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American Libraries Reach Out to Immigrants

The definition of a public library keeps on expanding in the United States. Over the years, American libraries have grown to include everything from books, magazines and newspapers to computers and videos to learning programs. Many are now offering those services in a growing number of languages as well, helping immigrants adjust to their new lives in the United States, and stay connected to the lives they have left behind.

Miguel Garcia, 9, and his family make frequent visits to the North-East branch of the Kansas City Public Library, where he finds plenty to do. "There are people that play on the computer," says Miguel, "and they do their homework and they read." Miguel also attends the library's monthly bilingual story hour, held at a nearby community learning center. On a recent night, he heard library staffer Kurt Lamb read a Cuban tale to a group that included children from Mexico, Haiti and Somalia.

Mr Lamb says he tries to choose stories that children in the surrounding neighborhood can relate to, written in the one language they all share. "This little corner of Kansas City is an immigrant community," he explains. "The only thing we have in common is English. I'll look for Haitian stories next time to try to bring that piece in, because we want them to have things to identify with, but they're going to get them in English."

Bilingual story time is among the many immigrant services to be found at the North-East Branch of the Kansas City Public Library. The area is a magnet for newcomers from around the world, including Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa.

Branch manager Claudia Visnich says the library now serves people speaking more than 20 different languages, and it offers them`everything from books in other languages to personal assistance.

"We try to buy bilingual material as often as we can," Ms. Visnich says, "books mostly for children in Spanish, Vietnamese, Arabic, Somali, French because we know there are a lot of people here from countries that speak French. The other day I met a young man who came to the library who's from Haiti, and he came in to ask me if I could help him get a job. So I worked with him on a little application, and yesterday he came into the library to tell me he got the job."

Newcomers to the area also turn to the library for newspapers and videos in various languages, picture dictionaries, and English as a Second Language courses. They can use library computers to do job searches or talk by E-mail to friends and family back home.

While Kansas City's North-East Branch has an unusually extensive list of immigrant services, libraries around the United States are reaching out in similar ways. Margaret Booker, executive director of the Missouri Library Association, sees the changes affecting her colleagues in rural as well as urban areas.

"I know lots of libraries across the country head to Guadalajara to the book sale each year to buy Spanish language materials for burgeoning, bursting at the seams populations," Ms. Booker says. "Story hour is a great way to welcome families into the libraries, but also computer lab programs welcoming adult learners, folks who are working on their citizenship programs. And (they are hiring) staff who speak Spanish or African languages, or in St. Louis, for example, they've identified a large Bosnian population, and the St. Louis libraries are reaching out to the Bosnians in all sorts of ways."

Somali refugee Halima Farah, has joined the staff of Kansas City's North-East Library Branch. The 21-year old student says she tries to reassure immigrant parents who are not accustomed to leaving their children on their own that the library is a welcoming place for families. "If I'm here," Ms. Farah explains, "I can talk to them, and they might agree that it's a safe place, and leave them down here to use the computers and do homework. And for the adult population, sometimes they feel they can't get their message across, so it's easier for them to talk to me."

The very concept of a public library is new to some recent arrivals in Kansas City. Claudia Visnich says immigrants are often surprised that the North-East Branch provides so many services for free. "They're surprised when we don't charge for a library card," Ms. Visnich says. "They're surprised when we don't charge for books, and they're surprised when we let them check out as many books as they want."

Margaret Booker of the Missouri Library Association says immigrants may also be suspicious at first of an institution that is government funded. "And I think very quickly librarians break through that barrier to explain that, 'Yes, we're tax supported, but we're here to serve you, we are your neighbors and we are going to be neighborly,'" Ms. Booker says. "Librarians are very attuned to figuring out who their people are and what those people need, being one of the first places that many migrants and immigrants come to learn community resources. So this is not a new thing for libraries."

Margaret Booker says many of the services people are seeking at libraries cut across national lines. They want help finding jobs, locating books by their favorite writers, and connecting electronically with the world beyond their community. Library programs may be coming in more languages these days, but the goals remain the same.