Welcoming New Immigrants into Your Library

September 21, 2012

One out of every two residents in Queens, New York, is an immigrant.

With that data and other Census statistics in hand, Fred Gitner and Wai Sze Chan, librarians at the New Americans Program at Queens Library, talked on September 21 about the changing demographics of US communities and how libraries can analyze information to help create programming and develop collections for these new arrivals.

“Welcome, Newcomers! Using Demographic Data to Better Serve Your Immigrant Communities” was one of nine concurrent sessions offered at the 2012 Joint Conference of Librarians of Color this morning, drawing library practitioners from rural as well as urban libraries, all of whom were interested in reaching out to their changing communities.

Gitner and Wai Sze said that in Queens, the recent stream of newcomers has arrived from places as varied as Bangladesh, China, Russia, South America, and the Middle East. Putting the borough’s size in perspective, they explained that Queens would be the fifth largest city in the United States if it were its own municipality—behind New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Brooklyn.

But how to target collections and programming to such a diverse population? Wai Sze, information and data analysis librarian, discussed products available for librarians to analyze their communities, including the American Community Survey, which she said “has become my best friend.” Additionally, she uses American FactFinder and other resources from the 2010 Census to look into trends. Wai Sze also suggested that librarians turn to their local departments of city planning, education, and health to find more targeted data. Wai Sze used data from the department of health, for example, to learn that in Queens, 7 out of every 10 babies are now born to foreign-born mothers.

Gitner, assistant director of the New Americans Program, said that once he has that type of information available, he and his staff go about building collections (“they should be visible; not pushed into the back corner of the library”) and creating bilingual signage and programming. He suggested turning to ALA’s Reference and User Services Association for guidelines on building collections for multilingual patrons.

For instance, Queens Library has created Chinese homepages in traditional and simplified scripts and has done a storytime in Bengali to cater to two of its fastest growing populations. But, Gitner added, such efforts also require marketing and promotion, especially in the harder-to-reach immigrant communities. To do this, he recommended “walking the streets” to post fliers in the storefronts of nearby merchants; attending ethnic festivals and fairs; and reaching out to local ethnic media and community agencies, among other tips and tricks. “A lot of this is word of mouth,” he said, which, over time, helps increase the library’s exposure in immigrant communities.

He added that the library system is working on more outreach through social media, including creating a Spanish-language Facebook page and tweeting in Mandarin. “We must show that the library is open to all,” Gitner said.