New Americans use libraries in the same ways as other patrons — for a wide range of reasons that change over time. At the sites we visited across the country, new Americans check out books, attend public programs, or bring children to do homework in a calm place after school. Some new American populations rely heavily on their library system to meet needs for language learning, citizenship resources, and more.

The relationship patrons have with their library also varied greatly, according to library staff. At one extreme, some new Americans call the library their “second home,” while at the other extreme, some new American patrons had little sense of the resources these institutions provide. Generally, patrons we spoke with were grateful for the resources libraries provided, for a place to meet other people, share different cultural traditions, and for a space they could bring their children. However, some patrons were overwhelmed by navigating the resources available at the library and wanted a more organized way for information to be displayed.

Motivations & Expectations

New Americans use libraries in myriad ways to accomplish similarly varied goals. We heard at library sites that not all new Americans had the same ideas of “success” when it came to what they hoped to gain from engaging in library services. For instance, some groups might use libraries to get the skills they need to go to school and access higher education, while other groups might be more committed to learning how to sell something and run a small business. Moreover, these individuals may attend the same programs to achieve their different goals.

Like many other people, new Americans use libraries for social purposes. At some locations, patrons told us that the library is important to finding a sense of community or belongingness, while at another location, we learned that most of the library users are already members of tight-knit groups. Those who have established social networks may use the library as a social place to meet up with their friends, as well as to acquire skills.

Not surprisingly, family is a driving factor for many new Americans, according to patrons we spoke to during the site visits. Library programming for these populations must address the needs of multiple generations. Often the impetus for parents to come to the library is discovering programs that will benefit their kids, such as help with homework or access to textbooks. Once there, they become aware of additional programs that serve the needs of the family as a whole. Intergenerational programming can take various forms, such as an older generation passing on skills to their younger counterparts that might otherwise be lost, like their native language or cultural heritage. This skill-sharing works in the other direction as well. For instance, programs can connect younger people with older family or community members who want to learn English or digital skills. One advantage of intergenerational programming is that it eliminates the need for childcare. Often, parents or caregivers cannot attend programs if they have children, unless those children are also occupied and learning alongside the adults.

New American patrons also have varied expectations of libraries. According to conversations we had during site visits, these expectations reflect a range of familiarity with libraries and library workers. Some patrons did not have access to libraries in their home country, and libraries serve different roles in different places. As a result, serving these populations requires libraries to communicate the role that libraries play in the United States. For instance, we heard from staff that new Americans occasionally conflate the concept of a library with notions of a bookstore. Similarly, some new Americans we spoke with were initially surprised to find out that library books and movies are free to use.

Many patrons first encounter a library through programs, which they learn about through word-of-mouth or because community partner organizations hold a class or event there. We learned that only then do new Americans find out that the library offers resources or programs beyond what they originally came for. Even among those familiar with libraries, perceptions varied across different library sites. Some patrons see libraries as important places for people to gather in public, while others view them as potentially threatening due to their ambiguous affiliation with the government.

Interaction with Library Staff & Volunteers

Productive interactions among library staff are a key aspect of new Americans’ experience at libraries, and their ability to meet their objectives. Library personnel’s identity, training, and approach to working with new Americans all influence these relationships.

Library personnel who reflect the population that the library serves can help new Americans leverage what the library has to offer. Staff who speak new Americans’ language offer an obvious advantage, as they can deftly explain the intricacies of using library systems and programming. There is added benefit if staff are familiar with cultural norms, having the ability to anticipate and explain situations that may confuse or offend new Americans. According to the site visits, many libraries see hiring diverse staff as an area for further improvement.

Volunteers can play vital roles in new American programming, shoring up staff’s limited capacity to offer services and sometimes contributing by leading programs themselves. As with all volunteer work, we saw in site visits that libraries need additional resources to make the best use of volunteers’ time.

New Americans themselves can be just as involved as volunteers and staff, serving the needs of their own community and those of the library at the same time. At a site visit, one new American patron remarked that their peers are “untapped resources.” We saw that new Americans’ involvement in the work of the library takes many shapes, from teaching traditional cooking classes to translating mail for other patrons. Library staff observed that personnel from marginalized groups may face unique hurdles due to stereotyping from other members of the community. While this role of “cultural broker” may be challenging and not appealing for everyone, it can help shatter other patrons’ misconceptions about new Americans and lead to greater appreciation of groups that are new to a given location. In fact, libraries can formalize the role of “cultural liaison” in staffing, with a staff member from a new American community leading outreach at cultural and religious centers, as well as individual outreach to other new Americans who are not yet aware of or using library services. Libraries are already taking this approach in some cities, with success, particularly when it supports part of a library’s commitment to a strategic plan. But this position appears to be difficult to sustain due to funding constraints – not to mention funding this position may be completely out of reach for many libraries.

