March 16, 2018

Celebration & Integration | Public Services

Service to immigrants and new Americans, an integral part
of the public library mission, is being taken to the next level

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.

Beyond gateways

The numbers of immigrants needing support and services are high: between October and December 2015, nearly 200,000 citizenship applications were received nationwide, 155,000 were approved, and nearly 400,000 were pending, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS). Moreover, as early as 2006 the USCIS recognized that “new immigrants are settling outside of traditional gateway cities, where there are fewer resources to facilitate integration…there is an even greater role for public libraries in welcoming and educating immigrants.”

LIBRARY WELCOME MAT (l.-r.): A well-attended program at Buffalo & Erie County PL; a naturalization ceremony at  Hartford PL, CT. Left photo courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie Cty. PL; right photo by Homa Naficy, Hartford PL

LIBRARY WELCOME MAT (l.-r.): A well-attended program at Buffalo & Erie County PL; a naturalization ceremony at
Hartford PL, CT.
Left photo courtesy of the Buffalo & Erie Cty. PL; right photo by Homa Naficy, Hartford PL

Melissa Rodgers, part of the Immigrant Legal Resource Center and director of the New Americans Campaign, agrees. “Libraries are gathering points for the community and have access to citizenship resources and technology…. By providing supported access to computers, libraries in small communities [can] connect lawful permanent residents to naturalization services…which includes the possibility of virtual legal assistance, crucial to underresourced communities.”

Rachel B. Tiven, executive director of the Immigrant Justice Corps, sees a similar pattern. “Using the support of an urban core to serve people in suburban and rural areas has been a big success [in the New York area], and we plan to expand our reach in those places.”

In 2016, World Education released a report from its Networks for Integrating New Americans (NINA) Initiative. Public libraries joined with adult education providers and other local organizations to become tightly aligned collaborators sharing goals, actions, and outcomes data. The report offers insights on how other networks can shift from simply referring people they serve to producing programs and services together.

Another useful outcome of this project is a framework for programs and services based on the three elements of immigrant integration:

  • Linguistic integration: when non–English proficient individuals acquire the necessary language skills and related cultural knowledge to contribute meaningfully to their community
  • Economic integration: when both immigrant workers and community employers understand their rights, when employers can attract and retain the best talent, and when immigrant workers have the resources to excel and obtain economic and financial self-sufficiency
  • Civic integration: when all community members feel a sense of belonging, are secure in their rights, exercise their liberties, participate in civic life, and share ownership in the community and the nation’s future.

Keeping this framework in mind can help guide libraries in their strategic planning to serve this key demographic.

Begin with the basics

For libraries that are not already offering services targeted to immigrants, “the best advice is to start small,” advises Mary Jean Jakubowski, director of the Buffalo & Erie County Public Library (B&ECPL). “Identify one or two things that the library can do to work with local organizations to support new community members’ transitions…. Simple steps like hanging welcome signage in native languages, ensuring staff is mindful and respectful of cultural customs, and meeting with members of your local immigrant and refugee community are all important components to making immigrants and refugees feel comfortable.” Any of these creates a good foundation for expanding services later.

Rewriting signage, handouts/flyers, policies, and websites into Plain Language ( improves them for all users and makes translation more straightforward. Encouraging multilingual staff to assist patrons and supporting staff efforts to become multilingual also help close the language divide. For languages without current staff support, working with community-based volunteers and/or machine translation can help bridge the gap.

Citizenship Corners are displays of information from ­USCIS about becoming a citizen, test preparation tools for citizenship exams, referral lists of community resources, and other citizenship-related data. An online Citizenship Corner could include links to the USCIS website, the U.S. Citizen Exam Preparation section of the LearningExpress Library (if the library subscribes), and other citizenship resources.

If staff are already stretched thin, Laura Crosset at the Coralville Public Library, IA, suggests a small change that resulted in a big success: offer your space to local organizations. “We’ve hosted ESL and citizenship classes run by the local community college—they needed space, and we were able to make an exception to our meeting room rules to allow that.” By relaxing limits on how often a group could meet, Coralville increased its programming to assist this audience.

