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¿Cómo puedo ayudarle? Providing the Best Service to Your Hispanic Community

by Romeo Rosales, Jr. on April 15, 2016

ROMEO ROSALES, JR. is Reference Librarian and Supervisor, Pharr (TX) Memorial Library. Contact Romeo at rosalesr@pharr.lib.tx.us. Romeo is currently reading Church of Spies: The Pope’s Secret War Against Hitler by Mark Riebling and the graphic novel Watchmen by Alan Moore.

According to the United States Census Bureau, as of 2014, the estimated Hispanic population is 17.4 percent of the total 319 million U.S. population.1 Not every one of those individuals who classify themselves as Hispanic or Latino speaks Spanish. However, according to a 2015 report released by the prestigious Instituto Cervantes, “The United States is now the world’s second largest Spanish-speaking country after Mexico.”2 The U.S. has forty-one million native speakers and eleven million who are bilingual.3 Those are some serious numbers and public libraries are at the forefront of assisting many of these Hispanics with whatever resources they have available. Many Spanish speakers go to public libraries to look for answers regarding a path to citizenship, questions about the I-90 form, services offered for Spanish speakers, and my favorite, “¿Donde tienes tus libros españoles?” (“Where do you have your Spanish books?”) Publishing companies are doing their best to cater to this large community, but answer this question: Even with more Spanish books readily available, who are the librarians assessing community needs and building these Spanish and bilingual collections? It is one thing to be a Hispanic librarian, as I am, but it is another to truly understand the Hispanic community to know how a collection should be built.

To understand the literacy troubles many—but not all—Hispanic adults face, we first have to take a look at their early childhood education. When considering statistical numbers for illiterate Hispanic children in the United States, it is not hard to see those children are at a disadvantage when compared to their white peers. A lot of the troubling literacy issue stems from “lower maternal education, weaker early reading practices, larger family size, and less exposure to quality preschool.”4 A 2007 study conducted by Child Trends Hispanic Institute concluded that “Hispanic children are significantly less likely than white children to be ready for school on all indicators except the ability to hold a pencil. Hispanic children are significantly less likely than black children to be able to recognize all letters, count to 20 or higher, or read written words in books.”5

In one of the poorest areas in the United States, a predominantly Hispanic region in South Texas known as the Rio Grande Valley, about 50 percent of its citizens are illiterate. The Rio Grande Valley ranks dead last in the entire state of Texas when it comes to literacy. These people are underserved and many of them do not even realize they are beneficiaries of educational institutions like public libraries. The median household income in that area is $31,077, which means the education level of many of those individuals is destitute. Public librarians in the Rio GrandeValley, and all across the nation, can offer so much to their Hispanic communities and collaborate with educational institutions to assist Hispanics with finding work or meeting their educational goals, such as obtaining a GED, pursuing a trade, or enrolling at a college or university. Hispanics look forward to what public libraries offer them. A Pew Research Center survey found that “overall, Hispanics have strong positive feelings about the role of libraries
in their communities, just as other Americans do.”6

I work at a public library that is fully staffed with twenty-five employees. All twenty-five employees are Hispanic and each staff member fully understands the challenges of providing an unmatched service to our Hispanic community. We all speak English and Spanish so our experiences with Hispanic patrons are unique. We are able to connect with our patrons on a much deeper level because we understand the Hispanic culture and have grown up in the same areas many of our patrons have. This in no way means we are better librarians than those who may not speak Spanish or understand the Spanish culture. However, we do have the ability to provide feedback to librarians who may have questions regarding Hispanics and their culture. The most important thing is to make the Hispanic community aware that you do understand their needs and acknowledge their presence. There are so many important cultural differences for Hispanics from all parts of Central and South America, so every approach or tactic will not be bulletproof. However, simply acknowledging that you indeed do have a Hispanic community is already a step forward.

In library school, they teach you about multicultural librarianship and how to cater to diverse communities. But learning something can only take you so far. The application is the key. Libraries should “recruit Spanish-speaking personnel in all job classifications, i.e. librarians, paraprofessionals, clerical workers and volunteers.”7 If you know your community has a large Hispanic community, it would be a good idea to hire at least one staff member who can speak English and Spanish well. It will save the rest of the staff a lot of trouble when it comes to communicating with Spanish-speaking patrons. Staffing has proven to be a positive factor for Hispanic students’ morale as well. “It was determined that professional staffing is a significant positive factor in reading scores”8 for Latino students. Comfortability with bilingual librarians has proven to help Hispanic students achieve their educational goals. They tend to ask for more assistance if they know the staff understands their needs.

