New York City, United States

Staying in Touch: The Library Responds To A Changing Community

Queens Public Library

June 11, 2009

Tracking community demographics helps a city library change with the times.

Most evenings on the way home from work, Dewei Lee stops by the library to browse for books or newspapers from his native China or to pick up DVDs and other resources that help him improve his English and his hopes for a better job. Currently studying computer programming and employed part time as a janitor, Dewei can’t afford to spend anything extra on recreational reading material or English classes.

“It’s a very helpful place for the immigrant people,” Dewei said of the library. “I come to use the internet, to read the papers and to attend their classes and to meet other people.”

Public libraries have long played an essential role in the integration and settlement of urban immigrants. As libraries across the United States shape their collections and program offerings to better serve the needs of changing demographics, the Queens Public Library, one of New York City’s three independent library systems serves as a model for how libraries can play a vital role in integrating newcomers to American society.

As early as 1977, the Queens Library system was demonstrating leadership in its positioning of the library as responsive institution ready to adapt its collections and services to meet the needs of the changing composition of the city borough’s population.

Enmi Sung Kendall

Enmi Sung Kendall

Queens County in New York City is one of the most diverse counties in the United States, with more than 55% of its population speaking a language other than English at home. Residents of the area come from across the globe including China, Eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South Asia, Latin America, the Philippines, Korea, Poland, and Ireland.

As newcomers settle and then migrate in and out of the borough, the population demographics are constantly shifting and changing. Keeping the library system responsive to the needs of this evolving community required a proactive and flexible approach. Hear stories from library users like Enmi Sung Kendall.

The Queens Public Library collection is regularly updated to ensure that it remains relevant to the changing community. The success that Queens Public Library had had in tapping into the needs of their surrounding community is reflected in their circulation rates.

The library system is the nation’s busiest, circulating more than 23 million books, videos, music and other library items in 70 languages in 2007. In August 2008 the most recently released copy of the “PLD Public Library Statistical Report 2008” showed that the Queens Public Library topped all U.S. public library circulation with over 21,000,000 items lent, confirming their first place ranking for national circulation levels.

Expanding their offer

The programs at the Queens Public Library also reflect their longstanding commitment to serving this diverse community. The home page is available in six languages and as part of the “New Americans Program” (NAP) launched in 1977, the library regularly holds free lectures and seminars to help new immigrants access information, often in their native languages, on conducting job searches, social services, citizenship as well as parenting classes to help make the transition easier for newly arrived children. It was under the New Americans Program that the Library first began building an international collection of resources based on the demographic study of the populations living near the library system. The program includes a stream of cultural projects such as free readings, concerts and workshops celebrating the literary, performance and folk art from immigrants in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The success of the New Americans program (NAP) remains strong. In 2005 they offered over 73 coping skills programs in 9 languages which attracted 1,300 people and they organized over 84 cultural and arts programs drawing 6,500 participants. Offerings ranged from discussions of workplace rights and of Islam in Spanish, to dance workshops, author visits, and health seminars on obesity.

The library’s ESOL programs were so popular that in 2000 the library created a new Adult Learner Program to oversee the ESOL classes formerly offered through the New Americans Program, as well as family literacy and adult learning center programming. Today, the Queens Public Library ESOL program is the largest library-managed ESOL program in the country. Approximately 100 semester-long free classes are offered per year serving between 2,500 and 3,000 students, taught by paid, professional instructors.

Other project streams have developed around the second language programs based on demand and need. For instance, the Adult Learner Program set up computer labs in early 2005 to teach basic computer skills to ESOL students. Hundreds of students have already taken these free classes. In 2002, a family literacy program was created to offer classes for pre-kindergarten and K-3 aged children and their caregivers at the library. The classes prepare caregivers and children on what to expect in American schools, helps parents understand the educational system here, and teaches them how to be advocates for their children.

Long Standing Success
The Queens Public Library has been a community hub and national leader in immigrant integration for over thirty years. This success is due in part to their consistent focus on the ebbs and flows of immigration in the community they serve. The Library was the first in the US to use a demographer to conduct detailed analyses of the population within its library service areas. This data is used to inform international collection development, design ESOL classes and living skills workshops in multi-languages and to plan cultural events for area newcomers. The demographer also provides accessible reports on Queens population data and posts them to the website for the benefit of the public.

The Library also benefits from its long history and aggressive approach to community relations. In the early years of the New Americans Program, library staff conducted regular and focused outreach into the community to ensure that immigrants were aware of the libraries’ programs and not afraid to use them.As the Queens Public Library programs have grown over time, so too has their impact on the community. For instance, in January 2007 the Library partnered with the Queens Hospital system to help address issues of health literacy in the community with the creation of HealthLinks an initiative designed to improve access to cancer screening and care in under-served communities. The Library has similarly partnered with the Queens Museum and the Queens Health Network to provide on-site ESOL classes. In 2008 Queens Library partnered with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs to facilitate the process for immigrants wanting to apply for the Diversity Visa Lottery (DV-2010). On a national level, the Queens Library is working with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the American Library Association on a compilation of library best practices for use around the country to promote immigrant integration. The best practices guide will be issued by USCIS.

Most recently the Queens Library was listed as a 2009 Finalist for the prestigious E Pluribus Unum Prize coordinated by the Migration Policy Institute to recognise the efforts of those who are creating more unified communities by strengthening the relationship between native and foreign born Americans.

Making it Work for You:

  • In urban areas, immigration and community composition can change rapidly - accurately tracking these shifts is essential for community providers.
  • Understanding your market or the audience for your services helps you design and deliver successful programs and services
  • Like all markets, immigrant communities are varied and change over time, requiring constant adjustments to services and program delivery to remain relevant
  • The success of the Queens Public Library is the result of their efforts to track and monitor the changing needs of their target community