(l.-r.):Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and City Librarian John Szabo at an LAPL Citizenship Corner;  and reviewing citizenship applications at LAPL; and the library’s promotional poster.  Left and right photos courtesy of LAPL; middle photo by Sarah Letson

(l.-r.):Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti and City Librarian John Szabo at an LAPL Citizenship Corner;
reviewing citizenship applications at LAPL; and the library’s promotional poster.
Left and right photos courtesy of LAPL; middle photo by Sarah Letson

To supplement local English-language learning (ELL) programs, library learning groups can focus on a particular high-interest or high-need subject such as health-care terminology, public school registration, or sports. (Imagine a discussion about the popularity of soccer in each participant’s country of origin!)

Rhode Island Family Literacy Initiative (RIFLI), a library-based immigrant education collaborative, offers a drivers education class at Providence-area libraries. “The drivers ed class is for ESL learners who want help prepping for the written test,” explains Karisa Tashjian, director of RIFLI. “We discuss driving laws, review basic signs, and spend a lot of time practicing vocabulary.” She’s quick to add, “We don’t do the on-the-road practice, though.” For more examples of ELL programs at libraries, see Word of Mouth.

Even a library tour can be a powerful tool for outreach. The San Diego Public Library (SDPL) partners with the Southwest Key Immigrant Youth Shelter, offering services to unaccompanied migrant youth. “We first met with instructors at the shelter to find out how the library could support [its] unique curriculum,” says Adriana Huertas, branch manager at the Logan Heights library. As a result, SDPL began offering regular visits to the Central Library and Logan Heights Branch that include library tours in Spanish, interactive projects such as an identity drawing project, and an off-site summer reading program. Explains Huertas, “The goal of the visits was to introduce and connect refugee and immigrant youth to the library…and for them to know that wherever they end up in the country, their local library is a friendly, welcoming, safe institution where they can find resources that can help them with their education, information, and personal needs and interests.” Huertas also collaborates with librarians in Tijuana, Mexico, on Creando Enlaces, an annual conference to exchange best practices and ideas in both directions across the border.

Celebrate cultures, community

Libraries can reach out to newer immigrants by involving members of the community in developing programming and exhibitions/displays. The Hillcrest branch of the Boise Public Library, ID, holds one or two Worlds Connect programs a year, showcasing countries represented by the most recent waves of refugees and introducing lifelong residents to their new neighbors. Says Sarah Kelley-Chase, branch supervisor at Hillcrest, “We highlighted Eritrea a couple of years ago; members of the Eritrean community shared stories, demonstrated a coffee ceremony (and shared coffee with attendees…it was delicious!), and cooked a variety of foods.”

At Kentucky’s Louisville Free Public Library (LFPL), immigrant services librarian Sophie Maier faced a challenge. “[The Iroquois Branch] neighborhood has more than 100 languages represented,” she says. She began with monthly Cultural Showcases of presentations, food, live music, dance, games, and elaborate decorations. “Every event brings in an incredibly diverse audience,” says Maier. People “get to learn about folks from all over the world…and they have the chance to truly hear the stories of their new neighbors, classmates, and coworkers. Breaking bread together and dancing to music are very uniting!”

Next, Maier provided a venue for immigrant professionals and artists to share their talents with their new community. Founded in collaboration with Cuban professors and writers, the first Spanish Literary Salons were eventually joined by French Circles (with Rwandan and Congolese participants), Arabic Salons (Iraqi and Kurdish), and a Nepali Cultural Forum (Bhutanese and Nepali). These immersive language experiences, cofacilitated by librarians and patrons, are lectures and discussions on literature, film, psychology, philosophy, sociology, and more for native or fluent speakers. “We have a large turnout from Spanish-language students form the University of Louisville,” says Maier, “and our French Circle has had sessions with 15-plus different countries represented in one room!”

