U.S. Libraries and Anti-Immigrant Sentiment—How Librarians Are Coping with Discrimination To Better Serve Hispanic Communities
By Loida García-Febo -- Criticas, 10/1/2007
Last summer, controversy ensued in Lawrence, GA, when the Gwinnett County Public Library board decided to cut $3000 from the annual budget designated for Spanish-language adult fiction. According to one board member, the decision was based on the premise that the library didn't need to cater to illegal aliens. Board chair Lloyd Breck told the Associated Press at that time that they couldn't "supply pleasure reading material for all language groups," even though the existing collection had proved to be quite popular with the growing Spanish-speaking population in Gwinnett. The decision was ultimately reversed, but only because the community was in an uproar.
Around the world, anti-immigrant sentiments are evident. In the United States, pending immigration reform has everyone on alert. Negative attitudes towards "New Americans" have invaded communities everywhere, and libraries are not excluded. Librarians across the country now find themselves defending their rights and those of new immigrant customers from community-based organizations, colleagues, other customers, and in some cases, even elected officials. One librarian interviewed under promise of anonymity told Críticas she suffered discrimination while looking for jobs. Another lost her job as a bilingual library specialist after the library board determined that it was in the best interest of the library not to provide services to Latinos at the same level as those offered to English-speaking or "American" customers.
Reaching out to immigrant communities is not easy. Many librarians continue to maximize outreach efforts even while trying to cope with anti-immigrant attitudes within their own libraries. But not every librarian knows how to best deal with those circumstances. Planning programs for new immigrants in their native language is important, but how do we ensure a high turnout? How do we increase circulation of Spanish-language materials when Hispanic customers are scared to set foot in the library? How do we encourage immigrants to visit the library and convince them they are welcome?
In view of Hispanic Heritage Month, Críticas talked to librarians across the United States that are witnessing discrimination in their workplace and/or communities to find out how they are coping, and how they continue to meet the needs of the Hispanic immigrants in their community.
Diversity in the library
When colleagues and library administrators express anti-immigrant attitudes, librarians committed to the idea of serving all in the community, and not just English speakers, find themselves isolated. Though the inclusion of world languages collections—and Spanish-language works specifically—ultimately depends on the administration and the library board, librarians can seek support from community organizations. But this could prove to be another challenge, especially when in a homogeneous environment.
Beyond the collection, the lack of Hispanic and/or Spanish-speaking staff is evident in libraries across the country. If customers do not see themselves reflected in the staff, they are likely to feel unwelcome or unable to communicate their specific needs.
"The greatest frustration is that it's difficult to speak to the many Latinos in the community because of the language barrier," says Kathryn Ames, director of the Athens Library System, GA, where the school system indicates that 50 percent of their students are Hispanic. Ames says that discussions with others across her state led her to recognize a growing awareness of the need to respond to the Hispanic population's quest for information. Ames acknowledges that "politically, there may be some huge anti-immigrant pockets in [Georgia]," but that businesspeople and those in the community understand it's necessary to help improve educational efforts for new immigrants.
The Pinewoods Library and Community Center, where 98 percent of users are Hispanic, according to Ames, already has Spanish-language computer software and keyboards, English-language classes, GED courses, and a full collection of Spanish-language materials. It also offers survival Spanish classes taught by university volunteers and has hired bilingual staff in an effort to better communicate with Spanish speakers and address their needs.
The lack of diversity is also noticeable when age is a factor. Across the country, libraries are undergoing a generational shift—in many small towns where immigrant communities are rapidly developing, librarians are older, still share the idea that everyone is like them, and don't always embrace diversity. "Younger librarians are more open and responsive to change," says Yolanda Cuesta, president of Cuesta MultiCultural Consulting and an expert on multicultural outreach who specializes in helping libraries and other non-profit organizations that serve ethnically diverse communities. This younger generation, however, is often in entry-level positions and has no power to create large-scale changes in these public institutions. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed," Cuesta admits, "and hoping this new generation will stay firm to the principles" that define librarianship.
