Libraries and English Language Learners

How well are school and public libraries serving non-native English speakers?
Illustration by Keith Negley

Illustration by Keith Negley

Click on the website of Minnesota’s Hennepin County Library (HCL), and a photo of a hijab-clad woman reading to preschoolers prominently appears. The image is just one sign that this library system is working to serve the increasingly diverse population of the Minneapolis area, which includes English language learners (ELL) from a variety of homelands. Minnesota has long been a destination for immigrants. In the 1800s, Germans, Irish and Scandinavians arrived on the plains. In the 1970s and 2000s, it became home to many Hmong and Vietnamese placed by refugee relocation programs. In the 1990s, Somalis escaping the war in Mogadishu began settling here.

The 41 HCL branches employ community outreach liaisons for Spanish, Hmong, and Somali speakers. Serving these communities goes beyond providing translation or books in native languages. It involves understanding traditions and political histories of immigrant homelands and incorporating them into a variety of library programs.

Historically, American libraries have provided a gateway for newcomers adjusting to life in the United States. Today, as non-native English speakers comprise an increasingly diverse part of the population, public and school libraries are striving to meet their needs. With few official programming directives about how libraries should serve these patrons, librarians interviewed by SLJ said that they often design their own initiatives.

School librarians often face acute situations, from funding shortages to impossible-to-find books. “My library has a very, very small amount of non-English materials,” says Sara Frey, instructional media specialist–librarian at Plymouth Whitemarsh High School, near Philadelphia. “One of our biggest populations of ELL students is Nepali. Good luck funding Lord of the Flies in Nepali.” Frey more often works with teachers to find materials in appropriate languages for Social Studies and other content areas, in print and audio format.

SLJ1504-WorldOpportunity-PQ2According to a National Center for Education Statistics study conducted in 2011–12, 14 percent of public school students are not native English speakers, and in all but 10 states, that number had increased over the previous 10 years. Among them, Spanish is by far the most commonly spoken language (77 percent). For nearly 45 years, REFORMA, the American Library Association (ALA) affiliate dedicated to promoting library and information services to Latinos, has been advocating on behalf of Spanish-speaking patrons. A recent Pew Research report showed that Latino immigrants were more likely than U.S.–born whites, Latinos, or African Americans to appreciate library services.

After Spanish, Chinese, Vietnamese, Hmong, and Arabic are the most common native languages among ELL students, according to the Migration Policy Institute. However, the language balance can vary greatly according to region: In parts of the upper Midwest, Native American languages are predominant among students, and Somali and Bosnian are the most frequently spoken in Maine and Vermont.

In addition, the concept of a public library is a mystery to many newcomers. “Those who understand what a library is think of it as [providing] books only,” says HCL African/Somali outreach liaison Ahmed Ali. “It’s hard for me to explain to them that libraries are more than books.”

To cultivate trust, understand cultures

Serving English language learners can be a complicated task. It involves learning the native language and social mores of patrons, bridging technology gaps, and cultivating trust—particularly with refugee populations. Many librarians, especially those serving less common or recent immigrant groups, are doing these tasks on their own—going into the community to build relationships.

Often, the job of outreach to nonnative English speakers falls upon library staff of the same ethnicity. Silvia Cisneros, REFORMA president and youth services librarian at the Santa Ana (CA) Public Library, emigrated from Mexico when she was in the eighth grade. “Coming from a place where there were not libraries, I was in high school when I first saw [one],” she says. With Cisneros’s support, some REFORMA members launched a campaign last year to bring books to unaccompanied Latin American minors held in U.S. detention centers.

In Minnesota, Ali relates a similar trajectory as Cisneros’s. He finished high school in Somalia and attended college and graduate school in the United States. “I understand both cultures, both languages. I understand the religion,” Ali says. He explains that there are several cultural barriers for new Somali immigrants, including the fact that many have spent years in refugee camps with little education. Women, who usually bring kids to the library, have often left school at an early age.

To serve the estimated 70,000 Somalis in greater Minneapolis, HCL offers English as a Second Language (ESL) classes for adults four to five days a week. This spring, Ali will be working with Somali poet Mariam Hassan to lead a creative writing program encouraging Somali teens to write their own stories and perspectives of living in America.

The Minneapolis–St. Paul metropolitan area is also home to the largest Hmong (an ethnic group originally from the mountains of Laos) population in the United States. Chaleng Lee serves as HCL’s outreach liaison to the Asian American community, 64,000 in the Twin Cities area. “There are no libraries in Laos,” says Lee. To create cultural-specific programs, Lee worked with community agencies and visited ethnic stores, churches, and community and holiday events—such as Hmong New Year’s and Hmong Fourth of July. “In the Hmong and any other immigrant communities, it’s always a struggle to gain trust,” Lee says. “However, once you have, your programs will always get good attendance.”

