Welcoming Libraries: How Communities’ Favorite Public Institutions Are Settling New Immigrants

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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.

Immigrants illustration

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 info@urbanlibraries.org.


Immigrant Services @ your library

Queens (N.Y.) Library

  • Offers a wide variety of computer classes taught in Spanish
  • Offers free lectures and workshops in the most widely spoken immigrant languages of Queens meant to assist new immigrants in the acculturation process. Some examples include “Citizenship Day at the Library,” where on-site citizenship application assistance/legal consultation is available for legal permanent residents (by Chinese-, Korean-, Spanish-, French-translators); a Medicare & NYS EPIC workshop offered in Mandarin Chinese; “How To Assure Your Child’s Success” offered in Bengali, Hindi and Urdu; and “How To Adjust To The Mainstream Of American Culture” offered in Russian
  • Free readings, concerts, and workshops celebrating the literary, performing, and folk arts of immigrants from Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America, and the Caribbean. Some examples include a Korean Book Talk & Poetry Reading by Dr. Chonggi Mah and Dr. Ryang Suh (in Korean); and Russian Festival 2008! A Celebration of Russian Culture

Hennepin County (Minn.) Library

  • Offers bilingual outreach liaisons who give tours and instruction to individuals and groups, including assistance in applying for library cards, finding or requesting world language materials from the library collection in a variety of formats, and assistance in using the Internet or Microsoft Word in the library
  • Works with the Minneapolis Public Schools and other learning centers to reach new immigrant families by visiting classrooms, attending parent/teacher meetings, and participating in school fairs and festivals
  • Offers Spanish and Russian adult book clubs, as well as bilingual storytimes for children
  • Offers a variety of classes helpful to new immigrants, including computer instruction in Spanish, English language courses and conversation groups, and U.S. citizenship preparation

Austin (Texas) Public Library

  • Offers “Talk Time,” an English conversation practice program for non-native English speaking adults
  • Offers free public computer classes in Spanish
  • Offers multilingual materials at all branches, including books, videos, DVDs, CDs, and periodicals in approximately 40 languages
  • Some Austin Public Library staff members participate in local organizations to network with immigrant service providers, including the Immigrant Services Network of Austin and the Literacy Coalition of Central Texas.