Three years ago, when I first came to America, I took a trip to the Eden Prairie Library. Little did I know this rendezvous would change my perception and existence as an immigrant. If it wasn’t for the library, I wouldn’t have found my first job, had my first art exhibit or even be writing this article. These might sound like small things for people who have lived their whole lives in America and did not face the big challenge of: “How do I fit in here, how do I start a new life?” For other new immigrants like me, the library becomes a very important source of this vital information.
Among the many services offered by the Eden Prairie Library, which is a part of the Hennepin County Library System, are resources for ESL (English as a Second Language) learning, databases with study tests and the language learning database, BYKI. All immigrants might not feel the need to learn English, but there are other resources like Citizenship guides, test guides for obtaining a GED and the software JobNow, which helps in creating an ideal resume.
The Chaska and Chanhassen Libraries, which are a part of the Carver County library system, have the Twin Cities New Immigrant Guide, offering information about renting an apartment or securing a telephone. These libraries also conduct Conversation Circles, which helps immigrants interact with the community and makes them more comfortable voicing their opinion.
“I find the library a great place to work on papers and am really impressed with the easy access to computers, printers and software,” says Stanley Ngulukulu, who is originally from Tanzania. Ngulukulu is working on his Masters of Business Administration at Metropolitan State University and is a regular visitor to the Eden Prairie Library.
The local libraries have noticed a change in demographics in the past few years. Whereas the Somali community has been on the rise at the Eden Prairie Library, there are also a considerable number of Russians, Indians and Asians that use the library resources. It is the same at the Chanhassen and Chaska Library, which has also seen an increase in Spanish-speaking patrons. Recognizing this change, the libraries have tried to modify their collection, depending on the user base at that location. “We use data from Hennepin County, and welcome comments from the community so that we can tweak collections as necessary,” says Wendy Woodfill, Hennepin County Library’s World Languages Selection Librarian.
It is to address the needs of these immigrants, that the public libraries are constantly making amends to their approach in customer service. “There is a Diversity Committee at both the County as well as the Library level, which imparts the skills required to understand immigrant issues,” says Gretchen Wronka, who works with Multicultural Services at the Hennepin County Library.
Local libraries also have cultural and language liaisons, who help to gauge the needs of a particular immigrant group by having conversations with them. “When there is a need identified by an influx of new patrons, the library community tries to respond with specific and culturally informative education for staff,” says Janet Karius, the Branch Manager at the Chaska Library.
At the same time, the libraries want to ensure that the community is aware of the resources available for immigrants. To achieve this aim, the Eden Prairie Library invites ESL classes to the library and library representatives often talk to groups at Literacy Nights organized by schools. The libraries at Chaska and Chanhassen collaborate with Social Services and a local Welcome Wagon representative, who includes library information in new resident packets. Doing so helps the library’s representatives be a familiar face for new residents.
“We focus too much on what makes immigrants different, but they are similar in being human,” says Dillon Young, a senior librarian at the Eden Prairie Library. “They want to succeed yet relax, just like all of us.”
And local libraries strive to provide just that: “A perfect place for mixing and mingling; exploring and experimenting,” says Marcella Sanchez, Latino Outreach Liaison at Hennepin County Library.
At the end of the day, all community members, immigrant or not, can look to the library as a source of both information and leisure; a haven with unbiased opportunity to ask questions, without being judged.
Amruta Marwah is a resident of Eden Prairie, who lived in Nagpur, a city in central India, before moving to Minnesota. She has a master’s degree in microbiology and plans to pursue her doctorate.