July 21, 2017

Public Libraries Support Refugees

LFPL welcomes Syrian refugees Photo credit: Michelle Wong

Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL), KY, welcomes Syrian refugees
Photo credit: Michelle Wong

In the midst of the ongoing international migration crisis, libraries worldwide are finding ways to support newly arriving refugees. Libraries across Europe are assisting the wave of newly arriving Syrian refugees, as illustrated by recent articles from Public Libraries Online and the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). And they’re not alone: as cities in the US and Canada receive an influx of Middle Eastern refugees seeking asylum, libraries are using both traditional and innovative services to reach out and connect with these populations in crisis.


Salt Lake City is a designated refugee relocation city. “Utah has resettled just 12 Syrian refugees, comprising two families, though the state is expected to receive a few hundred more between March and September,” according to a recent article in the Salt Lake Tribune. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) is one agency working to resettle refugees in Salt Lake City, and it counts the library as a resource. The IRC offers guided tours of the Downtown Salt Lake City Public Library (SLCPL) in order to connect refugees with services. Brooke Young, manager at the Glendale Branch of SLCPL, told Library Journal about a community partnership with the University of Utah’s University Neighborhood Partners program (UNP) which works collaboratively with a wide variety of university departments and community agencies to “offer resources such as English language instruction, mental health support, citizenship classes, employment workshops, after school and summer programs, and educational resources to the community.” Young presented to UNP leadership on resources for new immigrants, and noted that “since talking to the leadership group, our meeting room demand has tripled and we have had people [from the immigrant/refugee community] come in and use our computers for resume help and job hunting.” Young shared that as SLCPL’s partnership with UNP grows, the institutions plan “to do a year of citizenship workshops, with an emphasis on voting in the next year.”

“We do have some really great partnerships happening,” Young told LJ. “Making sure that we are going to all the meetings of all the different partners can take up a lot of staff time, but it is really worth it. I also try and make sure that my teen librarian and children’s librarian are involved in the meetings so that we can help tailor our programs to the needs of the community. We also try and be really flexible. And I do mean flexible. I came into the library after hours on a Saturday to ensure that a Sudanese baby shower could happen. And we try and let as many meetings as possible happen in our space, even when if it means opening early or staying late. It can be time consuming, but we have won a lot of community support by opening the space.”


Sophie Maier, Immigration Services Librarian with the Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL), KY, hits the streets in order to bring library resources to newly arriving immigrants and refugees. Louisville is another U.S. city serving as a refugee resettlement location; area schools report over 100 native languages are spoken amongst the student population. How to reach them all? “I have my suitcases on wheels,” Maier told Library Journal, “I set up outside Walmart.” Maier also frequents workplaces that hire from the immigrant and refugee community, such as a local meat processing plant. In the library building itself, Maier’s office is in a high-traffic area. “It’s right by the public bathrooms,” she laughed. She maintains a well-known open-door policy. “I do a lot of crisis intervention,” Maier noted, but she’s careful to remind visitors that “I’m a librarian, not a therapist.”

Nigerian showcase event at LFPL Photo credit: Bud Dorsey

Nigerian showcase event at LFPL
Photo credit: Bud Dorsey

She partners with local refugee resettlement organizations like Catholic Charities of Louisville that offer English as a Second Language (ESL) classes; at her visits she makes sure new arrivals receive library cards and can then check out books from Sophie on the spot. Making social connections is essential in the work Maier does. LFPL hosts a variety of showcases that highlight the culture of different immigrant groups including food, music, and other arts. Weekly conversation clubs allow refugees to work on their English skills and meet other immigrants. She has strong connections with local colleges and universities, speaking to communications, nursing, and ethics classes on the needs of refugees and how to support them. Maier also works to serve the needs of professional adults who have left behind careers in their native countries. “Frequently professionals aren’t recognized here,” she said. Through a French language circle at the library, Maier met a man who had been a veterinarian in Rwanda. With the right resources he has been able to translate his career to serving as a medical doctor in the area.


