Who Are New Americans?

For this white paper, the term “new Americans” encompasses people who might consider themselves new arrivals in the US and anyone who is a non-native English language speaker. New Americans might be immigrants, refugees, or temporary or long-term visitors. New Americans may be here with or without legal documentation. New Americans might be born here to immigrants or have newly arrived themselves. New Americans may come from any place, including countries that are affluent and those that are under-resourced.

We use this inclusive definition because there is no consensus around the definition for “new Americans.” Some federal agencies determine a specific amount of time, such as the last 15 years, while other agencies use relative terms like “recently arrived” — though someone might consider themselves a new American even if they arrived in the United States 30 years ago. Some libraries prefer to use specific terms that reflect the experience of an individual, like “immigrant” or “refugee,” though there are concerns about stigma surrounding those words. For some, the word “American” is confusing, since any person from Central or South America also identifies as American.

How Do Public Libraries Serve New Americans?

Here we explore what we know about current practices in new American services, particularly those designed to uniquely serve new Americans. The libraries we visited offer an assortment of programs and services specifically for new Americans, addressing myriad needs.

Libraries design these services to address multiple needs at the same time. We witnessed multifaceted programming approaches during the site visits, where, for example, one library hosted cross-cultural luncheons where people from a certain national or ethnic group provided traditional food. This library also offered collections in other languages, foreign film screenings, a series of easy-to-read news articles titled “news for you,” and free museum passes. Other libraries housed a “New Americans Initiative” that offers guardianship workshops, housing rights help sessions, access to financial coaches, small business workshops, and citizenship resources. According to the libraries we visited, the primary programs used by new Americans fall into the following categories: English language acquisition and education, citizenship preparation, and digital literacy. Spanning all of these services is libraries’ commitment to ensuring access to new Americans.

However, it should be noted that new Americans take advantage of many other library programs and resources not necessarily designed for them as a primary audience. Services like notarization, multilingual collections, providing space for cultural groups to meet or host events, small business support or other financial skill-building services, and “welcome corners” (providing information necessary for integrating into a new community like transportation, taxes, and legal services aside from citizenship resources) are all examples of resources available to and frequently utilized by new Americans while not being advertised specifically for them.

English Language Acquisition & Education

A central aspiration for many new Americans is to speak English proficiently and with the confidence to interact with native speakers. Between 2009 and 2013, the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey found that over 25 million people in the country speak English less than very well and over 60 million people speak a language other than English at home.8

In response to this need, libraries provide English language learning (ELL) opportunities. In fact, ELL was the most frequently mentioned service overall among the libraries we visited. There are different approaches to English language teaching; some courses focus on building from the basics of grammar and vocabulary, while others attend to English in special settings, like doctor’s appointments. Recognizing the pragmatic needs of English language learners, some libraries offer English conversation opportunities. For new Americans seeking to make a home in the US and to communicate with others in English, library offerings can provide lifelong learning opportunities.

Moreover, English language learners who turn to public libraries for support are a diverse group, and developing programs that accommodate a variety of learning groups is imperative for libraries. Libraries meet this need by creating developmentally appropriate language programs for children up to adults. Some programs incorporate bilingual education, in both English and another language, and others are geared toward straightforward ELL lessons. Libraries may also partner with local schools and school libraries, leveraging local expertise in education and access to students who have not been raised in English-speaking households.

The site visits illuminated the creative formats language learning services can take. These programs feature drop-in conversation practice, writing classes, traditional language classes held twice a week, and classes centered on the English component of the citizenship exam. Libraries also provide other classes that indirectly supported ELL. Topics of those programs include financial and business courses (e.g., using Excel, job interviews, and résumé writing) as well as other skill-building classes (e.g. yoga, stress management, and conflict prevention). Unlike general ELL courses, these other offerings require a baseline level of English competency and continue building speaking abilities along with other new skills.

Understanding the needs of the new Americans in a community is an important factor in considering the type of ELL programming libraries should offer, for many reasons. Successful programs adapt to changing cultural demographics of the community and emphasize the empowerment of local people.9 First, new American communities’ needs fluctuate over time; for example, one community might begin with a widespread need for basic English skills and eventually shift to a greater need for specialized or industry-specific English language skills. Second, learning a specific populations’ language aspirations can reduce overlap with and complement other language series that are available.

Citizenship Preparation

Recent studies show that 7% of the United States population are not citizens,10 and over 11 million undocumented immigrants live in the country.11 Not surprisingly, citizenship is on the minds of many of these individuals, but not all; other options for legal documentation status include immigrant visas, work visas, and green cards that can be sought in advance or in place of seeking full citizenship.

Obtaining citizenship is often a drawn-out process, with the length of time depending on personal circumstances and factors beyond one’s control, like national politics. On top of it all, the process of obtaining US citizenship can feel intimidating and confusing for individuals, families, and entire communities. According to one report, “many immigrants hope to naturalize someday, but do not have access to the instruction and application support they require in order to succeed.”12

While many libraries provide citizenship preparation resources, the exact role libraries can and should play in assisting with exam preparation or legal support is still up for debate. The best guidance that libraries can give will take into account the social, emotional, and legal concerns that are part of the citizenship process. At the same time, citizenship is a legal process, and most library professionals are not permitted to provide legal counsel — unless there is a program that brings in lawyers or legal aid or the program directs people to legal resources. Therefore, libraries must strike a balance for this work as they strive to address the pragmatic needs of their communities.

