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Libraries Expanding Service for Immigrants

Public libraries in some U.S. communities are expanding their services to accommodate their increasingly diverse clientele. The report is narrated by Amy Katz.

The people gathered at a community library are trying out their new language skills. They are learning English so they can better communicate in their new home -- the United States.

And there are volunteers here to help them.

Virginia Berges came to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic a year and a half ago. "I come to the library almost every day. And two days a week I follow the conversation classes. We have the opportunity not only to improve our English but to get new friends from all over the world."

The English conversation club is offered to foreign-born residents at the Gaithersburg branch library in Montgomery County in the eastern U.S. state of Maryland.

Ma Lihong came from China two months ago. "Wherever I go to, a library is the first place I will visit."

As the Washington D.C. suburbs draw more immigrants, many of the region's public libraries are recasting themselves as welcome centers. Signs identifying the checkout desk as well as the welcome sign at the Gaithersburg branch are written in Korean, Chinese, Spanish and Vietnamese.

The libraries provide English-learning and various foreign language materials. That's one of the reasons that Philip Wei, who has lived in the U.S. for 12 years, still comes to the library a couple of times a week. "Mostly I like news. So I want to (read) a lot of Chinese newspapers. And the books."

Ann Stillman is the senior librarian with the county. She says, "We are seeing lots of people come in who now need things in Russian, French, Hindi, Urdu, and all kinds of languages. Different libraries offer different programs in terms of English learning language."

Immigrants also find other useful services offered free in the libraries. Dominican immigrant Virginia Berges told us, "I am also now following a process of looking for a job. I use the library like an employment center because I apply for different positions through the library Internet system."

Atsu Ahadji came to the U.S. from Togo two months ago. "Computer is the only way I go to communicate with other people of my country. With e-mail I speak with my family in my country."

Census data says 35 percent of Montgomery County's residents speak a language other than English, compared with 21 percent in 1990.

So the budget for foreign-language acquisitions and English-learning materials is expected to increase to $500,000 next year, says Parker Hamilton, director of Montgomery County Public Libraries.

"By helping them learn to speak English, they have the opportunity to be more competitive in getting jobs and better quality of life. I think it has economic impact as well as community impact."

Virginia Berges says she uses the library in different ways every day. She hopes learning English will help bring her closer to landing a job in her adopted land.