Serving African Immigrants in Colorado Public Libraries
The United States is a country of immigrants. Although diversity is not a new thing, it is certainly becoming more prevalent. In fact, according to the 2009 American Community Survey, the foreign-born population in the United States has continued to increase in size and percentage for the past four decades.1 Colorado may see a shift in its immigrant demographics as its population continues to increase. Many African immigrants have moved to Colorado in recent years. Some have come as part of refugee resettlement programs; others are moving on from eastern states like New York. Refugees continue to flee horrendous conditions in certain African countries. African immigrants in Colorado in the year 2000 totaled only 9,763.2 In 2010, the African immigrant community in Colorado was estimated to be around 40,000 with a growth rate of 150%, according to Kit Taintor, director of Colorado African Organization (CAO).3 This rapid growth necessitates enhanced collection in other languages, non-traditional outreach methods, and library programs that serve this population.
With public libraries being the premier educational institution for the common man, it is obvious that resources must be allocated so as to ensure that all citizens are provided with the best possible resources to help them to become integrated into our society, acculturate to the political structures, attitudes, and values of democracy while maintaining their own culture, attitudes, values, and language. The lack of appropriate and adequate services and programs for African immigrants are, however, very visible. This paper seeks to identify these gaps and recommend possible solutions.
The African immigrant community is often unaware of services offered by the public libraries. In situations where they are aware of the services they can get from the public libraries, for variety of reasons including library anxiety and cultural differences, they do not take full advantage of the library's services and programs. Still worse, they do not fully understand the library's policies. For example, many African immigrants do not understand how to renew checked out items and end up accruing large fines.
Most African immigrants come from countries with limited library resources and services. The question though is how do library professionals expect the African immigrant in our current information environment to effectively use our services as informational tools for survival when they are not even aware of the services public libraries provide. This paper will also discuss the characteristics and needs of the African immigrant community in Colorado, their barriers to library use, and recommendations for public libraries on how to reach the African immigrant community.
Characteristics of the African Immigrant Community in Colorado
The African immigrant community in Colorado is made of people from the 53 African countries with varied cultures and languages. Some of the countries represented are Ethiopia, Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Ghana, Mauritania, and Congo. Library use is often a privilege in these countries; not everyone has equal access. Moreover, most of the libraries in Africa have closed stacks and no electronic resources, let alone story times, computer classes and all the other wonderful programs that libraries in the United States offer.
The African immigrant community in Colorado is usually divided into groups by country of origin. Each group has a leader, who serves as a guide to members of the group, and who receives great respect.
English is a second, third and even fourth language to most African immigrants. However, some speak the language of their colonial masters (English, French, Italian, Portuguese, etc.). They tend to do low-paying, unskilled jobs due to language barriers and lack of education. Even in cases where they are very educated and speak very good English, their degrees are often not recognized in the United States.
Nonetheless, they are usually law-abiding citizens, disciplined, ambitious, high achievers and tax payers too. Colorado is now their new home and they wish to improve their life and the lives of their children. The public libraries can be the hub to help them integrate into mainstream American lifestyle through services provided or tailored to them. As stated by Schomberg and Grace in 2005, "libraries are supremely equipped to become proponents of ethnic diversity and an inclusive perspective of American culture."4 The African immigrant community may not be as big as other immigrant communities yet, but it is growing rapidly and needs the same services that all immigrants need and even more.
Needs and Barriers Encountered in Library Use
The African immigrant community like every immigrant community has enormous needs. Some of the needs are English language training, computer skills, GED, citizenship and driving classes. Other programs include homework help, after school programs, reading assistance or story times, adult literacy and exposure to western civilization. They also need information literacy education. Information literacy was defined by the Alexandria Proclamation as a means to "empower people in all walks of life to seek, evaluate, use and create information effectively to achieve their personal, social, occupational and educational goals."5 This is certainly something that will be very useful to the African immigrant community as they try to assimilate and integrate into mainstream America. It will enable them to be able to find, identify, select, and obtain vital information necessary for their survival. Other needs such as financial guidance, environmental education, and family health literacy are all necessary to the African immigrant community during their transition process.
Most of these services are already provided by the public libraries, but the African immigrant community does not often take advantage of them. Instead, they usually go to the African organizations where similar services are provided, even in cases where they have to pay for the service. This is a fact that is contributed to by a lot of factors like library anxiety, lack of knowledge of library service offerings, lack of knowledge of how to use the library, language barriers, cultural differences, low education, limited collections in the language they speak, and time and day of program. These barriers are typical among new immigrants and even though diversity is not a new thing in the U.S., public libraries are still learning how to accommodate immigrants in their libraries.
