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Associations and InstitutionsAnnual 

64th IFLA Conference Logo

   64th IFLA General Conference
   August 16 - August 21, 1998


Code Number: 171-155(WS)-E
Division Number: III.
Professional Group: Library Services to Multicultural Populations
Joint Meeting with: Library Theory and Research: Workshop
Meeting Number: 155.
Simultaneous Interpretation:   No

Non-traditional Approaches to Serving New Americans

Gary E. Strong
Director, Queens Borough Public Library


Political changes, socio-economic factors and population shifts bring common challenges to libraries in different countries. In the United States the recent demographic changes are the most dramatic since the turn of the century. Demographic projections tell us that by the year 2050 the "average American", as defined by census statistics, will trace his or her ancestry to Africa, Asia, the Hispanic world, the Pacific Islands or the Middle East, and that many of our communities will have not one, but many majorities.

Nowhere in the country are these demographic trends as clear as in the county of Queens, one of the five Boroughs that form New York City. According to the 1990 US Census, Queens' total population was just under two million people, of which 36% were born in a different country and 44% speak a language other than English at home. A recent study conducted by the New York City Department of City Planning examining the flow of legal immigration between 1990 and 1994 revealed similar findings: 30% of New York's recent immigrants have chosen Queens as their new home. Such is the diversity of ethnic and immigrant communities living and working in Queens that a seven-mile subway line connecting Times Square in Manhattan, and Flushing, (one of Queens most diverse neighborhoods) has been nicknamed "The International Express." Each stop on this elevated line introduces passengers to a variety of ethnic communities with different neighborhoods reflecting a multitude of nations from around the world. Overall, more than 120 countries and 100 languages are represented, making Queens the most ethnically diverse county in the United States.

The Queens Library, which had the highest circulation of any public library in the nation last year, circulating more than 15.5 million items, holds over 9 and one-half million items, and has a central library, 62 community branch libraries, and six adult learning centers. Each branch serves a distinct neighborhood with a unique, and in most cases, diverse international community make-up. The Corona Branch, for instance, serves a predominantly Spanish-speaking area, where over 70% of the population are of Hispanic origin. In the Elmhurst Branch neighborhood, nearly 82% of the area residents speak a language other than English at home, including Spanish, Chinese, Korean, and a number of South Asian languages, among many others.

The New Americans Program (NAP) at the Queens Library serves residents whose primary language is not English. Since 1977 we have been working closely with ethnic community organizations to assess local needs, link residents with their existing neighborhood and system-wide library services, and to create new services. We move aggressively to serve the people who live in our communities. Serving immigrants, the majority of whom are not library users, (as they come from countries without a tradition of public libraries as popular, dynamic institutions), means ongoing community assessment, active outreach to other organizations, and continuous forging of partnerships with these organizations. The fact that we embrace nontraditional methods of library practice doesn't really matter. What we do is just good service. That is all. And I'm here to tell you that people respond to what we do. That is why we circulate more materials than any other library in the United States. There is no magic about this. It is just good customer service. It is knowing what our customers want and giving it to them.

Our services fall into three major categories: collection development, coping skills programs, and cultural arts programs. NAP actually started by developing collections. Collections of popular materials are distributed to branch libraries based on community need. We are continuously reviewing the language demographics of our communities so that we can be immediately responsive. For example, a collection of over 60 books in Turkish was established in partnership with two Turkish-American organizations to serve this new community. Since there is no US source for Turkish books, one of the organizations offered to purchase materials in Turkey based on the library's selection guidelines and donate them to the library. Materials arrived and were cataloged and available in time for a storytelling program in Turkish, where they were extremely well received.

The Turkish materials are part of the Multi-language collections that are made available to our community libraries. In our libraries, the classic swordsmanship novels so popular with our Chinese customers, have a place on our shelves, as have romances, mysteries, cook-books, biographies of celebrities and best-sellers. Collections also include materials to learn English, and based on demand and circulation, we also buy poetry, history, and serious fiction, both in the original and in translation. Once solely dependent for their language needs on the Central Library's Rotating Collection which is heavily weighted towards literature, branch libraries now have a direct line to the New Americans Program.

