As migration patterns continue to fluctuate, we can expect to see people coming to the United States from all over the world. Many are coming in need of a safe place for themselves and their families. The ALA Public Programs Office’s New Americans Library Project reaffirms the important role libraries play in providing services to people who consider themselves new to the United States. In many ways, libraries are singular in their service to their communities: their mission is to equitably help all people to reach their aspirations so the collective can thrive. This commitment positions libraries as uniquely suited to help new Americans — and all community members — learn and grow together.
But libraries cannot do this important work alone. There are many, many organizations that specialize in the myriad areas that are relevant to new Americans: legal counsel, language learning services, job training services, financial advisors and institutions, and the diverse organizations focusing on aspects of culture, like religion, ethnic heritage, and more. The same is true for these community organizations — they need the help of libraries. With partnerships, libraries can achieve far more for their new American constituents than they can do independently.
This research shows there is no silver bullet for libraries’ work with new Americans; just as there are diverse groups of newcomers to the country, so too are there many library service approaches that successfully meet their needs. Finding the right approach is less a matter of following a rubric and more of a listening activity. Once a library understands their new American communities’ needs, they can design services that are both relevant to their constituents and appropriate for their organizational capacity.
Library programming used by new Americans is as diverse as the patron population who relies on it. The term “new American” can encompass individuals of a variety of ages, cultural backgrounds, levels of English language proficiency, legal documentation status, and degree of experience with American institutions or cultural practices. Accordingly, library programming that meets their needs will vary widely depending on the local community. In addition, new Americans take advantage not only of library programs geared specifically toward their needs, but also of programs that are designed for all library patrons, such as financial literacy and job training.
Libraries across the United States have introduced innovative programming that has resonated with new Americans. The most creative and successful programs have been borne out of meeting new Americans where they are and assuring them that public libraries are spaces where they are welcome and safe, even for those who may feel insecure or stigmatized due to their immigration status. A thoughtful approach also requires understanding what programs will fit the needs of local new Americans, ranging from English conversation opportunities to cultural exchange that draws new arrivals into the established community. Many libraries have seen enthusiasm for these types of programs, and further evaluation offers the opportunity to demonstrate how these programs work and how they can continue to improve.
Library professionals who have championed new Americans programming have attributed their success to a partnership approach with community organizations. Collaboration provides both organizations with access to more materials and resources and enables both organizations to increase the populations they serve and the services they provide. These partnerships can form when neither organization has the full breadth of resources to meet the need of the community. For example, libraries can offer space, staff time, and advertising capacity, while community partner organizations bring knowledge of and connections to multiple groups in the community.
In short, there is no one-size-fits-all model for serving new American populations. To make a program sing, a library must authentically understand and design the service to meet the specific needs of its unique community. Nevertheless, this research has shown there are approaches that can lead to success across geographic locations and kinds of communities. We present the following strategies as a list of options, rather than a prescriptive model. For each option, we offer potential actions that libraries can take toward programming for new Americans.
Planning Programs for New Americans: Considerations for Public Libraries
- Assess community needs
- Foster partnerships with community organizations
- Offer professional development opportunities for staff and volunteers
- Include new Americans in decision-making and implementation
- Use terms that resonate with your specific community
- Develop multilingual resources
- Foster connections between new Americans and existing residents
- Create more intergenerational programming
- Build sustainable services