Public Libraries and Immigrants — Tradition!
by Nancy Buck
Since its beginnings circa 1901, the New York Public Library has felt that immigrants need to have access to learning materials and examples of literature in English in order to become American. As described in the library's history (http://www.nypl.org/pr/history.cfm), "Among its earliest beneficiaries were recently arrived immigrants, for whom the Library provided contact with the literature and history of their new country as well as the heritage that these people brought with them." Libraries all over the United States continue in this very traditional library role by helping all citizens, including immigrants, to locate classes and tutors to study for the GED or learn English; find INS offices; register for the selective service online; use public-access computers to remain in contact with family; study for citizenship exams; register for a library card; share stories with their children; find jobs and community services; and participate in town meetings, among other civic duties and privileges.
The Central Rappahannock Regional Library is pleased to be a participant in this traditional library role. Our Alliance for Literacy volunteer tutoring program provides one-to-one tutoring and drop-in tutoring sessions. We coordinate our efforts with those of the regional adult education program. Like your libraries, we have public--access computers at each of our branches, including several workstations that have a Spanish keyboard. We encourage everyone to use our reference services, whether they are card-holders or not. Here are just a few examples of assistance we've provided or located for our patrons.
We embrace our community, and it has embraced us.
Avni (Serbian) had a visa, but his employer required him to attain U.S. citizenship in order to keep his job. When he contacted the library to find out where to begin, he discovered that we could pair him with a volunteer tutor who would help him study for the citizenship exam. We learned that young men who seek citizenship are required to register for the selective service, so our literacy manager helped Avni register online and print out a confirmation notice. Avni then took these papers to INS so that he could complete his citizenship application. He is now a taxpaying American citizen. He is also continuing his education, working with a tutor to further improve his English.
This spring, Roger (Bolivian) and his daughter Mariel were told that classes for English wouldn't start until September. Roger called the library and discovered that volunteer tutors at our semi-weekly drop-in tutoring sessions could be a starting point. Roger has a bachelor's degree from a university in Bolivia and is working as an electrician. He is lucky; this is actually his trade. (We've worked with doctors who can't yet practice and are flipping pizzas instead.) However, Roger can't be a master electrician until he improves his English so that he can pass the electrician's licensing exam. His daughter graduated from high school in Bolivia and wants to go to college and major in journalism.
In a small group class, we are practicing conversational English and writing and reading in English, using electrician's manuals and the newspaper. As luck would have it, one of the tutors works for the local newspaper and offered to answer questions about articles as well as construct writing exercises.
We encourage everyone, including ourselves, to participate more fully in the community. In 2005, we were invited to work with Spotsylvania County to prepare factual materials for county bond referenda. Working within strict legal constraints, library staff used freeware to develop a twenty-three-minute DVD to provide educational background material for each of the four referenda on transportation, libraries and parks, schools, and public safety. We also prepared print materials, which had to be vetted by the county attorney, and assisted the county in distributing these in the month before the November elections. Citizens stopped in the libraries and other county buildings to view the DVD and make notes on the print brochure. All four referenda passed.
Recently, we were awarded two We the People "Becoming American" Bookshelf grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities in its partnership with ALA. Youth services staff will use the materials in book discussion groups at the Rappahannock Juvenile Detention Center, the Boys and Girls Club, and other youth groups meeting at the libraries. Themes of citizenship, civic involvement, and participation in the democratic process will be explored with adolescents from different ethnic, economic, and racial backgrounds.
We embrace our community, and it has embraced us. We find more Spanish-speaking people at our neighborhood bookmobile stops, so our bookmobile schedule is bilingual. The bookmobile carries mostly English-language materials, but there are a couple of shelves of materials for all ages in Spanish. We also give away free English-Spanish dictionaries. At several branches, we have one Spanish-language public-access computer; they are quite popular for sending messages back home and keeping up with Spanish--language news online.
This makes it sound as though there are only Spanish-speaking immigrants in our area. We also have communities of people who speak Serbian, Croatian, Greek, Russian, French, Japanese, Thai, and Korean, and I'm certain I'm still leaving someone out. And like Avni, Roger, and Mariel, many of them are looking for citizenship information, job skills training, and English classes or tutors.
The public library is uniquely positioned to help people in the community access information. We have few eligibility requirements — if a patron wants a library card to check out materials, he or she needs to disclose a local address. But even without a card, our resources are available for unlimited in-house use. Based on the fact that we are helping people access information that can help them become taxpayers and, ideally, library supporters, this seems like a good investment for everyone.
A few resources to have at your fingertips:
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services: http://uscis.gov/graphics/index.htm
New to the immigration process? Among many other resources, USCIS.gov offers a free booklet, "Welcome to the United States: A Guide for New Immigrants," which includes tips on accessing community information and resources as well as how to become a citizen. The guide is available in PDF or HTML (print copies can be purchased). Some of the languages included are English, Korean, Chinese, Arabic, French, Russian, Haitian, and Creole.
The Virginia Adult Learning Resource Center: http://www.valrc.org/
Find the local adult education program in your area for classes about the GED, adult basic education, and English as a second language. Look on the right side of the home page for a link to Local Programs.
Virginia I and R System and 2-1-1 Virginia: http://www.211virginia.org/ or http://www.vaiandr.com
Don't know where to find help with health care costs, utility cutoffs, drug or alcohol abuse, safe drinking water, prenatal care, services for the disabled, or other human problems? Use the searchable database (search by zip code, keyword, and more) or call a local I&R center at (800) 230-6977.
Virginia Employment -Commission: http://www.vec.virginia.gov/vecportal/
The VEC provides links to jobs in the commonwealth to use along with your local newspaper or other classifieds. Includes information in Spanish.