Queens Library is known for its extensive collections in non-English languages. Our "Say Si" collection in Spanish includes 101,000 items at the Central Library and 20 branches. We aggressively started buying popular materials in Spanish after a public opinion poll commissioned by the library in 1985 determined that Spanish speakers were using the library less than the general population. A public relations campaign was launched, we increased Spanish language programs, translated the application cards into Spanish, created and distributed bilingual brochures describing services for Spanish speakers and placed extensive Spanish language collections in 21 of our libraries. Three years later another poll showed that Spanish speakers were using the library as much as everyone else, and our circulation shows that they read everything, from Cervantes to Superman. The "Ni Hao" collection of Chinese materials includes some 93,000 items at the Central Library and 28 branches. The "Say Si" and "Ni Hao" collections are the country's largest Spanish and Chinese collections for general readers in any library.

The "Hannara" Korean language collections include 24,000 items at 14 branches. The "Privyet" Russian Language collection includes 9,000 items at 9 branches, and the "Namaste Adaab" collections of over 20,000 items in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu and Punjabi are in 8 branches. This collection was initiated in 1994, and the Russian collections were formally established during 1997.

Services to immigrants are the core of our program. We have the largest library-managed English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program in the country. Queens Library offers more than 70 ESOL classes taught by specially trained teachers. It serves nearly 3,000 students annually, representing 88 countries and 50 languages. A library lesson tailored to the Queens library has been developed and integrated into the curriculum, and all students receive a library card and a tour of the library. Our Mail-A-Book program sends materials in Chinese, French, Greek, Italian, Korean, Russian and Spanish to new Queens residents thereby reaching immigrants before they walk into our libraries.

WorldLinQ provides World Wide Web access to non-English speaking Queens Library customers, and customers with particular interests in Asian and Spanish language web sites. This very unique system is being developed with partial funding from A T & T. Links are provided to Spanish, Korean and Chinese-language sites, which appear in their native character sets on the display terminals in branches selected based on demographics. We are currently working on adding Russian to WorldLinQ and other languages will be added in the future. By the end of this month, WorldLinQ will also feature native language searching of our holdings database providing full equity of access to all of our resources.

Our coping skills programs include lectures in a variety of languages which present practical information designed to help immigrants adjust to life in the United States. Free lectures and workshops are offered in the most widely spoken immigrant languages of Queens on topics essential to new immigrants' acculturation, such as citizenship and job training information, advice on helping children learn and information on available social services. As an example, we worked with SHARE (Self-Help for Women with Breast or Ovarian Cancer), and its division serving the Hispanic community, Latina SHARE, to plan and offer a successful workshop in Spanish on Breast Cancer awareness.. They provided a speaker, distributed appropriate materials in Spanish, and provided additional referrals. The library provided the publicity, a book display in Spanish on Women's health and a forum for open discussion where all felt welcome.

Cultural arts programs include programs of ethnic music, dance, bilingual poetry, storytelling and crafts to celebrate the cultural heritage of over 100 nationalities in Queens. Performing arts programs also promote cultural understanding and attract newcomers to the library where they are introduced to the wide range of free services available. We work closely with the Queens Council on the Arts, a publicly funded arts organization that provides financial support, assistance with publicity and promotion and technical assistance. Through its Folk Arts Program, they assist in locating local performers and artists from many ethnic communities. We have been able to present a number of very successful joint programs including, Festival Latino with 1,000 people attending, a Chinese Theater Festival (over 400) and Music and Dance from Bangladesh (250), just to name a few. Promotional tools include bilingual flyers which are widely distributed, press releases sent to the appropriate ethnic media, and often radio interviews with NAP staff and performers. The library provides a bilingual introduction to the programs, a book display pertaining to the culture presented and information on related library programs and services. This partnership increases attendance and provides a diverse and appreciative audience.

NAP is constantly reviewing its direction and has completed several new initiatives of note. As I mentioned we have acquired a collection of Turkish materials, but our partnership with the Turkish community has not stopped there. Working with the same organizations that helped us develop this initial collection, we were able to provide a workshop in Turkish on community resources for this group of newly arrived immigrants. These contacts also led to a cultural arts festival and a storytelling program.

We are also engaged in training in our Advanced ESOL class in the latest technology. We recently completed the second term of small group instruction on the use of the mouse for those with no computer experience, and an introduction to InfoLinQ, the Library's OPAC, moving on to the World Wide Web for those with some computer skills. We will also introduce them to WorldLinQ as appropriate. Students are now able to navigate and access newspapers from their home countries, opening up the world to them and keeping connections with their homeland. We also have a grant from the federal government this year to employ teenagers with language skills who will train customers to use WorldLinQ for Chinese and Korean access.