A few years ago, LFPL designated September as International Month, with systemwide observances of Louisville’s diversity. This timing ties in perfectly with Welcoming Week, an initiative of Welcoming America, a national network of municipalities and organizations dedicated to creating more welcoming communities for immigrants and refugees. In 2015, over 22,000 people participated in 80 neighborhoods nationwide. Welcoming Week 2016 will be September 16–25; find how-to toolkits and register online at www.­

Citizenship support and legal aid

To serve one of the largest immigrant populations in the country, the Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) works with partners such as the Immigrant Justice Corps (IJC) and the New Americans Campaign (NAC) to extend its reach. “We have a philosophy that there is no ‘wrong door’ for getting help, or ‘wrong number,’ ” says Eva Raison, coordinator of immigrant services at BPL. “Patrons start here at the library and are able to be connected to the information and service they’re seeking, either within our walls or with one of our partners.”

Syrian library patrons at Louisville Free PL’s 2016 Women of the World event.  Photo courtesy of Louisville Free PL

Syrian library patrons at Louisville Free PL’s 2016 Women of the World event.
Photo courtesy of Louisville Free PL

IJC launched in 2014, looking for organizations able to host legal services for immigrants. “We thought the library was a natural fit for the IJC program,” says Raison. “We knew there was a demand for immigration legal advice, but we required the technical expertise to provide high-quality, trustworthy legal consultations.” Tiven of the IJC agrees. “The citizenship application isn’t hard, but eligible immigrants should be advised by knowledgeable people…before they apply. Libraries are uniquely positioned to help people…feel confident that they are getting quality advice from a real advocate,” through library-hosted legal aid programs.

IJC recruits Community Fellows from among law school graduates and places them with organizations serving low-income immigrants who might face barriers to accessing legal services. Interactions are high-touch: a dedicated phone line, one-on-one eligibility screenings, application assistance, and accompaniment to the USCIS interview. IJC Fellows also suggest library services—job help, public benefit assistance, multilingual collections, business aid—and referrals to other agencies with which the library works. Raison offers an example: “We have relationships with a local organization that provides case management and health services to HIV+ immigrants. They’re close to one of our libraries and often refer clients to IJC but are also a support when IJC has a client who needs their services.”

Also at BPL, volunteers affiliated with the NAC offer assistance on using CitizenshipWorks, an online platform that helps immigrants begin the citizenship/naturalization process. “It’s like TurboTax for the citizenship application,” describes Raison. At BPL’s monthly workshops, patrons fill out their application in the group setting, then meet with a volunteer lawyer or Board of Immigration Affairs (BIA)–accredited representative from NAC to review. “We print the completed applications at the workshop…patrons who don’t have any issues mail their own applications. If their [form] is more complex, they’re referred to the volunteer’s organization for further assistance.”

Earlier this year, the Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) implemented a pilot program by which library staff directly support immigrants using CitizenshipWorks and its mobile app. Alicia Moguel, associate director of the Department of Lifelong Learning at LAPL, says, “LAPL librarians have been trained in what CitizenshipWorks does and how it’s used, so they’re able to direct users through using the platform. Local partner organizations will provide…legal advice and ­guidance.”

The Hartford Public Library, CT, sits across the street from the USCIS office; it served many of the state’s citizenship applicants but felt limited in its ability to help. Lacking partners such as IJC or NAC affiliates, staff members at the American Place (HPL’s citizenship program) chose to train to become BIA-accredited representatives themselves. “This was a huge undertaking,” says Homa Naficy, chief adult learning officer and director of the American Place. “Demand is huge, exponentially greater than we had anticipated.” Spurred in part by the growing prevalence of immigration assistance fraud, Naficy is trying to expand the program. The library is beginning to recruit informally graduates of University of Connecticut’s law school and is focusing more specifically on citizenship-related work and support for online applications and green card renewals.

