[Versió catalana]

Fred J. Gitner

Coordinator, New Americans Program & Special Services
Queens Library, Jamaica, NY USA


Stuart A. Rosenthal

Manager, International Resource Center
Queens Library, Flushing, NY USA


Abstract [Resum] [Resumen]

Queens Library (NY), serving the most ethnically diverse population in the U.S., has developed an array of free programs and services through its New Americans Program, Adult Learner Program, International Resource Center and WorldLinQ™ web site that serves as a model for the public library as a community information center, open and welcoming to all. The authors describe how community analysis, innovative use of technology, strategic partnerships and good customer service have enabled Queens Library to reach out to diverse immigrant communities and become the highest circulating U.S. library. The article shows that although there are numerous challenges in serving such a diverse population, by focusing on equity of access and being responsive to community needs, Queens Library is seen as an important community resource and an essential partner in the acculturation process for its newcomers.


In 2007 Queens Borough Public Library (now known as Queens Library), with 61 community libraries and a Central Library serving a diverse population of almost 2.3 million people hailing from 190 countries and speaking 160 languages, celebrated the 100th anniversary of its incorporation. From its early days the library has been attuned to the needs and interests of the many communities that make up Queens County, one of the five boroughs of New York City and the most ethnically diverse county in the U.S. The library’s mission statement reflects that commitment: "The mission of the Queens Borough Public Library is to provide quality services, resources and lifelong learning opportunities in books and a variety of other formats to meet the informational, educational, cultural and recreational needs and interests of its diverse and changing population." Collections in languages other than English, classes for immigrants to learn about American life and history and outreach to underserved groups have been important library services from the beginning. Queens Library has gained an international reputation for its role as a community information center in providing free programs, services and collections to its constantly changing population. Services range from popular books, music CDs and DVDs in the most widely spoken languages, to more academic materials for learning about the various cultures found in Queens; from cultural festivals celebrating ethnic traditions to in-depth presentations on world religions; from coping skills workshops in other languages on adapting to life in America to lectures on global business.

Key to these efforts is the New Americans Program (NAP). <http://www.queenslibrary.org/index.aspx?page_nm=New+Americans+Program> Started as a pilot project in 1977 in response to the 1965 changes in U.S. immigration law that ended the quota system by country, allowing families from all parts of the world to come to the U.S., its goal was to make library services relevant to these newcomers. Since then, immigration has continued to rise. According to the 2006 American Community Survey, almost 49 % of Queens’ residents are foreign-born, and almost 56 % speak a language other than English as their primary language at home. With a professional staff of seven librarians, all of whom speak at least one language besides English, NAP serves the residents of Queens whose primary language is not English. The program works with ethnic community organizations and community libraries to assess local needs, link residents to existing neighborhood library services, and create new services. Many immigrants come from countries without a public library tradition and by showing that the library has materials and programs in their language or representing their culture, we create a welcoming environment. One element of our success is developing strategic partnerships with community organizations serving immigrants. These partners can help staff to understand issues facing a particular community in order to plan workshops, provide contacts for ethnic performing arts groups, and where we do not have language expertise, provide guidance in developing a useful collection. A recent result of these efforts has been the introduction of four-session citizenship preparation workshops with joint presentations by an immigration lawyer and an ESOL civics instructor that attract immigrants from many countries providing them with legal guidance as well as preparation for the citizenship test. Over the past two years, NAP has worked closely with Special Services, the unit of the library that provides outreach services to older adults, as well as persons with disabilities and job seekers. When Special Services librarians visit senior centers that serve large immigrant communities, such as the Chinese or Koreans, NAP staff accompanies them to translate and present information on library services in their language, and register them for library cards. This has proved an effective means of reaching a growing segment of non-English speaking immigrants.

ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages)

One of the library’s goals in serving immigrants is to help them adapt to their new country as quickly as possible. Begun by NAP and now coordinated by the library’s Adult Learner Program, Queens Library runs the largest library-based ESOL program in the country. The ESOL coordinator supervises a staff of teachers with Master’s degrees who are experienced in teaching English to adults. Each year over three thousand students from more than 80 different countries and who speak fifty different languages take classes. Special features of the curriculum, which is based on everyday situations, include a library orientation, ensuring that all students register for library cards, thus making them feel part of the library user community and increasing their opportunities for acculturation. Students are introduced to the computer and its use. They receive an introduction to the Web, with a selection of sites tailored to their interests, including how to get daily news from their home country! Students can also study at the 7 Adult Learning Centers located throughout Queens using computer programs or join an English conversation group led by trained volunteers. We also offer ESOL literacy classes for immigrants who are not literate in their native language. Smaller classes allow for individualized attention and begin with how to hold a pen, and how to write on paper. Half of the students completing this class are ready to move into a regular ESOL class the following year--a very good success rate. Family literacy is another area where Queens Library plays an important role. Two models exist, the first is a partnership with a public school where the parent & child learn together after school hours. This includes understanding the public school system, helping with homework, parenting skills and field trips. Another model targets parents with preschoolers, including activities for children, ESOL for parents and learning activities together such as reading to the child and playing games to aid in child development.

Coping Skills Workshops

The library offers practical workshops in major immigrant languages: Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Russian and Bengali, with other languages added from time to time, including Haitian Creole, Polish, Punjabi and Urdu. Teachers, lawyers, social workers, and psychologists fluent in the target language present workshops. Topics include immigration law, job training, the American educational system, parenting skills, health issues, tenants' rights, and domestic violence. This way, immigrants can have access to essential information, even before they are fluent in English. Speakers are located by contacting community agencies and topics are developed by NAP staff in conjunction with agencies familiar with community needs. Often speakers are provided free of charge and agencies assist with publicity providing relevant handouts in their language. At each program a brief introduction to library services is presented in the language of the program and a book display is prepared. Participants are told that library cards are free and easily obtained. Particularly successful programs have been a workshop in Mandarin on "Starting an E-business at Home" and one in Spanish on "Everything You Wanted to Know about Legalizing your Status," which attracted over 160 people. The library is seen as a place where all are welcome and questions are not asked about individual immigration status. We also have an ongoing series of health-related workshops with two local public hospitals. Health professionals speak about topics including diabetes, cancer prevention, and nutrition, sometimes offering free screenings. This is another way that the library is seen as playing an essential role in the community. Queens Library plays an important role in providing free access to the internet and e-mail for those without a computer. In addition to the library’s introductory computer classes in English, we also offer monthly classes in Spanish that fill up as soon as registration is announced. Many of those who sign up are parents who want to be able to help their children with schoolwork.

Cultural Arts Programs

Assisting immigrants in the acculturation process is a primary goal, but at the same time it is important to help with maintaining native languages and cultures that enrich New York for all who live here. Regularly scheduled programs of music, dance, storytelling, author talks and crafts celebrating the diverse ethnic groups in Queens are presented using local artists and performers. Bilingual postcards or flyers mailed to community organizations and the ethnic media, press releases, and visits to local merchants promote the programs. A bilingual introduction about the New Americans Program and library services is presented along with an appropriate book display. Recent cultures that have been featured include Bangladeshi, Korean, Russian, Haitian, Chinese, Ecuadorian, and Polish. Our aim is to attract a mixed audience of 50 percent from the ethnic group featured, and 50 percent from the public at large, fostering cross-cultural interaction. These programs are very popular, with up to seven hundred people attending our all-day festivals, and are an excellent way to attract new immigrants to the library. A successful partnership with the Queens Museum of Art has involved bringing ethnic artists to the library followed by visits to the museum. Each partner assists with publicity and promotion, and we are able to increase the pool of artists and performers from which to choose.

