Friday, November 27, 2009

Multiculturalism: Languages in Libraries

Creating and maintaining a connection with the community the library serves is an important role of today’s librarians. The demographics of the population of library patrons provide clues to how the library can achieve this goal. As such, it is important to learn about and understand the people and cultures that exist in the community the library services as it can be quite diverse and multicultural.

Often those most in need and perhaps most unaware of the services the library has to offer are people from other countries and other cultures. These patrons may not realize what is available to them due to cultural or language barriers. Padma Polepeddi emigrated from India and now is the Supervisor of the Glendale Library in Colorado. She recalls crying for joy when she learned that the public library was a free service, as it is not in her home country of India. She says she “loves telling other immigrants about the amazing world of public libraries” and saying “All this is free!” Her library is known for extensive collections in Spanish and Russian and also has expanded its diversity programs. She also travels around Colorado, visiting other libraries to help them develop their diversity programs.

Developing Multi-lingual Collection

This cultural divide can take the form of simply not knowing of the service or knowing that the public library is free to the more difficult obstacle of language barriers. Another concern for librarians is how to develop the collection for other cultures. It can be a tough question for librarians to weed and cull a collection of just one language but when the space and energy is needed for books and materials of another language(s) more problems can arise. On the other hand, providing service and materials is important as well and should be carefully considered. The language people learn at birth has a strong hold, it is the language that they begin to see and interpret the world in, the language they use to communicate with friends and family, and can be a strong cultural identity holder.

There are three ways to think of developing the collection for multiple languages. The first way is to think of building two separate collections, one in each language. The second is to create the primary language collection and build the second with text in both languages. The third is a combination of the two. People learning English as a second language benefit from having the ability to read in their own language both as affirmation and to bolster their confidence in learning to read in the new language.

A few other tips to help the process of introducing new languages to the library are to start multi-lingual book groups, using interactive books for children, and research reliable materials. Just as there are vendor resources for selecting English language books there are resources for selecting quality materials in other languages as well.

IFLA and Language

The Internal Federation of Library Associations works with libraries around the world trying to promote diversity and collaboration. Language is an important aspect of achieving these goals and has always been a key factor as an international organization. There are seven official languages used, which means any formal communication can be handled in these core languages, and all materials are printed in each. The conferences held all over the world are staffed with volunteers from the library world who work as interpreters. The IFLA has a strong commitment to diversity of language in the library community and promoting access to information for all, enriching the library world by bringing many different views and words from around the world.

Questions to Consider:

What issues do librarians face introducing multiple languages to their library?

What are some ways to let the community to know the library has gone multi-lingual?


Diversity, P. f. (2008). Passion for Diversity. Library Journal Movers and Shakers, 15.

Gail Dickinson, K. H. (2008). Celebrating Language Diversity to Improve Achievement.

Library Media Connect, 26(7), 5.

Kapnisi, S. (2009). IFLA and Language Diversity. IFLA Journal, 35(2), 183-185.

Patton, J. A. (2008). You're not bilingual, so what? Library Media Connect, 26(7), 22-25.


Florence said...

So long as public libraries continue to exist, they should strive to serve all of their population's needs. This can be done in various ways, and in communities where there are heavy populations of non-English speaking groups, there could be (as suggested in this blog) efforts made such as the inclusion of multilingual reading materials and/or group sessions using a target language other than English.

Yet heavy insistence on non-English materials and activities could potentially leave some library patrons feeling somehow left out of the loop, they themselves not included, and perhaps in danger of somehow becoming obsolete. So, why not try to include them as well? For example, many libraries have programs for Spanish speaking patrons. English speaking patrons could be included as well in these programs; many English speaking patrons would love to to have the opportunity to learn other languages. I have noticed that in various non-library diversity programs listed on the Internet, non-native and native English speakers are sometimes paired together; however, when I tried to find something similar in public libraries, I was unable to.

Perhaps if all members of a community--English and non-English speaking patrons--were afforded opportunities to learn the language of their fellow citizens, diversity programs might be even more successful and inclusive; successful in the sense that the entire community would be more likely to feel included in on the changes taking place around them, and inclusive in that the community might be more likely to feel like one community with distinct flavors, each embracing and rejoicing in differences rather than fearing them. This would seem preferable to diversity of the sort where diversity exists simply because separate cultural and linguistic groups of people are geographically linked within a community.

Amy Smola said...