At multiple locations, we heard that establishing trust with an individual staff member kept new American patrons returning to the library, regardless of the background and identity of that individual. These relationships can be a crucial link to the library for new Americans. However, library staff have observed there is risk of some patrons becoming dependent on a single staff member. This situation can be magnified particularly when the staff member shares the same culture and speaks the same language as a new American patron.

Professional Development for Library Staff & Volunteers

Across site visits, library professionals advocated for professional development opportunities to build the skills of both staff and volunteers to effectively work with new American communities. Many of these skills are important for public programming in general. Skills that staff members saw as critical included:

  • Volunteer management skills;
  • A broad approach to collections management that includes community resources outside the library’s physical collections;
  • Administrative and organizational skills, such as time management;
  • The ability to gain buy-in from administration;
  • Teaching skills; and
  • Cultural competency, particularly with specific groups who use one’s library.

While these skills may be applicable across many libraries that provide new American programming, a one-size-fits-all approach to professional development is unlikely to work. Two types of differences among libraries determine the need for tailored training approaches.

First, libraries of different types and sizes have different needs. Large, well-funded libraries tend to have substantial professional development budgets and more time available for training, compared to smaller rural libraries that may only have one or two staff members. Libraries of different sizes may also have varying priorities, depending on the resources available. For instance, a small library with one computer might find computer-based technology training for all staff to be a low priority.

Second, libraries that serve different communities have unique needs. New American groups have a diverse range of cultures, aspirations, and goals. General cultural competency or inclusivity trainings often lack the details library workers feel they need to work with new Americans in their communities. In the site visits, we saw that library personnel highly value specific cultural knowledge. For instance, library staff have found it useful to understand how new American patrons at their library prefer to build rapport. Equipped with this information, library staff can build stronger connections and better serve their patrons.

For most libraries, communication may present one of – if not the – largest operational challenge in serving new Americans. This concern relates to sharing information across the library field about new American services: what has been done, what works well, what has failed, and special considerations for working with particular communities. Across the board, libraries in the site visits voiced the need for a strategy for improving communication within individual library systems, between libraries and community partner organizations, and across the library field as a whole. Better communication, they hope, will help them improve services to new Americans without reinventing the wheel.

Training volunteers to work on new American programming presents unique considerations for libraries, particularly those where staff are looking to expand their ability to manage volunteers. Some libraries in our site visits require volunteers to take online courses on topics like ELL before bringing it all together in an in-person training. Other libraries who work with new American volunteers may find that they need to invest more time in learning the library systems that are not specifically related to working with a particular community.

The Need for — and Lack of — Consistent Evaluation

While libraries throughout the United States have developed programming to support new Americans, few of these initiatives have identified impact beyond outputs like circulation statistics, program attendance, and anecdotal evidence from individual patrons.

Library professionals, particularly those we spoke to during site visits, clearly understand the benefits of evaluation and want to increase their use of evaluation in new American programming. Evaluation can help libraries maintain or increase funding, understand the reasons programs fail or have low participation, determine to what extent a program meets its goals, and identify unintended outcomes of a program that may be critical to its success.

In site visits, we heard that while library staff value evaluation, they acknowledged that it occurred only occasionally. Similar to field-wide barriers, typical challenges include cost, time, and lack of training in evaluation. Additionally, protecting patron anonymity during evaluation, while not unique to new American programs, is a particularly sensitive issue. More uniquely, library staff’s discomfort with common evaluation methods where an individual’s demographic information is collected (perceived as potentially compromising the anonymity of patrons or patron library card records) presents an important obstacle to assessing new American programs. Staff may also perceive that evaluating the patron’s experience from the library may erode the trust built between them and the patron. However, evaluation of new American programs could not be more critical to their success as new Americans have specific needs and wants that library staff may not be able to predict nor support effectively without feedback. Appropriate evaluative tools can foster relationships, as well: new Americans utilizing the library and providing feedback through surveys, focus groups or interviews will see improvements being made to better meet their needs and will understand the library is committed to helping them succeed.