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In diverse times, libraries seek to broaden appeal

Oct. 24, 2009 at 5:24 a.m.


NEW YORK (AP) — Sheryl Toque settled into her seat in the East Elmhurst branch of the Queens Library, her children playing nearby.

She wasn't there to borrow a book. But she did want information — the 33-year-old Philippines native wants to become an American citizen. So she went to the library for a seminar with a civics teacher and a lawyer to go through the immigration process. It wasn't the first time she's used the Queens Library for help; she has also taken English classes at another branch.

"It's usually free so you don't have to spend anything extra," she said. "I like it because I could also bring my kids with me."

Libraries have always been in the business of providing information. But as diversity continues to grow in the United States, libraries like the system in Queens are trying to remain vital and relevant to their communities by offering information in a range of new ways.

They're doing that not only by adding material in multiple languages to their collections, but also through programming that includes citizenship courses, tax help and cancer screenings.

"It's inevitable that all public libraries are affected and impacted by the diversity of this country," said Sari Feldman, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association.

"We've become more relevant and more critical to people's lives than ever before."

So in Dallas, the schedule includes a bilingual introductory computer class among its events. In Seattle, library offerings include multilingual help with filling out forms at tax time. And when the library closed for a week last month because of budget problems, the notice was translated into 12 languages.

The demographics of Seattle have changed, so "as a library we have to be responsive to those changes and meet theneeds of our diverse and changing customer base," said Andra Addison, spokeswoman for the Seattle Public Library.

"Libraries have recognized the critical role that they play in information and also in education," Feldman said.

Nowhere is that more true than in Queens, which was named the 2009 Library of the Year by the Library Journal. Admirers say it has become a prime example of how libraries can remain relevant and vital to the changing communities they serve. Its collection contains works in several dozen languages, and programming includes such topics as English literacy and health screenings.

That's what's needed in a borough that, with more than 2 million residents, is larger than most American cities. Census estimates show that almost half of those residents are foreign-born. More than half speak a language other than English at home, and of those, a majority say they don't speak English very well.

The demographics of what is arguably the country's most diverse county would present a challenge for any organization looking to connect to its community. But for the library, taking on that challenge has proved to be an opportunity to thrive.

"They do it in Queens in ways that we hadn't even seen before," said John N. Berry III, editor-at-large at Library Journal.

Michael Fix, the senior vice president and co-director of the National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, said the system was a model. He noted that the library has a full-time employee whose job is to analyze the demographics of the borough.

"In each case, what they do is widely recognized as representing the best practices in the field," he said.

The Queens library system is one of three in New York City; Brooklyn has its own system, and the New York Public Library covers the boroughs of Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.

Among its offerings, the Queens system — 61 branches along with a main headquarters — holds story hours and other programs in multiple languages; provides classes for immigrants and natives wanting to learn or improve their English; offers sessions where those needing to file visa and immigration paperwork online can get help; holds seminars on topics including how to start a business and foreclosure prevention; and works with other groups to offer information on where to get health screenings and medical treatment.

Jacqueline Flood has been using the library since she was 6 years old, but not like this. The 56-year-old Flood, unemployed for 18 months, has an appointment for a mammogram at a mobile screening center that visits library branches.

"A lot of people use the library," she said. "It's good to know they're able to supply the community with things other than books."

The Queens library continues to try offering such services even as the financial downturn has cut into funding, as it has for libraries around the country.

The library had to close an art gallery, took a bookmobile off the road and has frozen hiring. As some branches have reduced hours, some cultural programs have been trimmed. CEO Thomas Galante said he hopes the economic situation will improve before the system has to cut staff positions or make any other changes to library offerings.

Even with a broader range of programming, the library still fills its traditional role — it has more than 22 million items in circulation per year, a figure that puts it among the top libraries anywhere. Those materials are available in a number of languages.

"For a library to be relevant over the next decades," he said, "you need to be a community place that offers lots of different services all around information and access to technology."

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