Currently, it seems there are many ways to find that balance. Library support for the learning activities surrounding the citizenship process are multifaceted, with many programs incorporating some form of preparation classes that help new Americans pass the federal examination. As described above, the citizenship exam training overlaps with ELL training. Good citizenship class instructors must be knowledgeable in best practices for ELL classes, with awareness of the teaching practices that will best support students working toward citizenship. Skilled instructors work toward not simply teaching students the basic history and government topics on the exam but also contextualizing this new information so students will find it relevant to their lives.

In the cities we visited, we found that libraries varied widely in how much they prioritize and how they design citizenship process services. At some libraries, citizenship classes are the centerpiece of new American programming. Other libraries serve populations less interested in citizenship, often because they do not plan to stay permanently in the United States. Citizenship programs took on diverse forms even within a single library system. Resources for becoming a citizen were available at all of one urban library’s locations, but individual branches approached the citizenship preparation differently. One location collaborates with community partner organizations to offer certified legal assistance and practice interviews to help students. Other branches have “New American Centers” offering free onsite immigration and naturalization services, including assistance with paperwork.

Digital Literacy

For new Americans to gain their footing in America economically, finding jobs and financial stability is vital. Many cannot attain this level of security until they have achieved basic digital literacy and have consistent access to the Internet. A lack of digital literacy can further marginalize community members, limiting their ability to participate in our democracy, access educational opportunities, obtain health care, find and keep jobs, and connect with family and friends.13 Public libraries have historically been important places for people to pursue all of these activities and to find guidance to accomplish their goals.

Libraries certainly fill this role for new American communities. Digital literacy was among the most frequent types of desired skills we heard about from patrons and staff during the site visits. The scope of digital literacy classes varies widely from library to library. While some libraries offered more narrowly defined computer literacy services, at least one library taught classes about using technology in general, such as phones, printers, and the Internet. This library also used tablets in their citizenship classes, as much of the citizenship process takes place online, the exam is given on tablets, and learning a tablet interface would also ensure new Americans could access important information on another type of technology.

Ensuring Access to Programs

During site visits, library staff expressed particular concern with ensuring access to new American library programming – that is, creating circumstances where a wide range of patrons would have a reasonable opportunity to benefit from services. Like any programming designed with a specific audience in mind, library professionals must consider a range of factors when developing new American services. The structure of library programs is largely dependent on different components of access, such as patrons’ ability to understand the language in which programs are conducted, convenient times and locations that match public transportation routes and schedules, the availability of childcare during programs, and conflicts with patrons’ work schedules.

Flexible schedules for new American programming offer many advantages, as we heard at multiple locations that timing of programming strongly influenced who attends. For many libraries, operating hours also present a challenge, as those hours coincide with business hours for most jobs; many library staff wished they had the resources to hold night classes to mitigate this problem. Hosting programs outside library walls was another way of improving access. One location wanted to prioritize meeting patrons where they are and described plans to create satellite locations with books that were reflective of the cultures represented in different neighborhoods. In a similar vein, transportation presents additional challenges, as many cities and other areas lack affordable transportation (or any at all). One library shared that for some events, they had the capacity to cover patrons’ bus fees, but this strategy was not feasible for all programming.

Language barriers also frequently limited access to services. In response to these barriers, library staff at some sites shared examples of successful programs designed to have little dependency on spoken English, like juggling class, which allowed people with a variety of English capabilities to engage.

Sometimes, library services remain underutilized simply due to lack of awareness about what is being offered, perceptions of who a service is intended for, or other concerns. Libraries often struggle to reach their target audiences — this is true for programs in general but even more so when target audiences include those who face linguistic or cultural barriers. A constant refrain heard by programming librarians is “Oh, I never knew the library did that!” Citizenship courses can present an additional hurdle: patrons may not want to identify themselves as non-citizens, out of safety concerns14. Similar concerns may dissuade some new Americans from signing up for a library card, as they perceive formal documentation of any sort as a danger.

8. U.S. Census Bureau, “Detailed Languages Spoken at Home and Ability to Speak English for the Population 5 Years and Over: 2009-2013.”Accessed: August 15, 2018. https://www.census.gov/data/tables/2013/demo/2009-2013-lang-tables.html.

9. April Witteveen, “Word of Mouth- Language Learning.” Library Journal. Accessed: August 15 2018. https://www.libraryjournal.com/?detailStory=word-of-mouth-language-learning.

10. Kaiser Family Foundation, “Population Distribution by Citizenship Status.” Accessed: August 15 2018. https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/distribution-by-citizenship-status/?.

11. Jie Zong & Jeanne Batalova, “Frequently Requested Statistics on Immigration in the United States.” Migration Policy Institute. Accessed: August 15 2018. https://www.migrationpolicy.org/article/frequently-requested-statistics-immigrants-and-immigration-united-states.

12. Jeff Chenoweth & Laura Burdick, “Different Learners, Different Services, Preparing Immigrant Learners for Citizenship,in A More Perfect Union: A National Citizenship Plan. (Catholic Legal Immigration Service Inc: Washington DC, 2007).

13. Jill Castek, Kimberly D. Pendell, Gloria Jacobs, Drew Pizzolato, Elizabeth Withers, & Stephen Reder, “Volunteers in an adult literacy library program: Digital literacy acquisition case study.” Accessed: August 15 2018. http://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/16517.

14. Diana Miranda-Murillo, “New immigrants center at the Austin Public Library,” Texas Library Journal. 82 (Winter 2006), 144–147.