Public Libraries Help Newcomers

Libraries offer a safe, welcoming space for all.

Libraries provide services for every imaginable (and unimaginable) reason.

Whether you’re an out-of-town visitor, a recent immigrant, someone relocating from a village to a big city, or a newly released prison inmate seeking connections, you can feel welcome at a public library. In fact, if you don’t ask first, someone will soon offer help. And it’s a rare librarian who won’t treat you with kindness and respect.

Here we’ll discuss the array of newcomers and visitors you’ll find in public libraries on any given day.

“How May I Help You?”

People come to public libraries for many reasons. One is to build their language skills if English isn’t their first language. So not only do librarians find ways to communicate productively with non-native speakers, but they also know where to send them for help with language proficiency.

Another reason you might see unfamiliar faces at the library is the many resources they offer job seekers. So whatever you need — from free internet access to help finding one of the many in-demand careers — consider starting your search at the library.

Then there are the parents and children looking for fun activities to share. It might be a matinee in the library’s auditorium or community room, free passes to a local museum, or a place to play games or listen to a story.

Often, librarians meet visitors who are just passing through. But instead of simply wishing them well, librarians might offer them a building tour or advice on places to eat or stay overnight. In fact, recently, some librarians we know encouraged a visiting group to consider some of the library’s facilities as a wedding venue.

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What Can I Help You — With?

Since public libraries can serve as havens for people living at the margins of the law, some patrons take a long time, if ever, to develop trust. These might be “illegals” without visas or green cards looking for proper nourishment and safe housing. They could also be people recently released from incarceration who may have lost touch with certain trends, protocols, or new technologies.

Former Convicts

About 30 years ago, brothers Lee and Dennis Horton were accused of robbery and murder in a Philadelphia bar. They were sent to prison but maintained their innocence and played active roles in the prison community.

They were released in 2021 with a pardon from the Pennsylvania governor. But Lee remarked, “When we stepped out of the prison, it was like stepping out into a brand new world. We went into a Burger King… to try this Impossible Burger. And you had to go to the kiosk, and I didn’t know how to work the kiosk.”

Job searching is particularly challenging for felons since many employers refuse to hire candidates with criminal records. What makes it even more complicated is that state prisons in Colorado deny inmates internet access, making a successful job search virtually impossible. They might see the “outside” world as scary and confusing.

As Verywell Mind’s Sarah Sheppard explains:

“Former inmates face numerous psychological challenges when released from prison, including stigma, discrimination, isolation, and instability. This can lead to devastating outcomes, like failed relationships, homelessness, substance misuse, recidivism, overdose, and suicide.”

Librarians don’t feel it’s their place to judge circumstances-challenged individuals. It’s not their job, but they do want to help. Fortunately, public libraries offer free computers, free classes on how to use them, and access to wifi—mainly with help from librarians. 


Do you know that 91 percent of Americans support immigration, but only 9 percent want to close the border? Or that 23 percent prefer a “high level” of immigration? Many immigration proponents live in “sanctuary cities,” where cooperation with governments’ efforts to enforce immigration law is often overlooked. Sanctuary jurisdictions generally deny federal immigration authorities’ requests to detain undocumented immigrants apprehended for minor offenses.

Even public libraries not located in sanctuary cities play a significant role in helping immigrants find their way. You could consider public libraries the epitome of sanctuary spaces since they’re accessible to virtually all people. Anyone, regardless of race, color, creed, or immigration status, can use their resources, areas, and services for free. They can even receive one-on-one assistance from a librarian and participate in public programs or training sessions.

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Places for Visitors… 

Oodi is Helsinki, Finland’s, new central public library. Along with tourists, it is also a tourist attraction and recreational space for Finns. For example, there is “an urban workshop on the second floor (with) sewing machines, scanners, and printers as well as laser cutters and soldering stations, with spaces allocated to sewing, making badges, and even playing the drums.”

Calgary, Canada, needed a new downtown library to replace the smaller old one, so the new building has 60 percent more space. The site was designed to accommodate an existing Light Rail Transit Line, and the lobby is an arched bridge that lets locomotives go under it while patrons watch.

Like Oodi, Calgary’s new library “goes from ‘fun’ to ‘serious’ as visitors ascend the spiral staircase.” Lower floors boast two cafes, a teen center, a children’s space, and a 320-seat theater. The upper floor comprises the Great Reading Room, a more traditional library space.

And Locals Alike

Only some have the means to visit Helsinki or Calgary, though. So local public libraries — especially their main branches — are constantly adding new activities and features. For instance, the Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County, New York, has an extensive local history collection and archive that draws visits from locals to former residents to those who are just curious.

The library’s Teen Central area offers coding classes for girls, a competitive Esports club, and various crafting activities. The Children’s Center and other departments provide take-home activity kits for kids and adults. And Reynolds Media Center lets borrowers take out everything from movie DVDs and music CDs to portable wifi devices to use at home.

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