Fears and hopes about immigrants and immigration have always been part of American society and politics. They have been manifest in many ways, some receptive and welcoming, others alarming and rejecting. While a host of obstacles, prejudices, and hostile forces are arrayed against immigrants, the public library is still one of the vital agencies making entry into our nation easier and more effective.
Since before Ellis Island became the gateway to the United States for many, libraries have served immigrant communities with language classes and learning materials that can help ease the path toward employment and citizenship. Today, those services have expanded to include referrals to city and health-care services, cultural events honoring countries of origin, legal aid, small business and entrepreneurship assistance, and much more.
For William Chan, librarianship is more than a career: it’s a personal calling. The son of immigrants—his mother was a Chinese refugee from Vietnam, his father an undocumented immigrant from Hong Kong—Chan was inspired by “seeing the struggles [they went through] to have a better life for me. All the opportunities they didn’t have.”
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.