By: Lina Zia, Guest Contributor
I still remember the fear I felt in the pit of my stomach the first time I entered a U.S. public library as a young immigrant. “Rolodex,” “Microfiche,” “Encyclopedia,” “Fiction,” and “Non-fiction” were words not found in my vocabulary. Being armed with little English was one of the reasons for the fear. It’s hard to navigate such a gigantic, unknown space when it’s hard to communicate your needs. Researching materials for a book report was equally daunting because of my inability to understand how to use a Rolodex or Microfiche to find books and articles for my research. And as a youngster, it’s hard to admit to your inabilities.
My mother, on the other hand, was very appreciative of the services the local library provided. It was a sanctuary for our learning. The staff and volunteers also assisted her with filling out government paperwork and taxes, among other things.
So, when I read a 2015 Pew Research paper titled, “Public Libraries and Hispanics: Immigrant Hispanics Use Libraries Less, but Those Who Do Appreciate Them the Most,” I re-lived my agony and my mother’s feelings of gratitude.
According to this article, Immigrant Hispanics, “who make up half of the adult U.S. Hispanic population, are less likely than other Americans to have ever visited a U.S. public library and are much less likely to say that they see it as ‘very easy’ to do so. At the same time, Hispanic immigrants who have made their way to a public library stand out as the most appreciative of what libraries have to offer, from free books to research resources to the fact that libraries tend to offer a quiet, safe space. And they are more likely than other groups to say that closing their community library would have a major impact on their family.”
“Only one-third of immigrant Hispanics say they would find it ‘very easy’ to visit a public library in person if they wanted to do so.” The study cites “language use and skills” as an impediment for the immigrant Hispanics, “more than half are Spanish-dominant.” And only 24% of this group surveyed (significantly less than U.S.-born Latinos, whites, blacks and others) said that it would be “very easy” to use a library website due to lack of internet access.
Immigrant Latinos are also three times as likely as whites “to say that services libraries offer beyond book lending are important.” 68% of immigrant Latinos say, “services such as help finding and applying for a job and help applying for government programs, permits and licenses” are very important for them.
All in all, there would seem to be a huge opportunity for U.S. public libraries to open the book on all sorts of services for Hispanics and others who are not only looking for a new read but to start writing a new chapter in their lives.