ERIC Identifier: ED334868
Publication Date: 1991-07-00
Author: Quezada, Shelley
Source: National Clearinghouse on Literacy Education Washington
The Role of Libraries in Providing Services to Adults
Learning English. ERIC Digest.
This digest discusses some of the challenges facing libraries in the
area of service to adults learning English as a second language (ESL).
It describes services provided for this population by some libraries, and
suggests tools and approaches that other libraries can use. It also outlines
actions that participants at the 1991 White House Conference on Libraries
and Information Service, as well as others, may follow.
LIBRARIES HISTORICAL ROLE IN LITERACY EDUCATION
The history of libraries in the United States reflects active support
for literacy, ESL instruction, and citizenship education. At the beginning
of the twentieth century, libraries took on the role of social educator
by providing library-sponsored ESL and adult literacy classes for large
numbers of immigrants. As natural community centers, libraries are in a
pivotal position to bring together newcomers to the United States and the
general population to share traditions, discover more about one another,
and celebrate the diversity of language and culture. Libraries feature
lectures and concerts and include library materials for newcomers in their
LIBRARY SERVICES FOR A MULTICULTURAL POPULATION
New waves of immigrants and refugees, especially those who have arrived
in the United States since the 1980s, present new challenges to libraries.
This new population is straining the ability of communities to meet the
ever increasing demand for instruction in ESL and survival skills. Therefore,
libraries are called upon to help communities keep pace with the needs
of new and underserved community members for whom English is not the primary
language, at the same time that they continue to serve their long-time
Libraries have begun to identify key areas for collection of materials
and program planning. However, while it is important to maintain collections
of print and non-print materials in the languages other than English spoken
in the community, the building of collections alone will not guarantee
that new groups will use the library's resources.
Therefore, libraries are also establishing themselves as centers for
literacy education. Some provide space and promotion for small group or
one-on-one ESL instruction, often in cooperation with local literacy providers
and volunteer organizations. The local library is also often a favorite
field trip destination for ESL classes held at other sites.
Whether providing literacy instruction or promoting greater use of library
materials, library programs and services must be grounded in a thorough
understanding of issues that affect the specific needs of newcomer groups.
For example, some adult education professionals are now exploring the concept
of building biliteracy, or literacy in two languages, for individuals who
lack basic literacy skills in their mother tongue as well as in English.
(See Rivera 1990.) Differences in social class, religion, and educational
background are additional factors that libraries are beginning to acknowledge
and address in their materials collections and program planning.
To publicize new collections and services, libraries are encouraged
to develop special programs and events that focus on cultural diversity
and pride. The library can be a natural forum where community members,
who might not otherwise have a chance to do so, can meet each other. Events
such as bilingual storytelling, art or photographic exhibits, dance, or
musical presentations in both English and other languages are more than
ethnic celebrations. These events foster cross-cultural sharing and help
educate all members of the community.
Lastly, library books and materials in English about diverse cultural
groups increase awareness for both English-speaking members of the community
and for the children of new-comers who may not speak or read their parents'
WHAT SOME LIBRARIES ARE DOING
Across the country, successful library programs for limited English
proficient adults are flourishing. The Reader Development Program (RDP)
at the Free Library of Philadelphia identifies, reviews, and makes recommendations
about adult basic education (ABE) and ESL materials. It distributes free
materials to 240 ABE/ESL programs in the Philadelphia area. The RDP, using
Library Services and Construction Act (LSCA) Title VI funds, has also published
and distributed the "ESL Idea Book" (Lane, 1990), "ESL Curriculum Guide"
(Batt, Furstenberg & Reitzes, 1988), and "ESL Bibliography" (Collins,
The New Americans Project at the Queens Borough Public Library in Queens,
New York features an active ESL program and an outstanding collection of
Spanish language materials, a Spanish books-by-mail program, and ongoing
events celebrating Hispanic music, literature, dance, and culture.
For the past six years, the Jones Library in Amherst, Massachusetts,
has run an ESL tutoring program serving a community of immigrants from
Cambodia. The library staff have recently set up a Citizenship Education
Center to prepare newcomers for naturalization and have convinced the Immigration
and Naturalization Service in Boston to travel two hours to Amherst to
process green card applications for almost seventy Cambodian refugees.
This kind of proactive support for the needs of the refugee community is
redefining the concept of "basic library services."
In California, 52% of the state's school age population is American
Indian, African-American, Hispanic, or Asian-American. A California State
Library program called Partnerships for Change has provided funding for
community-based needs assessments, the development of local coalitions,
and the expansion of new collections reflecting the ethnic and multicultural
diversity of the communities.
WHAT STILL NEEDS TO BE DONE
As libraries in California have responded to changes in ethnic diversity
through a vigorous and targeted campaign, libraries across the country
must also respond to the evolving needs of their communities. Libraries
nationwide can do the following:
- Develop programs based on a realistic understanding of the community's
needs through ongoing interaction with its members and constant restructuring
and adjustment of the library's service plan.
- Develop ESL programs and services for newcomers to the United States
in cooperation with community providers and build coalitions with those
who serve these special populations.
- Educate staff about the cultural backgrounds of newcomers and develop
outreach techniques to enhance staff interaction with these groups.
- Use bilingual library signs, application forms, brochures, and publicity
to promote use and awareness of library collections and services.
Libraries should also recognize the ongoing changes within their communities
and not restrict services to providing collections that validate only past
cultural histories. For example, libraries can help to document the evolving
tapestry of a community by sponsoring oral history projects that record
the recollections of members of older immigrant groups as well as those
THE SECOND WHITE HOUSE CONFERENCE
The Second White House Conference on Library and Information Services
is scheduled for July l991, in Washington, D.C. The conference goal is
to involve people from across the country in the process of improving library
and information services. The conference has three themes--literacy, productivity,
and democracy. The focus on literacy for full participation in a democratic
society demonstrates a realization that our nation is being shaped by the
demands of an increasingly multicultural society. The conference themes
also show a growing recognition that new technologies have further widened
the gap between those who can read and process information and those who
Libraries are the repository of our history and culture. The printed
word is still the primary medium for maintaining a record of that history.
The library's mission continues to be to support the rights of all people,
including our most recent immigrants, to have free access to that collective
body of information. It is therefore imperative to acknowledge the role
of the library in both the attainment and maintenance of literacy. Libraries
must remain responsive to all members of the community, not only to those
who know about and use their services, but also to the many newcomers who
may not yet understand the tradition of a free public library.
White House Conference participants can make a compelling argument for
the value of the library in society as they address the issues of literacy,
democracy, and the preservation of our heritage. White House Conference
resolutions will shape library policy as we enter the next century. By
maintaining the value of libraries as the cornerstone of free access to
information, we continue to fulfill our cultural and historical mission.
We affirm libraries as entrances for any individual to the literate community.
We ensure each individual's freedom to pursue a lifetime of opportunity
to make informed decisions, and in doing so, we expand our base of support
for the library as a responsive and vital institution for every member
of the community.
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