Libraries have long had a reputation for supporting healthy communities by providing a range of programs, services, and reference and educational materials. Service to new American populations is an important part of this work, and recently the American Library Association (ALA) has taken decisive steps towards supporting immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers arriving in the US. The ALA Bill of Rights states that a person’s “right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.”1
Over 43 million immigrants live in the US, making up about 13% of the nation’s population.2 New Americans commonly rely on local libraries for a wide range of services — and have done so for decades. At libraries, new Americans learn about local culture, find assistance in job seeking, learn about financial systems in their new country, seek support in obtaining citizenship, learn English, and more. Indeed, “outreach to immigrants through public libraries dates back at least to the World War I era”3. According to ALA’s American Libraries magazine, “service to immigrant populations is an increasingly important part of the library’s mission, as refugees or displaced persons are relocated in the United States and Europe, sometimes in places reluctant to have them.”4
The Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) notes that new Americans find in public libraries “a trusted environment, resources, and community connections that can ease the way to full participation in American society.”5 Libraries offer a place where dominant communities and those who traditionally have less social or political power can meet on more or less equal footing — and in these encounters different cultures can refashion the library to fit their needs. With libraries, new Americans have the opportunity to both learn about American culture and systems, and at the same time inform the established community about their own cultures.6
Developing services for new Americans gives libraries an opening for collaboration with local organizations that have a common vision for education, civic discourse, safety, and health and wellness. Through these partnerships, libraries across the country are expanding new American programming and building patrons’ confidence in using local resources in their new communities.
Project Welcome is one of ALA’s larger efforts, with its Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services working in partnership with the Mortenson Center for International Library Programs at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and the IMLS. Project Welcome assesses current resources in libraries, ensuring “that all are welcomed by and in libraries.”7 Through a summit involving 70 members of the library community, Project Welcome developed a guide, titled Project Welcome Guide: Public Libraries Serving Immigrants, to ensure that libraries across the nation possess the resources to best serve refugees and asylum seekers in the US throughout their resettlement and integration.
ALA’s New Americans Library Project
In 2018, with support from The JPB Foundation, the ALA Public Programs Office convened an exploration of public library programs and services that support new American populations. The New Americans Library Project explored the landscape of literature and resources about library services for new Americans, studied how libraries can more effectively serve new Americans, and made recommendations about this topic for the library field.
As the research partner, New Knowledge Organization Ltd. conducted a landscape review of current library practices and offerings across a wide variety of geographic regions, community types, and partnership models. With input from ALA and project advisors, researchers collected information about dozens of library public programs in the US and abroad, as well as information from research and other perspectives that might benefit this initiative.
Following this review, researchers conducted site visits at six public libraries in five cities, where they spoke with new American patrons, as well as library and community partner organization staff. The five cities represented a wide range of characteristics and demographics, including rural, suburban, and urban areas across different regions in the US, with diverse immigrant populations, cultures, and languages.
Finally, project advisors convened at a workshop to identify the key topics contained in this white paper and make recommendations to the library field.
This White Paper
This white paper provides a synthesis of the project to help library professionals understand opportunities for libraries’ work with new Americans. The paper includes two parts. First, an overview of research and findings summarizes the most salient themes uncovered in the landscape review and site visits. Second, we offer a list of actionable recommendations for libraries.
1. Michael Dowling, “Project Welcome.” American Libraries Magazine. Accessed: August 15 2018. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/2017/09/22/project-welcome-refugees/.
2. Gustavo Lopez & Jynnah Radford, “Facts on U.S. Immigrants, 2015: Statistical portrait of the foreign-born population in the United States.” Accessed: August 15 2018. Pew Research Center. http://www.pewhispanic.org/2017/05/03/facts-on-u-s-immigrants-current-data/.
3. Susan K. Burke, “Use of Public Libraries by Immigrants.” Reference and User Services Quarterly, 48(2), 164–74.
4. George M. Eberhart, “Immigrants and the Library.” American Libraries Magazine. Accessed Aug 2018. https://americanlibrariesmagazine.org/blogs/the-scoop/immigrants-and-the-library/
5. The statistics on new Americans cited here come from sources that define the term differently and, in many cases, leave the definition implicit. As such, we present these statistics for general breadth and depth but are unable to comment on the comparability of statistics from different sources. Institute of Museum and Library Services, “Serving New Americans.” Accessed: August 15 2018. https://www.imls.gov/issues/national-initiatives/serving-new-americans.
6. James K. Elmborg, “Libraries as the Space Between Us: Recognizing and Valuing the Third Space.” Reference and User Service Quarterly, American Library Association 5, no. 4 (2011): 339-50.
7. Dowling, “Project Welcome.”