It’s a Small World
FRANCIS KELLY, one of several librarians at the Lincoln Public Library, struggled patiently to help a patron. The woman understood almost no English and spoke what few words she knew in a heavy accent, making communication between them almost impossible. After a frustrated Kelly had exhausted all hope of assisting the woman, he was rescued by her ten-year-old daughter, who communicated with her mother in the same language and turned to the librarian and translated in perfect English. Kelly smiled, held up a finger, and immediately found the item the woman wanted–a library card application. She happily departed, all smiles. “Thank you,” the librarian said to the child as she and her mother turned to go.
“Okeyday,” said the child, returning Kelly’s smile.
“I never felt like such an idiot in my life,” Kelly said to fellow librarian Roberta Klein. “I feel so terrible that I can’t help these people because I don’t understand them.”
“They should teach languages in library school,” Klein said.
“The old neighborhood is changing fast,” Kelly said. “It used to be you just had to speak some Spanish, but now there’s Japanese, Chinese, Somali, Middle Eastern languages. Forget about it; it’s like the UN in here.”
Kelly’s metaphor is accurate. In the previous decade, the neighborhood around the library, which seemingly forever had been a predominantly Irish, Italian, and Jewish blend, had experienced a great influx of immigrants from Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. The staff principally comprises members of the aforementioned ethnicities, plus a single Hispanic woman, Theresa Rivera, and the lone African American staffer, Assistant Director Elizabeth Washington.
“This is something we really have to start thinking about,” said Connie Mascola. If the patrons don’t speak English and we don’t speak their languages, it’s going to be awfully tough to serve them.”
“This is a concern we should speak to Bill about at the next staff meeting,” Kelly said.
Better than his word, Kelly had approached Director William Sullivan prior to said meeting to request the situation be added to the agenda.
When all were assembled, Sullivan broached Kelly’s request after running down the usual business. “I’ve been told by Frank that several of the staff have concerns over our ability to serve the growing ranks of immigrant patrons. Anyone who has thoughts on this, please verbalize them/’ Sullivan said.
“Since I brought it up.” Kelly said, “I’ll start. To repeat what I said to Bill and what some of us have talked about already, we’re concerned that we may not be prepared to meet the flood of new immigrants into this area in recent years. I had an experience just a week ago. I was completely helpless to assist someone who spoke no English with getting ultimately what was an application for a library card. It was very embarrassing for me and the patron.”
“It’s not just immigrants. There is a large number of African Americans and Hispanics populating this are a, and I’m the only black woman, Terry is the only Hispanic, and there are no Asian Americans on the staff at all,” Washington said.
“And whenever African Americans or Hispanics come in looking for something,” Rivera said, “they almost always immediately come over and ask me.”
“But isn’t that their hang-up?” asked Klein. “It’s not like the test of us wouldn’t help them because they aren’t white.”
“Of course not. I’m not saying that at all,” answered Washington. “It’s just human nature. We also have to make changes in the collection to reflect the needs of the users. Simply having best sellers in English isn’t going to cut it for much longer.”
“Okay, so what do we do then? Fire half the staff and replace them with blacks, Hispanics, and Asians while replacing half the collection with foreign-language materials?”
“I’m not saying that either,” Washington affirmed.
“Then what do we do to address this problem?”
The case study highlights one of the failures of the traditional library: a lack of willingness to collaborate with the community to address the new obstacles of the modern, “flat world.” The tone of the meeting in the presented case is that of “what can we do to help them,” it represents a doctrinaire, old guard and ineffective way to deal complex problems. In this age, libraries must adapt, as the open source software and web 2.0 worlds have, to marshal volunteer and collaborative forces to produce content and to solve problems.
Mr. Kelly is ill equipped to interface with the non-English speaking visitor, so what are some ways he could have overcome the divide besides relying on accidental help from a child? It is implied in the study that over the past decade the library had become aware of the influx of this demographic. Why then did they not expect the new citizens to arrive at the library to request services? Having become aware of the new population, the library could have called upon the community for volunteer translators and cultural liaisons, and in the absence of an interest, may have requested funds from local government to hire the temporary services of a professional to create some basic documentation for would-be visitors. At the very least the public library must provide enough guidance to visitors so that they may service themselves – anything less would not nourish the public trust.