While some librarians agree that providing information and access to information to all members of the community is at the core of librarianship, it is the interpretation of that definition that varies, with some community leaders arguing that neither the service nor the information has to be provided in a language other than English.
Surviving the prejudice
"Current anti-immigrant sentiment is simply the most recent test to a traditional library ideal," says Elma Nieto-Rodríguez, president of La estrella de Tejas, REFORMA's San Antonio Chapter. San Antonio has long dealt with an influx of new members to its community, but other U.S. libraries are experiencing difficulty in keeping up with a fast shifting population and limited resources. "Anticipating and fulfilling [the needs of new immigrants] includes providing access to information in a language [they] understand," she says, adding that foreign language materials should be part of most collections and that the exclusion of these "goes against the nature of the profession."
Pinewoods' Ames agrees, saying that a crunched budget can often and easily be used as an excuse to provide limited or no service at all, something she considers a failure. "Providing access to information is the absolute role of a public library."
Up to now, the focus in libraries has been on convincing administrators about the need for services and funding. "The need to justify services has always been there," says Cuesta, "[but] the discussion has mostly been an internal one." In the workshops she leads, she has noticed an increase in the participants' concerns on how to best address their community's questions about serving Spanish speakers, the need for Spanish-language collections, or even signage in Spanish. According to Cuesta, some librarians are fearful that anti-immigrant attitudes will result in the elimination of programs and already limited funding. She says librarians understand that they could have to justify services to the [Spanish-speaking] community at large, and that in order to do so effectively, their "arguments and rationale need to be different."
Libraries' policies on who to serve vary and often depend on the leadership. "Our policy says that we will provide service to all members of the community," says Ames about the Athens Library System, noting that it was purposely made that broad because "we wanted to be sure we could fit any contingencies into the policy."
Learning to educate
At a recent workshop at her consulting firm, Cuesta spoke to one foundation board member who did not understand why libraries were encouraged to celebrate El día de los niños/El día de los libros in a big way. "Why not a 'Day of the Child' celebration?" she asked. Cuesta cleverly pointed out it was a basic pillar in marketing. "[Libraries] develop products and services for their community" that they must then "sell" and market in the language community members will understand.
Exercising big doses of patience and persistence to explain cultures, customs, and respect to colleagues and other members of the community who oppose services to immigrants is key. Librarians can help to ease relationships between groups by working in conjunction with immigrant advocacy groups, such as the Immigrant Coalition in Queens, NY, to present programs that inform the community of the many ways immigrants contribute to their society. Opening the library to the community is a basic way of strengthening links between the different community groups.
"[Some] librarians expect everyone to come to them," says Robin Osborne, outreach services consultant at the Westchester Library System, Tarrytown, NY. She adds that in order to identify the community's needs to effect change in the library, librarians "need to get out there and meet with agencies serving immigrants, PTAs, schools, and listen" to what these groups perceive are the needs of new immigrants. Osborne puts it simply: "We are educators," and as such, she says, librarians need to understand not only how immigrants are perceived, but also to how they perceive their new communities. "There are a lot of things we're not taught in library school," says Osborne about the exclusion of services to non-English speakers. "We need to go back and think about the human element in information services."
Providing materials and resources to help newcomers understand their rights and responsibilities is one more way to overcome discrimination and equip immigrants to defend themselves. Community-based organizations produce brochures and flyers about immigrants' rights and how to adapt to life in the United States. Librarians in Kentucky attend meetings outside the library to actively work with the Immigrant Network Coalition and the Lexington Hispanic Association. This can make the difference between libraries providing traditional programs and services.
As information professionals, we have a social role within the evolving communities we serve. Elfreda Chatman's concept of the "Small World" is a magnificent tool that will help us understand the world of immigrants. We must try and enter the small world of immigrants in our library service area. By applying these concepts, suggestions, and recommendations shared, librarians can successfully convey the message that as a social entity, the library indeed cares for the community and its purpose is to provide resources to each community member in the various aspects of life. Finding out what the community really needs and ensuring an immigrant-friendly environment is not an extra burden for librarians, it is what we need to do in order to do our work well.