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Thursday, October 9, 2008

Meaningful Programming for Immigrant Populations

On Wednesday, October 1, Sophie Maier of the Louisville Free Public Library and Betty Abdimishani, Rebecca Montano-Smith, and Brian Hocevar of the Lexington Public Library Village Branch presented a session at the Spectrum of the Future, National Diversity in Libraries conference titled "Successful and Meaningful Services for Your Immigrant Populations." As the Louisville area has seen a tremendous growth in immigrants from various parts of the world (Africa, Latin America, and most recently, Iraq), and the Village branch in Lexington is comprised completely of bilingual staff serving a largely Hispanic neighborhood, these presenters were well experienced with working with a diverse community and finding creative ways to meet their needs at the library.

Sophie shared that there is a very active refugee resettlement agency in Louisville, so the immigrant groups coming to settle there are often changing based on what is transpiring in the world at large. This makes clear how important it is to conitinually be assessing who makes up the community one is serving, what their needs are, and how they have changed to know how the library needs to adapt. How does LFPL do this? Sophie visits this agency's ESOL classes weekly to sign newcomers up for library cards and to introduce them to library services. In addition, she is constantly making contact with local cultural organizations share what the library has to offer. Some of the programs created specifically for the immigrant population in Louisville include the English Conversation Club (a place for English learners to practice their skills with native English speakers), and the Bilingual Cafe (Spanish learners and English learners both practice the language they are learning with native speakers). How does she make this work? Well,
  • volunteers participate in both conversation groups, including interns from the local University Latin American studies department and international student groups
  • prompts are provided for those who need something to get them starting speaking together
  • kids are included, as child care can be a barrier blocking participation
  • food, Food, FOOD!
Another cool thing they are doing at LFPL are cultural showcases, in which they invite members of a community to come present elements of their culture (such as dance, traditional dress, food, etc.) for the community at large. Sophie did point out, however, that this can be tricky. The library has found that they have approached some immigrant groups too soon and have found such a showcase to be very difficult for them. They have also found that there can be various perspectives and viewpoints within a culture which can lead to tension when they discuss that culture with the rest of the community. Other programs LFPL has put on for their community include a French Conversation Circle (specifically for African people who speak French), a Spanish Literary Salon, and a Qinceanera program.
The staff from Village branch of the Lexington Public Library, I must say, are some of the most dedicated and passionate individuals I have met in this field (I will be blogging about my experience at Village more later). In this session, they pointed out that for something like what they are doing there to work (completely bilingual staff and collection), they need the will and commitment of their institution to serving the Hispanic/Latino population. They pointed out that it is important to take risks; don't let perfect be the enemy of good! Maybe you'll try something that is a complete flop...this is the risk the institution must be willing to take to determine what will work! They emphasized the importance of all staff being friendly and approachable, making the extra effort to greet all customers as they walk in the door. Think about it in context: for most of us, the library by its very nature is a warm and welcoming place. For those who are not used to libraries in their own countries, the library is a place filled with uncertainty (what is this? who is it for? how does it work? am I allowed to be here?) and this makes it scary.
The programming the Village branch has developed for their community demonstrates what successful partnerships with community organizations can accomplish. For example, the local schools found that Hispanic parents were not attending parent/teacher conferences, so the library suggested that the teachers come to the library for conferences. Guess what...the parents came! They could walk to the library and felt safe there, and showed up in mass to learn how their kids were doing in school and how they could help them do better. Village also secured a grant for programming to help immigrants assimilate to life in the US and to prevent gang violence. They formed a variety of programs for teens with this grant, including an aikido class! Additionally, they bring speakers in from a variety of community organizations to provide "How to..." training for immigrants. Some speakers include bank representatives, officials from the Mexican consulate, and local police. What is the result of this? When the Village community needs information or wants entertainment, they go to the library to find it. Village is the only library I have ever seen that has actually accomplished becoming the Third Place.
How does this apply to CML:
  • What is the vision for services to immigrants in Columbus? What is the city's vision and how does the library fit into it?
  • We should be making contact with our local Refugee and Immigrant services organization to get a grasp of what the immigrant groups here need and how the library can contribute.
  • People want to learn English...what are we doing to meet this? English conversation groups require little to get off the ground and basically come to run themselves...
  • Would love to do some type of cultural showcase. Any branch doing anything like this?
  • Bringing in community representatives to talk to immigrants about how to assimilate (get a bank account, fill out school paperwork, etc.) is brilliant!!!! Are we even thinking about programming for adult communities anymore? Certainly, helping immigrants learn about the ins-and-outs of living in the US has an impact on young minds...

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