Collection Development

The collections developed in languages other than English have goals similar to the programs described above. We provide practical popular materials to assist new immigrants in adapting to life in America, e.g. citizenship and ESOL materials. We also provide popular materials from their home countries, i.e. fiction, parenting, cookbooks, biographies, romances, children's books, DVDs, and music CDs, demonstrating that the library respects their native culture, language, and customs. We currently support five major programs (Spanish, Chinese, Korean, six South Asian languages, and Russian) and 15 other programs (French/Haitian Creole, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Polish, Portuguese and more) for a total of 26 languages. Bilingual brochures have been created for the four largest collection programs. All materials purchased by the New Americans Program become part of the local community library collection, so that it is only after community analysis, discussed below, that libraries are added to a program. The Literature and Languages division of the Central Library provides rotating collections to community libraries in about 40 languages, which allows them to "test-market" a language. NAP staff visit community libraries to weed and evaluate language collections, and if possible, speak to customers to find out if they are finding what they want or have suggestions. The International Resource Center purchases materials in English and in many languages about world cultures for users from high school to the Master’s Degree level.

Community Analysis

All of this would not be possible without knowing who lives in each community in order to target collections, programs and services. It's not enough to create a one-time community profile. NAP realizes the need for ongoing community assessment. Our front-line contacts are the library managers who have daily contact with customers and are in touch with organizations in their neighborhoods. We follow the ethnic media, as well as articles on immigration in the mainstream media. NAP staff attends community fairs to make contacts with social service agencies and local performing artists. We use U.S. census data, in addition to information provided by the New York City Department of City Planning. Over ten years ago we added the position of Information and Data Analysis Librarian, and began using GIS software to map data with our community library service areas to create a clearer picture of whom we serve. This process resulted in a number of demographic publications that we distributed to all libraries in the system and posted on the library’s web site. <http://www.queenslibrary.org/index.aspx?page_nm=Demographics> The most heavily used is "Queens Library Service Areas: A Demographic Profile Based on the 2000 U.S. Census," available to the public for interactive searching online. The award-winning "Queens Directory of Immigrant-Serving Agencies," listing almost two hundred fifty social service agencies providing assistance to immigrants in over sixty languages, is available in all community libraries; it is also available on the library's homepage. We compile our own ethnic media mailing list for promotional use and regularly update referral lists for local ESOL and citizenship classes, which we post on the web site and distribute through community agencies.


Queens Library actively uses technology to bring information to all residents of Queens, including those whose first language is not English. The library's home page links to pages in 5 languages, Chinese, French, Korean, Russian and Spanish. Links provide immigrant customers with access to specific services, including e-books and magazines in Chinese, the Spanish language INFORME! periodical database and Bienvenidos a Queens, a Spanish language directory of community agencies and web resources developed by NAP. NAP also participates in WorldLinQ, the library’s gateway to web resources in 15 languages (described below). Customers calling the Central Library can take advantage of our multilingual phone menu system with a choice of four languages besides English. Queens Library has introduced a new Customer Service Model that includes converting to Self-Service checkout using RFID technology. Customer screens, already available in three languages, will soon be available in an additional 7 languages, corresponding to the ethnic makeup of each community library.

Bibliographic information describing the holdings of the Queens Library is available in roman script and in a variety of vernacular scripts including Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Hebrew, and Urdu. Customers may search the catalog using native character sets for those collections. An open source program was developed that allows search and display capability in Russian and other languages that use the Cyrillic alphabet. Spanish language materials now receive subject headings in both English and Spanish, increasing access for our largest immigrant community. The ultimate goal, when our UNICODE enabled catalog is fully implemented, is to have vernacular access to all languages in the collection.

Marketing and Promotion

In order to make our services known to our many diverse communities, we work closely with the Marketing and Communications Department. This ranges from participation in library wide campaigns to increase visibility in the community, such as the Faces campaign which presented photos of library staff members in ads with the slogan, I am your Queens Library or in the Spanish version, Yo soy Queens Library, to library card and summer reading campaigns with posters in Spanish. When we promote our programs with flyers and postcards, the text is always presented with English on one side and the target community language on the other. We produce bilingual brochures advertising our collections as well as informational brochures, such as the series in 5 languages for parents promoting the importance of reading with their child. Since Spanish speakers are the largest immigrant community in Queens, coming from almost twenty countries, there is a full-time Spanish language media liaison in Marketing and Communications who creates press releases in Spanish, arranges for program presenters to be interviewed on Spanish language radio and TV and looks for opportunities to feature stories about the library in Spanish language newspapers. NAP participates in local events such as ethnic festivals and health fairs in order to promote our services to immigrant communities. The library makes every effort to hire staff members at all levels with language skills who can be "ambassadors" to our immigrant communities and present a welcoming face and assistance in their language to our newly arrived customers. An example of this is the hiring of teens for part-time positions as pages, shelving materials, as net mentors, assisting people at the computers, as activity assistants, providing a structured environment for children who come to the library after school and as tutors in our after school homework help program. Since they come from the local neighborhoods, many are immigrants or children of immigrants and are bilingual, adding to our pool of language ambassadors. Once they have worked in the library for six months, they are eligible to apply for our Page Fellows program, a career mentoring program that pairs them with a librarian to explore librarianship as a career, eventually increasing the diversity of the profession.