Alternatively, the library team could have been tasked by the director in partaking in a seminar on the history, culture and languages of these new peoples; a basic course study could have been mandated as a required assignment of professional development. Salary or tax incentives could be offered to librarians who agree to become proficient in the new languages, as presented to local officials as a public service. Ultimately, librarians (at least in public spaces) are civic servants, and thus by duty must attend to the evolving needs of the community.
Yet these latter courses of action are not the ideal, for they rely on the professional caste of the library itself and is thus by nature constrained in resources. Rather the ideal course instead would be for the librarians to become community pillars, rallying the support of these new demographics to help empower themselves. With a little bit of rigorous networking with demographic non-governmental organizations, impassioned individuals and community groups it is possible to summon volunteers to do the work that the professionals would do traditionally, at no expense to the public and specifically suited to those in need. The people are willing to do good things; they just must be marshaled by a pillar of wisdom and virtue: our new breed of civic librarian.
This is the sort of interaction we observe in the web 2.0 world, which is increasingly spilling into our offline world. A few skilled administrators bring together a creative project by presenting a well constructed blueprint, and the project is accomplished by the modest and volunteered contributions of the many rather than the costly works of the few. This is the effective model for tackling our biggest problems, many of which are now outside the scope of professionals and may not be economically solved without the collaboration of the wider public community, from the library to matters of government, to humanitarian efforts (see: Bill Clinton’s newest pet project Kiva). As the information age becomes realized (rather than theorized), a massive influx of data saturates and bombards the community, which could not possibly be handled by a small staff of professionals.
Rather than panic and lament in private meetings, as those in the case study did, open the process to the public, and allow them to offer their resources. The librarians may act as architects, designing the systems that the community accesses to ensure their safety and wellbeing, organizing the disorganized and serving as marshal of public resources, rather than the portal of all knowledge. In this new age what the professional knows and what the common man knows, as far as knowledge is concerned, is leveling due to the broad proliferation of all knowledge. What will keep the librarian separate and valuable will be his wisdom and vigilance, his ability to see flaw and dysfunction within an information system and institution and his expedience to correct it by leading those who cannot lead themselves. While the new librarians are less authoritarian in their job posts, they are still invaluable as guides and Platonic guardians, ensuring the harmony of the institution.
Let us now propose a practical scenario. A community which was once composed primarily of English speaking people has over time become a multilingual community, the most prominent language other than English being Korean. The library is having similar problems to the ones in the case study. After a seminar and new mandate to address the situation, librarians are tasked with seeking out volunteers to interface between the Korean community and the library staff. One librarian notices a particularly erudite student who frequents the library and approaches him with a proposition to volunteer on a “by need” basis as a translator and liaison. With his cell phone number and agreement, the library now has a translator. Or perhaps a similar volunteer is located through a public awareness campaign designed by the library staff, calling upon local Koreans to help their communities. This opens up the possibility of not only empowering new citizens with the knowledge housed within the library, but also welcoming them into the American culture at large, in a non-intrusive and voluntary fashion.
Another issue brought up in the case study was functional racism: the librarians appear to be lamenting the preference of visitors of one race to only ask for service from librarians of the same race. It is implied that the Caucasians estrange or intimidate many people of other races who attend the library. Two sarcastic solutions are proposed: firing and replacing Caucasian personnel with non-Caucasian personnel, and also replacing “half the collection” with “foreign-language materials.” These solutions are fallacious in that they propose a false dichotomy: an extreme case of “either or.”
Let us begin with the second proposal, as it is more rational. It is not necessary to replace the collection with “foreign-language materials” to appease the new face of the community if it is at all possible to simply add to it. If no space is available that could be addressed with an additional plan of action, to make better use of the space or to renovate. If those options are not economical, at the very least the library could offer a computer to access the internet, the services of a volunteer translator/guide, and also offer logistical support for inter-library loan of foreign materials. The first proposal reveals the reason why the non-Caucasians are acting as they do: with such arrogance, “us or them” mentality, and veiled racism it is no wonder that the foreign community feels estranged. This ties into my initial arguments: it is essential that the library open itself up to the community rather than attempt to muscle itself through using old guard doctrine. A library which offered an amenable face to the foreign communities might be better received as cosmopolitan rather than simply an institution by whites for whites.