Even in regions that have historically been home to newcomers, libraries are learning how to work with evolving populations. In Brooklyn, NY, one in four residents has limited English proficiency, and nearly half of all Brooklynites speak a language other than English at home. As the languages have diversified, so have the Brooklyn Public Library’s (BPL) outreach programs, which were recently nominated for the Institute of Museum and Library Services National Medal.

BPL’s Ready, Set, Kindergarten! program offers resources for parents in seven languages. Like other public libraries, BPL focuses on the whole family. For the older population, it will launch multilingual “Creative Aging” programs this year. Since 2002, it has offered English for Speakers of Other Languages classes, with 40 English conversation groups and citizenship courses funded by United States Citizenship and Immigration Services.

SLJ1504-WorldOpportunity-PQ1How to find books in Hmong

BPL collects media in 13 languages: Arabic, Bengali, Chinese, French, Haitian, Hebrew, Hungarian, Italian Polish, Russian, Spanish, Urdu and Yiddish. Russian has traditionally been the most in-demand language, currently with Ukrainians. “The most endearing saying I heard from a Russian immigrant was, ‘I have my family with me. I can find books I like [here]. I am at home,’” says BPL world languages coordinator Maria Fung.

Chinese and Spanish are the distant second and third most common languages. Since New York’s Chinese immigrant population jumped 33.9 percent from 2000 to 2011, demand for Chinese materials is catching up to Russian.

For many public libraries, collection development—including foreign language materials—is part of the annual budget allocations. But locating books in some languages can be a challenge. The Hmong written language, for instance, was created in the 1950s. “It was really difficult to locate print materials when I first started my position at HCL, because there just weren’t that many books published in Hmong,” says Lee. Fortunately, the only Hmong bookstore in America is located in St. Paul, which helped HCL develop the largest collection of Hmong books, DVDs, and CDs in the United States. 
Locating Somali books also poses a challenge. Many authors are scattered around the world as a result of two decades of political unrest in their homeland. Ali also looks for English-language books about Somali culture, history, or politics, as well as Arabic titles, also important to the predominantly Muslim population.

School librarians’ changing needs

Budget-strapped public schools also often face challenges in acquiring books, DVDs, and other media in non-English languages. The most recent survey of English language learners by the American Association of School Libraries (AASL), conducted in 2010, reported that while free-choice reading is important to the success of ELL students, 90 percent of responding school librarians said that less than five percent of their collection was non-English.

Additionally, in the last decade, many schools have shifted away from a remedial-style curriculum, in which non-native English- speaking students transition within a few years to all-English learning. Over 700 schools nationwide now choose dual-immersion bilingual curricula, in which students are taught in their native language while also learning English. These programs often result in students in fifth through eighth grade needing more native- language materials.

Leo Gomez, former president of the National Association of Bilingual Educators, encourages schools to allocate a big budget for non-English books. “We recommend that in dual-immersion schools, 75 percent of the budget should target the minority language and 25 percent should go toward English. This requires involvement by minority language teaching teachers to research and share quality books and resources with librarians,” he says. For schools using a transitional ESL curriculum, Gomez recommends that the collection be evenly split between English and native-language books, at least for the lower grades, when students are being taught in both languages.

Collection development has been a particular challenge in the San Jose (CA) Unified School District (SJUSD), which has largely replaced its ESL program with a dual-immersion bilingual curriculum at many campuses over the last seven years. At the same time, the nationwide shift toward new educational standards emphasizing informational texts has raised the need for school libraries to find more nonfiction in foreign languages.

“Most schools in California have had multilingual literature on the shelf,” says Beth Olshewsky, media services supervisor for the Santa Clara County (CA) Office of Education. “But perhaps only 10 percent of it is information text, and they need to build that collection more.”

Willow Glen Elementary School, in SJUSD, has increased its Spanish books from 10 to 30 percent of its collection through PTA donations and fundraisers, such as book fairs in English and Spanish. REFORMA reports that many libraries fundraise through partnerships with businesses or community organizations, such as ethnic professional groups or even the consulate of a population’s nation of origin.

Silvia Cisneros leads bilingual storytime for babies at the Santa Ana (CA) Public Library. Photo by David Lopez/Courtesy of Santa Ana Public Library

Silvia Cisneros leads bilingual storytime for babies at the Santa Ana (CA) Public Library.
Photo by David Lopez/Courtesy of Santa Ana Public Library

Leadership: Is there enough?

While the population of non-native English speakers is rising, many libraries still work independently to develop services. AASL does not currently coordinate ELL services at the national level, according to AASL president Terri Grief. However, some state and regional library associations—such as in Minnesota, California, and Pennsylvania—have held seminars for librarians to share expertise and ideas.

In St. Paul, Tori Jensen is library and media specialist for a LEAP High School, a campus serving 325 students, all non-native English speakers. “I have looked for other librarians in my position. I found only two,” she says. Jensen has relied on “on-the-job training” to serve her Somali, Hmong, and Karen (an ethnic tribe from Thailand) students, and has also invited local public librarians in to explain their services.