International Resource Center

The International Resource Center (IRC), located in Flushing at our largest community library, offers global studies materials for general readers and is heavily used by our immigrant residents. All are welcome to visit this regional resource to obtain in-depth, up-to-the minute information on the peoples, countries, cultures and economies of the world. The IRC offers the public global information usually available only to members of corporations, universities and governmental agencies. Its resources are maintained and delivered by multilingual staff trained in international resource management, delivery and outreach.

The IRC’s unique concentration of resources include book collections in English and 51 international languages, totaling over 89,000 volumes covering the social sciences, humanities and international business. Many of these books are not available in any other public library and often may not be available in research or academic libraries.

The vast majority of books may be borrowed in person and through interlibrary loan both locally and overseas. Customers using these resources obtain timely, authoritative information and analyses concerning practically every country, region, people and culture from the earliest time to the present.

Special collections include the C.Y. Han collection on Chinese culture which contains thousands of circulating books in English and Chinese, as well as difficult to find reference books relating to traditional Chinese civilization, classical and modern literature and history and philosophy. Other collections include International Biography, books translated into English covering the lives of historical and contemporary individuals who have shaped our world in areas including music, literature, religion, etc.; International Dictionaries including African languages such as Fulani, Luganda and Zulu; Judaica, International Business, Modern and Contemporary fiction translated into English and our most recent collections the Window of Shanghai, and the Window on Dynamic Korea. The Window on Shanghai collection was donated by the Shanghai Public Library in 2006 with an initial gift of 800 titles that will be supplemented by 100 newly published titles annually. Languages of this collection are primarily Chinese and English, but sometimes incorporate works in French, Spanish, Italian, German, Japanese and Korean. Subjects include China’s and Shanghai’s literature, history, economics and philosophy. The Window on Dynamic Korea collection contains books in Korean and English that cover many aspects of Korean culture, history, and literature. The collection also contains DVDs and music CDs. This collection was a gift of the National Library of Korea, Korea Foundation, Korea Education Research Information Service, and the Korean Overseas Information Service. The IRC also offers newspapers such as the Japanese Asahi Shimbun, the Arabic Al-Hayat and the French, Le Monde as well as magazines, journals and periodicals. International feature films and documentaries, many with English subtitles, along with CD’s of traditional and contemporary music from around the world are also available.

The IRC presents free programs, some of them simultaneously interpreted into English or another international language, on international topics ranging from culture, to politics to business. Periodically, we have a series of lectures on one topic, such as a series on Middle Eastern Culture and Politics, co-hosted by the Middle Eastern Institute at Columbia University. We have established a very popular annual cultural festival as well. In 2006 we focused on the Ibero-American states, in 2007, we concentrated on Japan and this year the focus is on Italy. The IRC also presents book discussion groups in Chinese and Spanish.

The IRC includes a 300 square foot gallery where we present photos, prints and paintings of international interest, such as "Aliya", sponsored by the Consulate General of Israel, an exhibition of photographs depicting immigrants from the then Soviet Union and Ethiopia during the process of leaving their homeland on the way to their new homes in Israel.

Not only is it important to attract our diverse population to the library but once there, we want them to be able to find what they’re looking for. We offer training sessions on how to use the internet, how to use our library portal and catalog <www.queenslibrary.org> and how to use WorldLinQ™ <www.worldlinq.org> our award-winning collection of international web links. Classes are currently taught in Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.

