Coming to America’s Libraries

Surveying public library services and programs for refugees and immigrants

June 23, 2019

Erica Freudenberger
Erica Freudenberger, outreach and engagement consultant for Southern Adirondack (New York) Library System, is an advisor to ALA’s New Americans Project.

What role do public libraries play in the lives of the 43 million immigrants living in this country? Some offer free English-language courses and financial literacy workshops. Others focus on social inclusion and civic engagement. All face challenges, including a fraught political climate and ever-dwindling resources.

ALA’s Public Programs Office recently completed the New Americans Library Project, a year-long exploration of public library programs and services that support immigrant and refugee populations. Librarians and representatives from community partner organizations involved in the project shared lessons and recommendations in a session on June 22, with a focus on models for effective partnerships.

“As we welcome our new friends and neighbors to our libraries, we have the chance to rethink what and how we do things, and how to create brave, new, inclusive spaces,” said Erica Freudenberger, outreach and engagement consultant for Southern Adirondack (New York) Library System.

An advisor to the ALA project, Freudenberger shared insights from her experience working in a smaller network of mainly rural libraries, with limited resources. She emphasized the potential of libraries as spaces for social inclusion, and the need to address barriers to library services. The Saratoga Springs (New York) Public Library, for example, found that formal registration for language classes turned off some users, whose status may be undocumented, so they eliminated the requirement.

Urban centers face a different set of challenges. The Los Angeles Public Library (LAPL) system has worked with the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a refugee resettlement agency with offices in 40 countries and 26 US cities, on the New Americans Initiative, which provides citizenship services in 16 branches. Jonathan Fein Proaño, citizenship manager for IRC’s Los Angeles office, joined LAPL Managing Librarian Madeleine Ildefonso on the panel to describe the joint effort and its mutual benefits.

“Our office isn’t easily accessible by public transportation, so partnering with LAPL and offering these services at the library was a natural thing for us to do,” said Proaño. “We meet them in their communities, at a place they already trust, that they can easily access.”

“Moving forward we need to create services with, not for, new Americans, remembering that it’s a complex community with varying needs,” Freudenberger said. “As boundary-expanding institutions, we have the opportunity to help people develop social networks and promote long-term, active participation in society.”

Read ALA’s white paper and access resources and programming ideas on the New Americans Project website.

Update, June 25: Corrected the number of LAPL branches that offer citizenship services.


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