The library focuses on newcomers
Last week I served as a panelist on a session titled “Newcomers and public libraries” at the Ontario Library Association (OLA) Super Conference held at the Metro Convention Centre in Toronto. The OLA is Canada’s largest library organization and the Super Conference is the largest continuing education event in librarianship in North America. The room was filled to capacity with librarians from across the province who were grappling with a variety of issues dealing with newcomers.At the onset, moderator Stephen Abram made it quite clear that the library did a poor job marketing itself, he recognized the fact that librarians were the least diverse group of employees and ageing. It was evident that the OLA had to go after newcomers and we the panelist were there to have a conversation about the needs and special needs of newcomers.
Some suggestions I offered:
Most immigrants stumble into libraries quite by accident. It would be a great idea to actually have a public library in every airport of this country as it would go a long way to promote reading and would be the first great institution a newcomer to Canada would discover and develop a life-long relationship with it. Newcomers could get their… library cards and check out books about Canada along with their luggage if they so wanted or at least they could be told about the location of their new neighborhood library. I have personally seen newcomers in the library looking quite lost while librarians went about their business assuming they would approach them if they had any question. I suggested what the moderator termed ‘the retail approach’, where library staff come around and ensure the visitor is finding everything okay. I was peppered with questions- would newcomers be offended if asked if they were new to Canada? I explained that some newcomers who are trying to forget that fact may feel mildly offended, but suggested that perhaps library staff could ask if they were new to the library system.
All newcomers to Canada aren’t necessarily Asian, South Asian or black. I once met a White South African couple and their children who had immigrated a year earlier, passed this library many times but never entered assuming it was like the kind they had back in the old country which was nothing to write home about. They were amazed to know that the library system carried every major literary work, books and periodicals on current affairs, thousands of DVDs, CDs, books on tape, children’s books… Then they asked, “How much are the user fees?” When I told them it was all free, they couldn’t believe their ears and signed up for library cards immediately. Most newcomers are aware of the library, but do not realize its potential.
As a newcomer to Canada 14 years ago, the library was at the top of the great things I listed about this country. I devoured books on Canadian history, geography and politics, read guide books, watched DVDs and listened to great music on CDs. I developed a love and understanding of this country through library books and I am convinced a library can be one of the greatest tools to integrate newcomers into Canada.
Observation at my branch library
This weekend I was at my branch library in Mississauga where I saw a sign “Newcomer Information”. A young South Asian newcomer was being given literature and information about services he could access like the conversational English classes his wife could attend, places he could go to get his credentials recognized and resumes made. The man then left the library without even glancing at a book. I thought to myself, here is a man who has come into the library for information on settling in, but no effort was made to actually give him a tour of the library. I am quite sure he or his wife don’t have library cards. The man indicated that fluency in verbal and written English was their handicap, but not once through the conversation did the counselor suggest he explore the vast riches of the library. To me this was like a hungry man asking for directions to the food bank when he was in one already.
What can be done
If libraries in immigrant-rich GTA are figuring out ways to engage newcomers, libraries in parts of the province that are only now beginning to see more and more visible minorities are struggling. Librarians from Barrie and communities beyond are having to stock up on relevant material for newcomers, order books and periodicals in other languages and help them as best they can. Perhaps librarians across this country can start by engaging in some conversations with some of their users who happen to be newcomers and make them feel welcome.
By Pradip Rodrigues