WorldLinQ™ is an innovative information system that was created to provide online multilingual information resources to Queens Library’s customers, as well as the worldwide Internet community. Available subjects include arts & humanities, business & economy, education, employment, entertainment & popular culture, general reference, government, health & medicine, history & biography, newspapers & magazines, science & technology, social sciences, and sports & leisure. Languages currently include Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, Croatian, Czech, French, Greek, Hebrew, Italian, Korean, Polish, Romanian, Russian, Spanish and Ukrainian. Languages continue to be added.

The IRC collaborates with the Shanghai Library in the implementation of CORS, Collaborative Online Reference Service. Our Chinese-speaking customers can now communicate, via email, with librarians, researchers and industry specialists from public, academic and research libraries in China, Hong Kong, Macao, Singapore and the US. The interface is currently available both in Chinese characters, and in English. Discussion concerning a similar collaboration with the Bibliotheque Publique d’Information (BPI) in Paris, France is currently underway. In addition, we recently began cooperating with OCLC to offer a Spanish Chat Reference service, "Bibliotecario a su alcance." <http://www.questionpoint.org/crs/servlet/org.oclc.home.TFSRedirect?Category=Spanish&virtcategory=12901>

Over the years, the unique blend of programs and services for immigrants has played a role in increasing Queens Library’s annual circulation to over 21 million items. Without the type of cohesive outreach effort represented by programs such as NAP, library use, support, and community visibility would not be as high among less traditional library customers.Through community outreach, we have been able to organize programs for speakers of Arabic, Punjabi, Tibetan and Turkish. We actively cultivate organizations wishing to donate books in their language, as long as they meet collection guidelines, and we purchase works by local immigrant authors as well. This is another way of giving a community "equity" in the library and developing a sense of mutual respect, forging what we hope will be lasting partnerships and lifelong library use among members of their community. Partnerships within the library are important as well. Without the language expertise of the Catalog Division, Literature and Languages Division, and community library staff, we would not have been able to create selection committees for a number of languages with high demand, such as the South Asian languages. We work to find opportunities for interviews about our programs and services in local ethnic print, radio and TV media. Regional and national media have profiled our efforts a number of times and we are proud that we can serve as a model for other programs around the country. Queens Library regularly welcomes librarians visiting from abroad interested in serving immigrant populations.

The library is also involved in international library cooperation and currently has agreements with libraries from South America, the Czech Republic, Croatia, France, Russia, China and Ukraine. For some partner libraries, this includes staff exchange, assistance in collection development and the sharing of technology, as is the case with the National Library of China in Beijing and the Shanghai Public Library.

Being responsive to and anticipating community needs is a continual challenge. Once expectations are created, there is always the risk of not being able to fulfill the demand for services because of budgetary constraints. There is also the challenge of the ever-increasing number of different ethnic groups needing services, and the varying responses of individual community organizations to overtures by the library. With my background in French, I have worked to increase collaboration with local Haitian organizations and to locate French-speaking West African contacts. Currently, I am building collections in Haitian Creole and French of Caribbean and West African interest. Another challenge is training library staff to be proactive and attuned to the cultural diversity in Queens. In-service training workshops are offered for new librarians, and the staff-at-large.

As we look toward the future, we will continue to build on the already solid foundation of existing programs and services described above. As technology plays an ever-increasing role in access to information, projects such as WorldLinQ and training for customers by staff fluent in other languages will be increasingly important. NAP will continue community analysis using new sources of data as they become available. But we remain committed to good customer service. Meeting the needs of our diverse customer base is first and foremost. Serving immigrants is an integral part of the library’s philosophy. In other words, good service for immigrants is simply good customer service. By creating increased awareness of library services among our ethnic communities, and fostering increased library use by new immigrants, the library will truly be seen as a community center open to all. Finally, through programs and outreach we will continue to facilitate acculturation leading to greater participation in and contribution to the community-at-large by the diverse ethnic and cultural groups we serve.

Received: 10/09/2008. Accepted: 15/10/2008.