“I received minimal instruction on the topic in regards to both my roles as a teacher and a librarian,” Frey says. “In speaking to others, I found that my situation was not unique. I seek out advice and answers from colleagues all the time.”

Frey spoke about her work at the Pennsylvania Library Association conference in September 2014. “No one ever mentioned receiving specific training on it,” she says. She will make a similar presentation at the Pennsylvania School Librarians Association conference in May. Frey sees broader applications in her teaching methods. “Many of the strategies are also helpful with students with special needs,” she says.

“I definitely believe that more services can be provided, more training,” Cisneros says. “It’s important for librarians to learn more about those who are English learners.” REFORMA holds a conference every three years (April 1–4, 2015 in San Diego), open to all librarians. Most panels addresses issues, programs, and services to the Latino community and non-English speakers.

Africa Hands, chair of the Association of Library Service to Children (ALSC) Service to Special Populations Committee, echoes Cisneros’s sentiments. “There are resources, but they are pretty scattered,” Hands says. The June 2015 ALSC annual conference in San Francisco will include a panel on serving immigrant populations—a “first in terms of the broader immigrant community,” Hands says. “I hope that it will open the conversation beyond Spanish-speaking populations.”

What your community needs

Ultimately, local libraries must identify their particular communities’ needs. Ali stresses the importance of hiring librarians from the immigrant communities they serve—who can assuage fears that may prevent people from setting foot in the library. “When they come into the library and everyone looks the same—Caucasian—it’s hard,” Ali says. “When they see someone who looks like them, they ask questions. They need to be able to speak the language, not just be ethnic Somali or Hmong.” This points to the profession’s need to recruit more broadly, as well.

Lee advocates for long-term programs, rather than one-time events. In his work with Hmong immigrants, he often calls families a day before a storytime or class, since they rely on memory and not calendars for their schedules.

“Most immigrants...will usually not plan anything else that day,” says Lee. And in time, they—and their children—will often become loyal patrons.

Grace Hwang Lynch is a Bay Area freelance writer on race, culture, and parenting. She blogs at

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Deborah Bonham

Were you able to locate any age appropriate magazines for middle grade students in Spanish or Arabic?

Posted : Apr 13, 2015 08:35

Susan Dennison

Great article, and love, love love the Keith Negley. Do you know if that is available for purchase? I checked his website, but no go. Thanks.

Posted : Apr 08, 2015 01:02

Jill Mullins

Through a grant for $1000 from my high school's parent association I was able to create the first high school "International Library"in our county. Locating books in Spanish and French was fairly simple. We do have titles in Chinese, Japanese, German, Hungarian, Vietnamese, Italian, Russian, Polish and even Creole. Titles range from classics, popular current YA fiction, to hi-low books. Most are fiction; however, I was able to locate some nonfiction. This morning a student fussed at me because she's a senior and won't be able to take advantage of reading all the French titles.

Posted : Apr 06, 2015 08:46

Shaeley Santiago

As an ESL teacher who has collaborated with our local youth services librarian to encourage ESL family literacy nights at our public library, I'd encourage librarians to reach out to the ESL staff in the public schools (and vice versa). Often we both have similar goals around literacy and books, so why not work together collaboratively instead of possibly duplicating services? You each may have strengths, resources, connections, and information that the other could benefit from.

Posted : Apr 06, 2015 01:24

Shannon Walters

A resource worth mentioning is The free online resource provides ebooks/audiobooks in english and a variety of other languages. Books are for emerging readers, both fiction and nonfiction. Our ELL students are in english immersion classes; sometimes it is a relief, especially for newcomers, to hear their home language spoken during the day. One challenge we face at our library is finding books that do not celebrate cultural oppressors. Our community is a refugee resettlement community that has a significant Somali Bantu New American population. The only books I can find about Somalia and Somalis are about ethnic Somalis and not the Somali Bantu who were enslaved and marginalized. I'd appreciated any leads for materials to support these patrons. TIA!

Posted : Apr 06, 2015 12:07

Deborah MacInnis

We are dealing with a similar situation. We need Brazilian Portuguese. There are a great many Brazilian Portuguese in coastal Rhode Island and Massachusetts. I will bet they are also in Hawaii. Portuguese and Brazilain immigrants came with the whaling and fishing. We just did a bilingual supper story hour featuring high school native speakers of both languages doing the story hour and a parent program for the parents. It was wildly successful and produced strong cross cultural bonds. Now we just need to figure out how to keep it funded. Our best source for books was ""

Posted : Apr 03, 2015 10:21

Carol Simon Levin

One issue not addressed here is how to find world language books with MARC catalogue records so that they can be included in our OPACs. We have been dealing with Multicultural Books and Video which is very good in some languages and astonishingly slim in others. e.g. 450+ children's books in Arabic but only 12 in Hebrew; similarly 400+ in Russian, none in Ukranian.

Posted : Apr 02, 2015 08:17

Pam Meiser

I agree. I have been struggling to catalog books written in simplified Chinese.

Posted : Apr 03, 2015 01:54



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