We are also building a new partnership with the demographers from the Department of City Planning who presented a workshop to our branch managers last fall. Their most recent study, The Newest New Yorkers, 1990-1994, is serving as the basis for NAP's latest demographic study, currently in progress. These are the first statistics we will have on new immigration to Queens since the 1990 census.

NAP completed the newest edition of its Directory of Immigrant-Serving Agencies in Queens at the end of 1996. It contains information on 155 agencies offering services in 50 languages and represents years of forging partnerships, as Program staff have established ongoing collaborative activities with many of these agencies. The directory information will soon be made available on line through the Queens Library home page. For this project, the Library has won the Gale Research Award for Excellence that was presented at the 1998 ALA conference in Washington.

Beginning last term our intermediate and advanced ESOL classes became part of our new citizenship initiative. Each class is addressed by staff from Immigration Advocacy, a local nonprofit organization. Students are advised of the steps necessary to become citizens and cautioned about agencies with unqualified personnel and which charge excessive fees for their services.

We believe that our staff should reflect the community it serves. And we make every effort to recruit, at all levels, a linguistically and culturally diverse staff. However, some groups are better represented than others. In order to help staff to better serve non-English speaking customers, NAP has created communication aids, such as bilingual booklets and bookmarks in 12 languages, which include terms and phrases most often used in libraries. In order to promote our services to non-English speakers, we have also created bilingual brochures that describe library services available to readers of the most widely spoken languages in Queens. We distribute these promotion aids widely, throughout the library system and to other agencies that work with immigrants.

With the recent inauguration of the Flushing Branch Library, we opened the doors of our new International Resource Center. The Center will be a unique research and reference facility serving the entire borough with special collections, lectures, programs, and exhibitions staffed by carefully selected personnel dedicated to building on the firm foundation of NAP's work and enhancing it.

I would note here also that we have completed exchange agreements with the Shanghai Library and the National Library of China. We have completed our first exchange of staff with the Shanghai Library and have just received our first exhibition of rare materials from that Library. I believe we cannot serve our international constituency if we do not actively connect within our global village.

A lot of public libraries talk about serving diversity. But what does that really mean? During our strategic planning process, we determined that we wanted the children and youth who use the Queens Library to have materials that reflect the full range of human diversity. But the challenge came in defining what that really meant in Queens. The work team assigned to this project immediately began to develop the goal analysis that would accomplish this. The team defined children as pre-school through 6th grade and defined the full range of human diversity as including not only the obvious, such as appearance, age, mental and physical abilities, etc., but also family structure, family problems, socioeconomic background, sexual orientation etc. By the end of this process, the team developed 17 categories that would define human diversity for the Queens Library. The team then developed bibliographies of material that would address each category, and surveyed branches to determine what actually existed in the collections. I was able to assign funds to purchase materials to fill in the gaps.

It is important to point out that the base funding for all of our services, NAP included, comes from our base budget funded by city and state funds. But no library can exist on government funding alone these days. We augment our regular operating budget, (which for NAP this year is $950,000 from City Funds), with funds from government grants, such as special grants from the State legislature or Federal grants. In addition, our Queens Library Foundation continues to be very active in raising funds from the private and corporate sectors.

We just received notification from the National Endowment for the Humanities of a Challenge Grant in the amount of $150,000. We must match with $300,000. This effort will establish a permanent endowment to provide programs on the immigrant experience. We are working with faculty from St. Johns University in Queens to develop this new and exciting series of lectures, seminars, and workshops.

As I thought about how to summarize and close this presentation, it came to mind that we are really doing nothing very unique nor groundbreaking. Queens Library, since its creation over 100 years ago, has been serving an ever changing, diverse population. We have a culture of incorporating new ideas and practices into our service philosophy, replacing what doesn't work anymore. We believe that collections that meet customer interest and demand are what we should be buying. We display these collections so that people can see what we have and gain immediate access to the information they need. We buy enough copies to meet demand and interest. We believe that our staff should reflect the communities that we serve. We believe that we should use appropriate technology to equalize and enhance access to information. And we believe that children and youth are the key to our future and that we should develop programs that engage them actively in what we do in the Queens community.

And I am very fortunate as I work for a Board of Trustees and with a staff that believe as I do concerning these issues. We are ready for the new millennium, we invite it, and we are energized by its prospect. But most of all, we are committed to the future of the public library and its mission of service to all people who live in our communities.