Entrepreneurs and professionals

As part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) of 2014, libraries were officially recognized for all they do to provide training and assistance to job seekers and were identified as potential partners for the American Job Center network. Most libraries already provide support for job seekers at entry levels; funding opportunities inspired by WIOA can be used to expand services to more advanced job seekers, including immigrants.

“Nearly half of New York City’s 220,000 businesses are owned by immigrants, and we’re empowering this community by expanding our outreach to ensure that every entrepreneur has the resources [needed] to succeed,” said Gregg Bishop, commissioner of the New York City Department of Small Business Services (SBS). In 2014, SBS began its Immigrant Business Initiative, and BPL used funding from that program to expand its popular PowerUp! Business Plan Competition among Brooklyn’s Haitian and Kreyol-speaking residents. Potential candidates participate in classes about business and marketing plans and financial projections and meet with a counselor from the Haitian American Business Assistance Center before submitting their proposals for judging. “Finalists do a presentation to the panel of judges, and there is a beautiful awards ceremony,” adds BPL’s Raison.

In 2015, as an extension of the initiative, SBS approached New York’s three library systems to offer free business courses in the top six languages spoken in the city. “SBS hires instructors and schedules classes with the library in neighborhoods where we serve large communities of the target language group. Library staff assist with outreach…and courses are posted on our website,” explains Raison.

MIX & MINGLE Volunteers and newcomer immigrants at a Welcoming gathering hosted by Connecticut’s Hartford Public Library.  Photo by Homa Naficy, Hartford PL

MIX & MINGLE Volunteers and newcomer immigrants at a Welcoming
gathering hosted by Connecticut’s Hartford Public Library.
Photo by Homa Naficy, Hartford PL

Another point of need in the immigrant community is among higher skilled professionals who don’t have the credentials needed to continue their careers in the United States. Global Talent Idaho (GTI)—an immigrant services network that includes the Boise PL—provides job seekers with counseling, training, cultural orientation, and mentoring to help them resume their careers and reaches out to employers to increase awareness of the skills of immigrant professionals. Boise PL “was recently invited to provide a representative to directly connect refugees with employment assistance at the library,” says ­Kelley-Chase, who will serve as that ­representative.

RIFLI’s Tashjian worked with the We Rhode Island Network (WeRIN) to build job readiness, digital literacy, and English-language skills through the ALLACCESS (Adult Lifelong Learning) Project. In addition to a drop-in Learning Lounge and technology aid, participants in the Jobs Clubs visited local employers for workplace tours, asked questions of HR staff, and received referrals for additional training. WeRIN raises employer awareness with personal outreach and a brochure highlighting the agency’s high-quality educational services and promoting its job candidates.

All together now

With 1,300 new refugees settling in Buffalo in each of the past few years, B&ECPL wanted to make its services to these new residents more holistic. It applied for a Knight News Challenge grant for “The Community Welcomes You,” a multipart project to help immigrants explore their new neighborhood. On quarterly Welcome Days, specialists from education, health-care, transportation, employment, and citizenship organizations would answer questions. Monthly conversations would provide low-stress opportunities to practice English, and art expression activities would let recent immigrants create and display works expressing their native culture. Finally, the library’s website would be updated and translated into the five most common languages spoken in Buffalo.

While it will not be proceeding past the semifinalist stage of the Knight News Challenge, B&ECPL isn’t slowing down. It’s still looking for ways to move “The Community Welcomes You” forward and also hoping to expand its workshops for small business planning to immigrant entrepreneurs. Outreach remains vital, adds B&ECPL’s Jakubowski. “We work with local organizations. [A]s their staff become more knowledgeable about the library, they increasingly refer their clients to our branches.”

Efforts like this, embracing immigrants and new Americans in a comprehensive network of services that not only help integrate them into American culture but celebrate what they bring to it, are what 21st-century service is all about.


Jennifer Koerber is an independent trainer and speaker on emerging technologies and the social web and coauthor (with Michael Sauers) of Emerging Technologies: A Primer for Librarians (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015). Visit for a list of her presentations and publications

This article was published in Library Journal's June 1, 2016 issue. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

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