Libraries, Immigrants, and Teaching-Training

The Urban Libraries Council has, with the release of a report in January 2008, provided trainers and other members of library staff with yet another option to consider as we think about the expanding roles libraries might play. And this one is completely in line with libraries’ roles as centers of learning and places which help strengthen the communities served by libraries.
“The biggest barrier for new arrivals is language,” Rich Ashton and Danielle Patrick Milam write in Welcome, Stranger: Public Libraries Build the Global Village (p. 5). To help immigrants overcome this barrier, more urban libraries throughout the United States are forming partnerships with community-based organizations to provide English-language instruction. They are also offering programs on health; parenting and early childhood education; and computer training in languages other than English for immigrants and anyone else interested in taking them.
The reward for staff offering this level of teaching-training is obvious, the authors note: “Seattle Public Library’s Multi-cultural Librarian, Valerie Wonder, draws on her previous experience with Peace Corps resettlement programs and works with focus groups to create a menu of programs that have great relevance to immigrants and refugees, how to navigate the legal system, obtain small loans, and manage credit” (p. 10).
Libraries are also responding to this challenge by hiring a more diverse workforce and spending more time preparing staff to work effectively with immigrants: more than half of the 35 libraries responding to the survey “train staff in multi-cultural customer service,” and nearly a third of the respondents “test staff for language competency,” Ashton and Milam write (p. 10).
Other notable teaching-training achievements include the Queens Library’s seven Adult Learning Centers and 26 community library instruction programs serving 3,000 people annually. The model was adopted by Arlington Heights Public Library in a suburb of Chicago and “is augmented with conversation groups and one-on-one volunteer tutoring.” The Arlington Heights library also offers advanced English-language instruction in partnership with the local community college (p. 12).
Anyone interested in additional examples of what Ashton and Milam call the “robust variety of ways public libraries are supporting English instruction” can either view or order the report from the ULC’s webpage offering descriptions of and links to the organization’s various publications. (ULC does offer ample warning on that site that the size of the 118mb document means the download will take several minutes.)