You have discussed a topic that I had never even thought of. Through our many readings, we have learned about choosing materials for inclusion in library collections. I live in an English speaking community and those few people who also speak another language also speak and understand English. But you're right... what about those communities where there are multiple languages, and not everyone can speak the primary one (English)? Does the library have to get multiple copies of all books in multiple languages? Or are only some duplicated... and, if so, which ones?
I like Florence's idea. If you speak only Spanish, but most of the community speaks English, you probably want to learn some English so that you can communicate with others. On the other hand, some of the English speaking people might like to learn some Spanish so that they can make an attempt to learn that language and communicate with the Spanish speaking citizens. Attempting to learn another person's language tells them that you respect their culture. When I was in Italy, I brought along some common phrases that I might need. I'm sure my accent was off and I didn't say things perfectly, but I could tell that the Italian people at least appreciated that I was trying to communicate with them in their own language. (However I must say... I was very impressed with most of the Italian people that I met and how multi-lingual so many of them were. I really think our American schools need to teach kids at least one language besides English. Not just as an elective, but as a requirement. It is so helpful in our global world.) So yes, libraries must include opportunities for multiple language resources. For some members of the community, it is a necessity. For others, it is a chance to learn and appreciate another culture.

Craig Buno said...

One issue that librarians face when introducing multiple languages to their library is the consideration of how much materials should they buy and how much resources should they put into it expanding the collection. This can be pretty difficult because what if the immigrant community begins to shrink and you are left with a large collection that is hardly used any more. in the 1920s and 1930s there was an influx of Slovak immigrant living in Detroit, now this community has shrunk from the large size it once was. Therefore trying to judge what languages to add to a collection could be pretty tricky for a librarian.

Wendy Schneider said...

In Florida we have a very large population of Spanish speaking citizens who choose not to learn or speak English. It's very common here to walk into any public library and find a section with only Spanish books, videos, CDs. However, there are several other foreign languages spoken as well. I think we had over 300 different languages being spoken in the public school system in Broward County where I used to teach. The public library was a place of great diversity with a little something for just about everyone. It didn't need to be introduced. It was expected and just that's the way it was run. When you live in such a diverse community it's quite educational. It's also very interesting to see how people from different countries live, what they eat, and what they value. It's amazing how much we are all so much alike, yet very different. As a librarian, this is the way I would want my library to run, with something for everyone. Of course, we can't make everybody happy but we can try. I've seen it done and it does work.

If the library is large enough the librarian can take a few shelves and leave them for non-English speaking patrons or English speaking patrons who are interested in learning another language. A small section of the library would hold books in French, Spanish, Hebrew, Italian, German, and any other language that is offered including some books on CD in other languages and a variety of music from different countries around the world.

Set time aside for a multi-cultural night at the library. A Spanish book club. A French book club. This is how you can introduce diversity into your library.

Unknown said...

Sometimes bilingual things seem cluttered, bilingual sign for example. With an OPAC the user could just click a button and choose the language(s) of her choice. The customizable nature of the display helps everyone. This could be inclusive but not intrusive.

Amy Alcenius said...

I would think the best way to advertise that your library is multi-lingual is to actually advertise in the languages you are serving. Where the usualy library advertisments live (newspapers, billboards, community fliers) you should also include a plug, in the actual language, that shows the library is ready to serve. The library website itself should also be in multiple languages, so someone exploring the library on their own can see they are welcome.

DJ said...

Public libraries need to become global communities. With the means of servicing different languages. By utilizing technology, you could offer more books online, programs on line where the patron can pick the language they are comfortable with. Even if your doing a program you have a translator come in from the community to help out. So no one feels left out.

Bradley said...

Money and space are the largest issues with satisfying the needs of patrons with language needs. Here in the US, we have a sort of co-existing relationship with Spanish. Most phone prompts, TV commercials and radio ads have some sort of Spanish counterpart to the English version. However America, like so many other countries now, are so much more less homogeneous than 50, or even 20 years ago.

The US is bordered by 2 other countries, with basically one other language competing (French Canadian is the other and I know they have issues in that part of Canada over language). Germany is bordered by 9 different countries with no less than 9 different languages surrounding it. Germany is a mecca in European higher education and many students from the bordering nations attend school there. Talk about a tough task for the libraries!

When I attended college in Germany, I found using using the library to be very challenging. The thing is, I was in a very fortunate position because I knew English, as does a great number of Europeans, especially Germans and even more especially in an academic setting.

In their university library I found books in different languages grouped by subject matter. Certainly not a comprehensive list, but they did have multi-language books. I think with todays technology, the use of ebooks is crucial in this arena. Many students can refer to books in their own language if they need to to help them with their studies. It takes a lot of monetary and spatial pressure off of the libraries to have to have multiple copies of books in other languages.