Canadian cities are also welcoming the new wave of refugees; an article in the Calgary Herald reports that the city “is expected to take in about ten percent of the 15,000 to 25,000 Syrian refugees” that the government has vowed to bring to the country by the end of the year. The Calgary Public Library has hosted information sessions on how local residents can support refugees through sponsorship of housing, food, clothing, and locating resources. Windsor, Ontario, is also expecting around 160 Syrian refugees to arrive by the end of 2015.

Kitty Pope, Windsor Public Library (WPL) CEO, told Library Journal that Windsor is “already a very diverse community and we have a lot of settlement workers who help new Canadians.” Given the diversity in the area, Pope noted that WPL staff includes several native Arabic speakers; many other staff members are bilingual in other languages. Pope is seeing “ramped up” services for immigrants and refugees as opposed to new services or initiatives. “We understand that the first concerns of a refugee family are going to be health and housing, and the need to connect with people back home,” Pope said. After those basic needs are met, she sees immigrants then turning to getting their children acclimated and integrated into their new community. Connecting with immigrant and refugee children through library programming and outreach allows library workers to then make inroads with their adult parents and caretakers, according to Pope. Story times along with dual and native language print collections will be a focal point. While serving new populations offers challenges to libraries, Pope welcomes the opportunities. As library workers, “this is what we do!”


A recent survey from the Pew Research Center showed that “59% [of Americans surveyed] say libraries should ‘definitely’ offer programs for immigrants or first generation Americans.” In order to establish or reinvigorate services to these populations, Sophie Maier recommends that library workers “observe and educate.” She told Library Journal that it’s essential to not just get to know your community and its demographics, but to also be proactive and “get out into the community…reach out and ask how you can partner.” Curious if your area is receiving refugees? The Refugee Processing Center, operated by the U.S. Department of State, supplies a variety of reports including the Consolidated Placement Plan Summary by City and information on arrivals. The Public Affiliate Directory shows which organizations are working with newly arriving refugees and immigrants in each resettlement city; this directory could be a great place to start identifying partner agencies.

Nigerian showcase event at LFPL Photo credit: Bud Dorsey

Nigerian showcase event at LFPL
Photo credit: Bud Dorsey

As refugees or new immigrants begin to settle into their communities, libraries can offer support and resources for residents who experience harassment or hate crimes. Maier said that in her work she encounters folks who “have experienced racist/Islamophobic remarks in the workplace and we have connected them to agencies and individuals willing to help.” Young recalled only one negative incident, in which an elderly man who had previously been verbally abusive in the library had become agitated at two African refugees and screamed at them to stop talking in “non-English languages.” He was banned from the library for six months.

REFORMA, the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, has created a toolkit titled “Responding Effectively to Anti-Immigrant Sentiment.” While the resources originally focused on supporting Latino and Hispanic immigrants, the toolkit can easily be used when working with immigrants or refugees from any part of the world.

Libraries are also centers for community dialog, and as such have the opportunity to educate and share resources that may help longer-term residents better grasp where their new neighbors are coming from. In a blog post on NYPL’s website titled “Understanding the Syrian refugee crisis” Meredith Mann, electronic resources librarian with the New York Public Library (NYPL), NY, provides extensive links to news stories and library resources, encouraging the public to learn more.

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  1. Thomas Schachner says:

    Dear April,

    I am a student at the Humboldt-University in Berlin. I am studying Library and Information Science and as I slowly reach the end of my studies I am writing now on my thesis. The topic of my thesis is to write about programs in libraries for children with a migrational background, children from socially disadvantaged families and refugees. I think this was and is a very important topic and will be probably even more important in the future years because of the enormous amount of refugees coming to Europe and of course Germany. It will be a major challenge to integrate all of them into the society to which they flee. I think the refugees of today are the people with a migrational background in the future. I could read in your article that you are dealing with this topic. I hope I could ask you some more questions or maybe there are brochures etc. I am not sure if you could answer all of my questions. It would be great to get in touch with you.

    Thank you very much in advance.
    Best regards