Libraries, Immigrants, and New Americans

Libraries, Immigrants, and New Americans

Immigrants and new Americans make up almost 14 percent of the nation’s population with around 44.6 million immigrants living in the United States in 2018. The population in the country is becoming more and more diverse and new residents need ways to adapt to life in the States. Libraries are central parts of communities and are always finding new ways to increase access to benefits for immigrants. Programming at libraries can consist of civic classes, legal clinics, and English as a Second Language (ESL) courses on top of a variety of other opportunities and aid for newcomers to take advantage of. Local libraries work to be welcoming spaces for as many people as possible.

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Libraries are always coming up with new ways to support diverse communities of immigrants. The Appleton Public Library dedicated their resources to helping small business owners that are immigrants or people of color by using their $65,000 grant to support their Small Business-Big Impact program. This program is focused on “starting, sustaining and expanding business.” The library hosts a space for local entrepreneurs to share their stories from challenges to rewards. On top of building awareness of immigrant-owned businesses in the community, this program also helps the library highlight important resources and support the library offers. Small Business-Big Impact leads up to business sessions in an academy led by a local business consultant.

Legal advice is a topic relevant to immigrants that libraries help open access to. Oftentimes, libraries will host programs or partnerships that provide free legal help to those that need it. The Contra Costa County Library in California partnered with the local bar association to provide free law consultations with immigration lawyers. These services are important because it can be difficult to know where to start and immigrants may have lots of questions about immigration laws in the United States. These sessions host 2–12 library patrons in each 2 hour program and are being slowly incorporated into the library’s regular programming.

Libraries are centers for connecting people and serve as inviting spaces for people of all backgrounds. As a result, there is plenty of innovative and important work that libraries can do to make new Americans feel welcome.

The American Library Association (ALA) recognizes the need to provide inclusive service to support immigrant communities. It is a major advocate of including referral services, ESL and citizenship classes, and job search assistance to their communities.

In recent years, the ALA has also passed a resolution urging the Library of Congress (LC) to comply with inclusive cataloging after Dartmouth students petitioned for the LC to change headings from “illegal aliens” to “undocumented immigrants.” While the process on a national level is at a standstill, many libraries across the country have taken the initiative to make the change on their own. The Dayton Memorial Library of Regis University in Denver made the replacement in 2017 before reverting to use both terms. It becomes tricky to navigate since it’s important for libraries that are members of certain organizations abide by certain guidelines.

This problem has emerged for the Lawrence Public Library in Kansas as well. The cataloging assistant mentions that the public doesn’t always understand where language used in the library comes from. “When patrons see a problematic term in the catalog, they think it’s our decision to use it, and that that term is a judgment on them by the people who work at the library.” The library finally decided to not wait on the LC’s decision and that it was up to them to make this space as welcoming as possible to the community.

Citizenship is a topic that is on the minds of many immigrants. Libraries understand the need to provide resources in this area by offering classes to help them learn about the citizenship process, build English language skills, and make community connections. The Rochester Hills Public Library offers English-language learning book clubs to their patrons. The book club discusses a wide variety of American literature from short stories to poetry to the news as well as works written by famous writers like Maya Angelou, Rudyard Kipling, and Charles Dickens. These book club meetings give participants an opportunity to practice discussion, express themselves, and build friendships with other people in the community with similar backgrounds.

The Multnomah County Library in Oregon also offers “Talk Time” sessions for immigrants to practice English-speaking skills. The library also works with the local service center for immigrants and refugees to supply materials for their conversations. This program caters to the large immigrant population in Portland and gives them a chance to learn in a welcoming environment.