Librarians and library professionals should never underestimate the power of the “door knocking” approach. Get out into the Hispanic community in your area to sit and talk to individuals who wish to have input on the Spanish and bilingual materials in your library; they are stakeholders as well. It is much better to go straight to the source than to assume you have all the answers. These patrons will be receptive and are willing to provide input. There is no denying how important public libraries are to Hispanics when eight in ten say they “strongly agree that libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading. . . and provide everyone a chance to succeed because they provide free access to materials and resources.”9

Librarians can no longer sit back and wait for Hispanics to provide them with information regarding collection development. Outreach is the answer! Making contacts and connections throughout the community is an integral part of the collection development process. If this is not accomplished, Hispanics will assume the library does not care about their needs and does not wish to have programs that cater to their community and culture. “The most effective way to reach out to Latino populations is to build relationships with community leaders. Such leaders already have the trust of many Latinos.”10 It is also a good idea to locate offices or key figures of Spanish newspapers and magazines, to find community members who can assist in reaching out to the Hispanic population about library events.

Whenever possible, advertise and post signage around the library in Spanish. This is a useful tactic that will let Spanish speakers know that the library indeed understands there is a Hispanic community and they are important as well. The signs do not have to be flashy or over the top. They should be as effective as possible while also being concise. The most important thing to consider with signage is simply to get the message across. Social networking is obviously very popular, so posting in English and Spanish gets the word out much better than only posting in English. If you do not speak Spanish, use Google Translate. It is a highly resourceful tool that goes a long way. Libraries should always consider Spanish and English as options when purchasing books, magazines, and newspapers. If possible, providing government forms, financial aid forms, and other informative forms in Spanish really makes Spanish-speaking patrons feel welcomed and appreciated.

One of the most prominent issues that few librarians discuss openly is immigration (certainly an issue during this 2016 presidential election). It should be noted that Hispanics and the Spanish-speaking community have noticed this is definitely a hot topic. Just because someone does not speak English does not mean he or she does not understand an English telecast. The immigration topic and fear of deportation has many immigrant Hispanics fearful of approaching a library’s reference and circulation desks. They may need information but are too afraid to approach the desk because they worry being asked questions about citizenship status will book them a trip to deportation. This is an ongoing issue at the library I am employed at. For example, once a Spanish-speaking patron exits the elevator on our second floor, which leads to our reference desk, he or she often appears timid and afraid. This patron may converse with a family member they are with about whether they should even approach the desk or not. Once he or she finally musters the courage to approach, a sense of relief is felt after hearing the reference employee speak in Spanish.


It is up to all librarians to protect the privacy of all patrons regardless of their origin, age, background, religious preference, or views. A public library should be a safe haven for all who visit. Nobody should ever be afraid to enter a public library. It should always be a place where privacy shall never be infringed upon. Regardless of an individual’s legal status, libraries and librarians should be concerned with assisting Hispanic patrons with all the resources their libraries provide and nothing else.

There are many ways to reach out to the Hispanic community. Do not underestimate the little things and do not assume the Hispanic community does not take notice, because they definitely do. There are many resources librarians can look to for assistance with reaching out to Hispanic communities. As my inspiration, Louis Pasteur, once famously said, “Chance favors the prepared mind.”


1. United States Census Bureau, “Quick Facts: United States,” accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
2. Stephen Burgen, “US Now Has More Spanish Speakers than Spain—Only Mexico Has More,” The Guardian, US Edition, June 29, 2016, accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
3. Ibid.
4. Alma Guerrero et al., “Early Growth of Mexican-American Children: Lagging in Preliteracy Skills but Not Social Development,” Maternal & Child Health Journal 17, no. 9 (Nov. 2013).
5. David Murphey, Lina Guzman, and Alicia Torres, America’s Hispanic Children: Gaining Ground, Looking Forward (Bethesda, MD: Child Trends, 2014), accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
6. Anna Brown and Mark Hugo Lopez, “Public Libraries and Hispanics: Immigrant Hispanics Use Libraries Less, but Those Who Do Appreciate Them the Most,” Pew Research Center: Hispanic Trends, Mar. 17, 2015, accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
7. “Guidelines for Library Services to Spanish-Speaking Library Users,” Reference and User Services Association (RUSA), a division of the American Library Association, approved by the RUSA Board of Directors January 2007, accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
8. Jeanne Nelson, “Library Staffing Benefits Latino Student Achievement,” CSLA Journal 34, no. 1 (Mar. 2010), accessed Feb. 8, 2016.
9. Brown and Lopez, “Public Libraries and Hispanics.”
10. Ellyn Ruhlmann, “Connecting Latinos with Libraries,” American Libraries 45, no. 5 (May 19, 2014), accessed Feb. 8, 2016.

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