milam and Ashton.
As an information clearinghouse, libraries can build more effective programs in-house, and can also provide vital feedback to other community service agencies that can shape and enhance outreach to immigrants.
Second, libraries are effectively responding to the biggest barrier for new arrivals: language. Innovations in signage, websites, collections, and provisions of basic services in the first languages of their new residents, make the library more usable, more effective, and far more welcoming.
Third, is the libraries’ ability to build English capacity, the most important factor in immigrants’ chances for success. “Public libraries are expanding their reach to new residents. Early literacy and family literacy programs are preparing young children for school. Adult English instruction is equipping learners with better life skills and job opportunities. With schools and other learning providers as partners, libraries are also delivering focused programs on job hunting, health and nutrition and other survival needs.” Say Milam and Ashton.
The fourth success strategy is to help foreign-born residents find local agencies and institutions for support, improving opportunities for work, education, health services, and housing. Milam and Ashton note language barriers, geographic isolation, and culture shock can be significant impediments for New Americans in finding such agencies.
Perhaps the most interesting and innovative way libraries are contributing to successful immigration is their ability to jump-start civic engagement. “Libraries encourage both community inclusion and newcomer participation. Using their historic role as strong, unbiased public spaces, dedicated to learning and exploration, they are fostering public discussion of the challenges faced by both newcomers and the communities receiving them,” say Milam and Ashton.
“Welcome, Stranger: Public Libraries Build the Global Village” explores these five strategies in detail, providing examples of the ways innovative libraries are putting these steps to work in their communities. Visit www.urbanlibraries.org for more information.
This article appears with permission courtesy of the Urban Libraries Council. The Urban Libraries Council is a membership organization of North America’s premier public library systems and the corporations that serve them. ULC serves as a forum for sharing best practices resulting from targeted research, education and future forecasting. For more information on ULC membership or publications please visit www.urbanlibraries.org or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Immigrant Services @ your library