During the COVID-19 pandemic, libraries have had to stretch resources thin and make rapid decisions about service priorities. Collectively, libraries in the US have noticed common critical needs, including the digital access divide. We could emerge from the pandemic with a clearer sense of the gaps in our library services, and a renewed interest in improving equity.
For the safety of staff and users alike, many public libraries have been offering digital-only services, or variations on takeout or to go service. With the shift to service via telephone, text, and email, rather than in person, we have lost opportunities to physically direct patrons to resources, and demonstrations must be offered via video. Language barriers can become a greater obstacle to satisfactory service.
Even after the public health crisis ends, access to library materials and services for non-English speakers in public libraries will not improve sufficiently if we do not invest in material and human resources. Our libraries need to be willing to invest in this area of service if we expect to fulfill our obligation to equitable service.
ALA Core Values state, “All information resources that are provided directly or indirectly by the library, regardless of technology, format, or methods of delivery, should be readily, equally, and equitably accessible to all library users.”
I suggest we take this call to serve people who have limited English proficiency more seriously.
The initial contact between a library and a user often is the website. During the pandemic, when libraries have had to rely more than usual on digital services, having an English-only website, and English-only staff answering phones, can present a barrier to effective communication. Are there ways this can be improved? And when our libraries are open to the public, do we provide wayfinding in the most common languages in our communities?
In addition, this year libraries have faced the challenge of the sometimes impossibly high cost of digital resources. With costs so high, libraries might be hesitant to spend funds on non-English materials. Do we have the collection development knowledge in our library systems to choose high-quality digital materials in global languages? Are publishers producing these materials? A quick look at digital collections in my county library system shows over 33,000 juvenile titles in English, 1,000 in Spanish, and none in Chinese, the most frequently used language other than English in our community. I am fortunate to work in a library that strives to grow our print collection in global languages. Cultivating the collection requires commitment from staff, and we have limited language diversity on our team. How can we make more significant strides in collection development?
In some communities, libraries are thoroughly invested in serving newcomers and non-English speakers, and those libraries perhaps could serve as models. With library budgets chronically tight everywhere, some communities may not be able or willing to put attention to this area of service. For libraries of any size or budget, there are at least small steps that can be taken. A great resource for beginning or deepening work in the white paper from the ALA’s New Americans Project.
As the white paper outlines, there is not one overarching service model for supporting newcomers that will fit the needs of all communities, especially if we want services to truly be community-responsive. However, all libraries can ask ourselves how we can make more significant strides in our services to newcomers and our relationships with newcomers in our diverse communities. Recommendations for libraries include starting with a needs assessment, cultivating partnerships with community organizations that support newcomers, and including newcomers in program development. Offering professional development opportunities for staff can be a critical component of effective service.
Newcomers move to the US for a wide range of reasons. For serving refugees and asylum seekers, libraries can look to Project Welcome for best practices. This initiative is a partnership with the Mortenson Center for International Library Program, University of Illinois Library at Urbana-Champaign and the Services to Refugees, Immigrants, and Displaced Persons Committee, a subcommittee of the ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS) Advisory Committee.
Access is part of the intellectual freedom equation. Whether access is impaired by economic inequalities, print disabilities, physical challenges, or language differences, librarians should work to dismantle barriers.
Lisa M. Rand is a librarian in southeastern Pennsylvania and serves on the Intellectual Freedom Committee of the Pennsylvania Library Association. She has worked in a youth services in public libraries, with a special interest in creating safe, welcoming, inclusive spaces for teens. In May 2021 Lisa will complete her MLIS at Kent State University. Her research interests include library services for culturally diverse communities, LGBTQ+ literature for youth, and international questions of equity and access to information.