April 23, 2018

ALA Report: Smaller Libraries Play Bigger Role in Foreign-language Services

  • Smaller libraries provide most foreign-language services
  • Literacy main barrier for non-native speakers
  • Spanish-language services to remain top priority nationwide

If you live in a community of fewer than 100,000, your library is likely among the principal providers of foreign-language services to residents. The finding contradicts the conventional wisdom, equating urban librarianship with foreign-language services and programs, and is part of a new study the American Library Association (ALA) released on the opening day of the 2008 Public Library Association conference in Minneapolis, March 26.

The study also concludes that literacy is the most significant barrier in serving non-English speaking communities, and therefore most libraries design their services and programs to specifically address the issue. ALA President Loriene Roy said there are 21 million U.S. residents who have limited or no ability to speak English, and that public libraries have a significant role to play in serving this population. The study, entitled “Serving Non-English Speakers: 2007 Analysis of Library Demographics, Services and Programs,” looks at data from 586 library entities (with many more branches) serving at least one “linguistically-isolated block group” as determined by U.S. census data.

Spanish-language services were “far and away the most supported non-English language in public libraries,” the report said. PLA President Jan Sanders cited a Pew Hispanic Center report suggesting that Latinos, the nation’s largest minority group, could potentially triple in number by 2050, eventually comprising nearly 30% of the U.S. population; 78%, or 457 of the 586 libraries responding to the survey reported Spanish as their top priority when developing language services and programs. Asian languages were second, followed by Indo-European languages. Finally, the report listed the most popular services offered to non-native speakers, including English as a Second Language (ESL) classes, language-specific materials and collections, computer use and computer classes, and children’s story hours.

The Hennepin County Library (HCL), where the report was released, is itself well-versed in foreign-language programs. It serves an ethnically diverse community, including sizable Hmong, Liberian, Vietnamese, and Mexican populations, along with the largest Somali population in the United States. Director Amy Ryan said that such services are essential for new immigrants and their families, noting that the foreign-born population in the county doubled from 1990 to 2000, and that one in five school students speaks a language other than English at home. The New American Center, which opened in 2006, includes reference materials in a variety of languages spoken by local immigrant populations.


Josh Hadro About Josh Hadro

Josh Hadro (@hadro on Twitter) is the former Executive Editor of Library Journal.

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