Ashok Kumar Aryal is an immigrant from Nepal who is currently waiting to become an American citizen. “My wife is already a citizen,” he said, when we sat down for a brief chat in one of the study rooms at the local library branch. “But for me, the process is taking much longer.” Ashok has been in the United States for 5 years. Prior to taking the citizenship test, Ashok attended classes at the library. When asked why he chose the library as opposed to night classes through an adult education program, Ashok’s reasoning was clear. “I know that there are other programs that are available, but I have always seen the library as a welcoming place for the community.”
The communities libraries serve are becoming more diverse. In seeking to move beyond the tired label of being “just about books,” libraries must engage with these communities through outreach and engagement. One way is the implementation of an English as a Second Language (ESL) or civic program which would help immigrant communities better adjust and assimilate to life in the United States. But in today’s volatile political climate with tenuous funding for public programs and social services, the question remains as to how cost-effective would such efforts be to libraries in the long term?
As a former teacher who has taught both elementary and adult education, Melanie Brown offered her perspective from her experience in working as a volunteer with the San Jose Public Library, the largest public library system between San Francisco and Los Angeles. “I think any ESL program would be really beneficial,” said Brown, who has been with the library for more than year. “Programs like that provide for greater sociability, and foster a sense of community amongst people from different backgrounds.”
Conversational classes are a helpful way for English Language Learners (ELLs) to gain skills in the everyday usage of English. Libraries with tighter budgets may want to look into conversational classes as an alternative to the classroom-based model, as it can be facilitated by dedicated volunteers. However Brown said there is a downside to this model of instruction—such as students are not given a structured environment in which they may gain progress. “I find that while it is more relaxed, and people do not feel so nervous when they come for the first time, not having the same people each day and not knowing where the group is as a whole, makes it difficult.”
Our global community is becoming smaller, and libraries can potentially play a key role by further embracing their roles as community hubs, and centers of education and free information access.