The motivation for this white paper comes from the recognition that when immigrants, refugees, and displaced persons first arrive in the United States they frequently turn to public libraries for free and trusted services. More than 55 percent of new Americans use their public library at least once a week, according to the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), to access English language learning classes, citizenship and civic educational programs, and a vital support network.

Public library responses to the needs of these patrons vary widely across the country due to factors such as budgetary constraints, shifting populations, and local priorities. While some successful case studies have been observed, currently there are no field-wide best practices to assist public libraries in serving the unique needs of new Americans. This is a critical gap in library practice that needs to be addressed as immigration numbers continue to grow. According to the Migration Policy Institute, 1.38 million foreign-born people moved to the United States in 2015, an increase of 2 percent over the prior year. Public libraries, and the new Americans they serve, need a plan that properly positions libraries to meet the challenges of our nation’s shifting demographics and ensure equity for all.

Revisiting current practices focused on how addressing the singular needs of new Americans meshes with the public library field’s commitment to treating patrons with dignity and respect. U.S. public libraries have a long history of service to immigrants, dating back to the nineteenth century when immigrant populations began contributing content to library collections in their native languages. The American Library Association stated its support for immigrant rights in a January 2007 Council resolution:

“The American Library Association (ALA) promotes equal access to information for all persons and recognizes the ongoing need to increase awareness of and responsiveness to the diversity of the communities we serve …. ALA strongly supports the protection of each person’s civil liberties, regardless of that individual’s nationality, residency, or status …. ALA opposes any legislation that infringes on the rights of anyone in the USA or its territories, citizens or otherwise, to use library resources, programs, and services on national, state, and local levels.”

ALA’s leaders and its 58,000 members are firmly committed to standing up for the rights of new Americans and have been vocal in their support for these populations. On September 5, 2017, ALA President Jim Neal released a statement condemning the proposed end to the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, stating, “Our nation’s libraries serve all community members, including immigrants, offering services and educational resources that transform communities, open minds, and promote inclusion and diversity.” The association’s commitment to serving and supporting immigrants has only strengthened in light of the current political climate.

ALA and its divisions have responded to this need by developing a variety of support materials to assist libraries in reaching their immigrant patrons, including webinars and resources for immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers. However, ALA has not yet undertaken a comprehensive approach toward developing a set of best practices, nor have we endeavored to start a national conversation about library services to new Americans, until now. We hope this white paper feeds the discussion and advances the public library field’s work to support the needs of immigrant, refugee, and displaced persons in their local communities.

Melanie Welch
Project Director
ALA Public Programs Office