"A library doesn't need windows. A library is a window." – Stewart Brand

Aug 15, 2010


Due to an impending move to another state, my ability to post to this blog is going to be interrupted. I will try to resume a (semi-)regular posting schedule as soon as I'm settled in.

(Because I know some people who read my blog will wonder, this isn't due to a job offer -- just to our lease running out. We're joining the ranks of those moving back in with parents until a source of sufficient income presents itself.)

Aug 7, 2010

Immigrants and book clubs

I thought that this article on immigrant readers (particularly in the context of book clubs) raised some interesting ideas for those of us working (or hoping to work) in communities with immigrant populations. As with any specific population, immigrants have particular needs, and there are particular ways of addressing those needs that may be more or less helpful to the population.

It is first important to recognize that "immigrants" are not a monolithic group. The article points out that immigrants can be seen as falling into two broad groups -- "newcomers" and "old-timers" -- and that these subgroups have quite different needs:
Technically, old-timers can be considered immigrants, but they are a distinctive category with different needs and goals who, by extension, require a different approach and services from public libraries. They are past "the most tumultuous period of language learning and career re-establishment"; and hopefully their lives have acquired "a more stable routine" that allows them to return to habitual leisure reading (Dali 216). Hence, their expectations of public library services can be much closer to those of native-born Canadians and Americans. They may still be looking for good reads in their native languages and might also become interested in something more. This "more" may very well reflect a desire to reach out to English-speaking readers who like the same books. While old-timers may no longer belong in book clubs for newcomers, they may still be apprehensive of joining book clubs for native English speakers.
This was a useful statement for me because I hadn't really thought of things in this way before. I was aware that immigrants who had been in the country longer would probably have very different needs from new immigrants, but I had tended to lump the former group in with the general population in terms of their needs. Upon reflection, it makes sense that even well-assimilated immigrants would probably continue to have somewhat different needs than the native-born -- that they would probably seek a continued feeling of connection with their home country, for instance.

The article also points out that there can be a wide range of literacy levels among immigrants. This can definitely impact service provision. For instance, an English learners' class that assumes a higher or lower level of general literacy than most of its participants have may not be effective. In the context of book groups, with which the article is particularly concerned, such groups (which can provide important opportunities for socializing and assimilation) may not be appropriate for immigrants who struggle to read; they may need basic literacy education first. (Alternatively, a book group targeted specifically at immigrants with lower literacy levels could be set up.)

The article also notes that even fluent English speakers may still want to read in their own language, but that that doesn't mean they would be unwilling to discuss books in English. For librarians looking to help connect immigrant and non-immigrant populations in their communities through book groups, one good suggestion would then be to allow people to read a book in any language, then hold discussion in English. As the article points out, this requires a bit more care in selecting readings -- they must be available not only in English, but in the primary language(s) spoken by the local immigrant community. (As an English major, I also fear that doing this would eliminate groups' ability to discuss the style of the book and the meaning of specific phrases, though those topics are perhaps of greater interest to academics than casual reading groups -- but that added difficulty would be more than compensated for by the opportunities to allow immigrants and non-immigrants to connect with each other.)

The article closes with a few suggested ways to engage immigrant readers in book clubs. One good and fairly easy suggestion is to make sure that immigrants know that book clubs are for them by creating promotional materials in multiple languages that say that people who have read the book in translation may join. (To go further, I would suggest acquiring copies of the work in translation as well as in English, if the library gathers copies specifically to lend to group members before the group, and advertising the availability of these translated copies.) The article also suggests conducting outreach through ethnic organizations, an idea that I really like. Outreach pertaining to book groups can be folded into a broader program of outreach to these organizations that advertises all of the things the library can do for their members.

This was a particularly interesting article for me since I'm under consideration for a position in a library that serves a substantial immigrant population, and I've been thinking about ways I could reach out to that population if I were hired. Although it's short, I think that it offers some good jumping off points and basic ideas for creating a book group experience that is attractive to immigrants, particularly "old-timers."