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A Library Can Say Hello in Almost Any Language

by on October 30, 2014

According to the traditional Bible story, the Tower of Babel tumbled down when its builders each had to communicate in a different language. When challenged with serving New York City’s most linguistically diverse borough, the Queens Library in New York City has flourished instead and created a mosaic that celebrates the Queens community’s wonderful multiculturalism.

New Americans Welcome Here

The Queens Library services what some might consider an almost impossible task—the most ethnically diverse population in the United States.  47% of the Queens Library’s patrons speak a language other than English.

How that’s done has been QL’s challenge since the 1970s when the library initiated its New Americans Program.  It has strived to develop a multilingual collection, a multilingual database and to provide multilingual services. It is a “user-friendly in any language” library in all of its branches.

According to the Queens Library, it’d be almost impossible to find someone who speaks every language in every local branch.  However, they explain that the library conducts extensive staff training in non-verbal communication and cultural awareness to help patrons and staff. It has even developed a library linqua franca—an adapted universal sign language/pointing guide to target key areas of service in the library.

Multicultural Services—More than Books

The library’s community branches offer ESL classes, Citizenship and Naturalization classes, and Computer Literacy classes. The Central branch offers comprehensive newcomer services such as immigration form and application assistance, financial literacy classes, and other cultural orientation classes.

Presently, the QL maintains Multilingual Web Picks in 10 languages so patrons can find the best websites in their native languages on anything from Albania to Zen.  Queens Library explains that the multilingual media center is very popular,  since network links to foreign media sources and news services are very important for many individuals.

Over 26 Languages and Growing 

The multilingual collection now exceeds over 26 languages—this represents the largest collection in the US for general readers in Spanish (157,000 items) and Chinese (256,000) (both Mandarin and Chinese simplified), extensive fiction and non-fiction collections in Korean (53,000 items), Russian (53,000), and South Asian Languages (46,000 items in Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam, Urdu and Punjabi). (http://www.queenslibrary.org/sites/default/files/about-us/Facts%20Sheet.pdf)

Queens has the largest Asian population in NYC—49.3% of the population is either Asian Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, or Nepalese.

Queens Library says that most of the library’s circulating material is popular reading—romance novels, mysteries, self-help books, and cookbooks. However, these aren’t necessarily direct translations of American publishers. The library takes great effort to access materials from overseas libraries and publishers in order to continue cultural contact and authenticity.

David Baldacci may be a household name to readers in the United States but for a Chinese reader, Keigo Higashino is more likely the name that comes to mind. This Japanese writer has been translated into Chinese and has been on the bestseller list since 2007 (http://paper-republic.org/news/newsitems/80/).

Serving the Whole Community: The First, Second, and Heritage Language Community

The flagship QL Branch in Flushing includes international newspapers, magazines, and books. It also includes the C.Y. Han collection on Chinese culture—a collection of bilingual English-Chinese books as well as reference books relating to Chinese civilization. 90% of these materials can be borrowed. The Window of Shanghai and the Window of Dynamic Korea are also housed here.

QL’s awareness and respect of first, second, and “heritage” language speakers embraces the spirit of multiculturalism that it fosters. QPL serves the immigrant populations of Queens as well as succeeding generations who want to preserve their language heritage.

The C.Y. Han Collection is a good example of a native language collection that preserves its past while still including culturally relevant material that interests contemporary Chinese speakers as well.

Multiculturalism as a Fundamental Characteristic of a Library

Queens Library serves its community’s changing demographic by consistently reaching out to newcomers, offering them services, and providing them reading.

Multilingual collections are a foundation of outreach services for:

  • Family literacy
  • Information services
  • Citizenship classes and information
  • Community services and access
  • English as a second language classes
  • Digital literacy
  • Homework help

Introducing diverse groups to library services also assists these groups in linking with other agencies or services that might benefit them as they assimilate into a new culture and country.

The Eyes and Ears of the World

The community librarian is the eyes and ears of data collection. QL constantly monitors census data, citywide statistics, and even surrounding hospital birth records to track changes in neighborhood demographics in order to keep its local collections relevant to its community’s needs.

Queens Library shared a retired librarian’s insight into multilingual collection development: “You can map the world’s troubles by looking at the book collections in the Queens Library.”  In the early 1990s, Queens saw an influx of Chinese from Hong Kong as it was seceded back to China. As a result, there was a demand for , authors, which QL ably met. Last year, in Jackson Heights–nicknamed the Little Philippines– the library noticed a much greater demand for requests for books on typhoons after Typhoon Haiyan. Jackson Heights now has 9 copies of books on the subject in several languages; the Central branch now carries 44.

In a world connected by information needs, QL recognizes the multicultural role it plays. The library’s multilingual collection is the perfect hub for its community’s citizens to connect to their former residences as they make new homes here.

Lost in Translation

Multilingual collections do not equate to direct translations. Likewise, QL understands that assimilation does not equal instant citizenship. It is a process to become a new citizen in a new country. Respecting the cultures within our library’s communities by maintaining the languages they speak is the very touchstone of multiculturalism. The multilingual collections at the Queens Library embrace the unique character of each stone in the diverse mosaic of the Queens community that it serves.


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  1. […] thrilled to work with Queens Library, who boasts the largest multilingual collection in the country, including material in 40 languages as of 2015. The collection includes popular […]

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