Recommendations for Public Libraries
Public libraries will have to study and understand the barriers that prevent immigrants from using the libraries. Library anxiety is often very common among the African immigrant community and it is rightfully so. According to Jiao and Ongwegbuzie, factors such as "...low levels of perceived social acceptance...poor reading ability...[and]...poor computer skills..." causes library anxiety.6 Also, according to Mellon's grounded theory on library anxiety, "...not knowing where to find things and not knowing how the library is organized...[as well as]...lack of knowledge about what to do in the library, accompanied by feelings of inadequacy and fear of asking for help" are some of the characteristics of library anxiety.7
Public libraries can lower the affective filters that cause library anxiety by designing more outreach programs, employing the use of displays, greetings, and signage. Displays usually attract library users to the collection. They also help users find what they are looking for without asking for help. Greetings at point of contact will also give library users an opportunity to ask questions or for help and thus reduce the affective factors in library anxiety. Further signage in the libraries should be clear, bold, and easy to read. Signage should appear in multiple languages when possible. In general, public libraries should work more to create a welcoming and attractive community center that accommodates every diverse group.
There is also the issue of African immigrants lacking knowledge of services offered in the public libraries. Public libraries will therefore have to adjust their outreach methods. They have to be proactive in promoting library services. Public libraries are no longer in an era where they sit and wait for users to come to them. Non-traditional outreach methods such as attending some African programs to talk about library services, finding out who the African leaders are and engaging them to inform their communities of library services will help eradicate this problem.
Additionally, distribution of library brochures and flyers in African shops, restaurants, churches, and any other place African immigrants congregate will be useful as well. It is also important for the public libraries to collaborate with the African organizations. According to the director of Colorado African Organization (CAO), some of the people in the African community hide due to social challenges and the only way the CAO was able to get to them was through word of mouth from other Africans or a visit to their homes for tea.8 This may be far-fetched for libraries but once they collaborate, a common goal can be achieved. The African organizations in Colorado are willing to have representatives from the libraries come over to their location and showcase their library's services and resources. The public libraries can also invite the African immigrants as a group for a tour and instructions on how to use the library. This will not only inform the African immigrant users but show them how to use the library, help them understand library jargon, expose them to available technology and breadth of the library's collection.
Language barriers are another reason why African immigrants do not use the public libraries. Language barriers have always been a challenge when serving immigrants. It is even more challenging with the African immigrant community as there are so many varied local languages. According to Chattoo, immigrants may be timid about using the English language or of revealing their different speech patterns.9 However, gestures, pointing and gadgets are all tools that libraries can use to bridge the language barrier. Also according to Asch as cited in Pyati 2003, this is important when we understand that the key barriers to people with English as a second language use of libraries are primarily linguistic and cultural.10 Libraries can create a database of language services for translation. Once the libraries get actively involved in the African immigrant community, they can recruit volunteers for translation from the community.
Further, most public libraries do not have materials in languages or cultures other than English and western and this alienates African immigrants from using the public libraries. Immigrants usually feel more comfortable when they see their culture fairly represented in public places. According to Schomberg and Grace again in 2005, to better meet the needs of patrons with English as their second language and to ensure a more welcoming learning institution, "libraries should recognize the different behaviors, attitudes, and needs of their user populations by reflecting them in its resources."11 People are more motivated to read materials when they see their culture affirmed and reflected in the pages of the book.12 There are so many programs that public libraries are sponsoring to encourage early literacy through reading. For instance, parents are encouraged to read to their children every day. Non-English-speaking parents, however, may be unable to find books they can read to their children in their own languages. Public libraries must go beyond including multiple language resources in the collection. They must include books with main characters and settings that reflect the reader's culture as well. A diverse library collection will not only lead to English language learners who have a stronger grasp of the English language, but it would also create a generation of readers who will learn to appreciate the value of other cultures through the language and literature from those cultures. Although it is always beneficial to be fluent in more than one language, bilingualism does not appear to be a requirement for developing and maintaining a bilingual library collection.13
Public libraries can also partner with a consortium that participates actively with International Coalition of Library Consortia (ICOLC). ICOLC consists of over 200 library consortia from around the world.14 Also, the American Library Association has created a foreign book dealers directory.15 From the site, librarians can find suppliers of library materials from many parts of the world. The directory is a searchable list of vendors regularly used by university libraries in the United States. The International Children's Digital Library is another good source for finding books in various cultures and in the original language of publication.16 Public libraries can further collaborate with other libraries that have same or similar demographics for resource sharing.
Finally, cultural differences tend to be a hindrance to library use and to providing library services to African immigrants. For instance according to Janine Reid, Director of High Plains Library District, some male African immigrant in her district had problems with her library's predominantly female staff. Reid also added that even though the African women would like to use the library they usually have to ask their husbands for permission before they can use the library.17 Cathy Bosley, Director of Fort Morgan Public Library also stated that library programs offered on Fridays were not attended because the African immigrants they were intended for are Muslims who go to the Mosque on Fridays and therefore prefer programs on other days.18 Culture is the way of life of people and because the public libraries will not be able to change that, they should find a way to get around the barrier. This is why exposure to western civilization will be important to this group. The public libraries can start with research to know a little more about the African immigrants in their communities, their culture and languages spoken. This will help the library's staff know some basic things about the immigrants they serve. For instance in certain African cultures, females do not shake hands with males; men usually have the final say in the family and some Africans are Muslims. Public libraries should also "recruit culturally diversified staff...[and]...schedule programs at convenient times and locations for maximum participation."19
America is becoming more diverse, and the public library's clientele is no longer homogenous. Public libraries will have to adjust their approach and techniques to fit their changing communities. They must understand their communities and the people who live in them. They may have to collect pertinent data about the communities they serve. Public libraries will also have to collaborate with organizations that work with immigrants and be proactive in promoting library services. Some of the organizations that work with immigrants in Colorado are The Spring Institute for Intercultural Learning, Lutheran Family Services of Colorado, Colorado African Organization, The African Community Center, Somali Community Center of Colorado, East Africa Community of Colorado Incorporated, and Ethiopian Community Development Council, Inc. Additionally, public libraries will have to advocate for better funding and for equal access to information for all people. There is however the need for more studies pertaining to this topic. The libraries studied in this report are a partial list of libraries that serve African immigrants in Colorado. Further research can be done to find out the best way to streamline cultural differences, provide better and effective service, and make all immigrants effective library users. This is vital for their survival as Colorado becomes their new home. The immigrants could be using the public libraries, but are they really enjoying the whole package?
1. Elizabeth M. Grieco and Edward N. Trevelyan, "Place of Birth of the Foreign-Born Population: 2009," American Community Survey Brief, October 2010, accessed November 14, 2010, http://www.census.gov/prod/2010pubs/acsbr09-15.pdf.
3. Personal Interview with Kit Taintor, Director, Colorado African Organization, October 28, 2010.
4. Jessica Schomberg and Michelle Grace, "Expanding a Collection to Reflect Diverse User Populations," Collection Building, 24 (2005), 126.
5. Forest Woody Horton, Jr., "Understanding Information Literacy: A Primer," UNESCO Information for All Programs, accessed November 28, 2010, http://unesdoc.unesco.org/images/0015/001570/157020e.pdf.
6. Heather Carlile, "The Implications of Library Anxiety for Academic Reference Services: A Review of the Literature," Australian Academic & Research Libraries, 38 (2007), 135.
7. Ibid., 130.
8. Interview, Taintor.
9. Calmer D. Chattoo, "Reference Services: Meeting the Needs of International Adult Learners," Reference Librarian, 33 (2000), 356.
10. Ajit Pyati, "Limited English Proficient Users and the Need for Improved Reference Services," Reference Services Review, 31 (2003), 268.
11. Schomberg and Grace, 126.
12. Gail Dickinson and Kaavonia Hinton, "Make the Connection: Celebrating Language Diversity to Improve Achievement," Library Media Connection, 26 (2008), 5.
13. Jo Anna Patton, "You're Not Bilingual, So What?," Library Media Connection, 26 (2008), 25.
17. Personal Interview with Janine Reid, Director, High Plains Library District, October 18, 2010.
18. Personal Interview Cathy Bosley, Director, Fort Morgan Public Library, October 13, 2010.
19. Cheryl Metoyer, "Missing Links in Reaching Culturally Diverse Students in Academic Libraries," Journal of Academic Librarianship, 26 (2000), 157-158.
Judit H. Ward, "Acquisitions Globalized: The Foreign Language Acquisitions Experience in a Research Library," Library Resources & Technical Services, 53 (2009), 86-93.
This paper benefited from the following, additional personal interviews: Asad Abdi, Executive Director, East Africa Community of Colorado Incorporated, November 4, 2010; Cindy Welsh, Outreach Manager, High Plains Library District, November 4, 2010; Collete West, Vice President, East Africa Community of Colorado Incorporated, November 4, 2010; Deb Johnson, East Morgan County Library, October 18, 2010; Padma Polepeddi, Supervisor, Eloise May library, a branch of the Arapahoe Library District, October 5, 2010; Omar Nur, Vice President and Director of Programs, Somali Community Center of Colorado, October 15, 2010 and Dr Shimelis Assefa, Library and Information Science Program, Mordridge College of Education, University of Denver, November 22, 2010.