Young dancer in front of Cuban flag.

A young dancer shares her cultural heritage.

The Newport News Public Library System (NNPLS) in the Hampton Roads area of Virginia serves about 180,000 residents as well as visitors from outside the city. Last year, more than 800,000 customers came through our doors and more than 14,000 people applied for new library cards. In recent years, the city has seen an increase in ethnic diversity, and the library system has recognized that many of these cultural populations have needs that require special assistance and services.

The Hispanic population is the fastest growing ethnic group in the City of Newport News. The Virgil I. Grissom Library, which serves sixty percent of the city's residents, has more Spanish-speaking customers than the other three branches in the system. To welcome and encourage this cultural group to use library services, Grissom expanded its Spanish and dual language collection in 2004, adding more than 350 Spanish language books for children from birth to age five, as well as materials for parents and childcare givers. Spanish language adult fiction was already available in the collection. Additionally, the library system had its general brochure and application translated into Spanish. The Newport News Healthy Families Initiative provided funding for the materials through a grant from the Community--Based Family Resource and Support Hispanic Outreach Program of the Virginia Department of Social Services. Author Samuel Caraballo of Virginia Beach helped to celebrate the unveiling of the new collection by reading his latest work, Estrellita Says Goodbye to Her Island/Estrellita se despide de su isla .

"The VFH gave us $5
more than we asked for,
just to show how much
they supported what
we were doing!"

In an effort to recognize other cultures within the city, the library system planned a series 7of programs for 2005, Explore Your Community Roots @ Your Library® . By August 2004, twelve community groups had agreed to participate by sharing their cultures, immigration stories, and recommendations for book discussions. The featured cultures included Mennonite, Irish, Italian, Greek, Hispanic, Japanese, African-American, Korean, African, German, American Indian, and Jewish.

Two women with flower arrangements.

Grant writer Judy Condra worked closely with this author to create a detailed write-up of the program and a proposal for funding. The Virginia Foundation for the Humanities awarded more than $10,000 to support the program series. As Condra pointed out, "The VFH gave us $5 more than we asked for, just to show how much they supported what we were doing!"

Programs highlighting each culture brought in diverse audiences. People were inquisitive about their neighbors and other ways of life. The series provided a safe environment where it wasn't rude to ask about a custom or tradition, and questions were encouraged. And since the people leading the cultural programs came from those respective backgrounds, the programs weren't just history lessons, but a community coming together at the library to learn from each other.

For each culture, NNPLS presented a discussion of a book by an author from that culture and a program that focused on the traditions, customs, food, language, and music of the culture. Area university scholars who specialize in foreign literature led the book discussions. The professors themselves came from a wide range of backgrounds, including Filipino, German, African-American, and others. Input from the cultural groups, recommendations from the scholars, and research by library staff all played key roles in which titles were ultimately selected. The list included new and established authors, Oprah's book club picks, the currently popular "chick lit," classics, and many genres in between. In addition to the featured titles, the library also assessed and updated the materials by and about the chosen cultures. This included fiction, nonfiction, poetry, movies, and music.

Featured titles included Copper Moons by local Mennonite author Susan Yoder Ackerman; Angela's Ashes by Frank McCourt; In Revere, In Those Days by Roland Merullo; Zorba the Greek by Nick Kazantzakis; Caramelo by Sandra Cisneros; Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata; The Known World by Edward P. Jones; In Full Bloom by new author Caroline Hwang; No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe; Stones from the River by Ursula Hegi; Dancing the Dream by Jamie Sams; and Seven Blessings by Ruchama King. In addition to the grant-sponsored programs, NNPLS also featured local poet and scholar Luisa Igloria. Her presentation on Filipino literature was based on a collection that she edited, Not Home but Here: Writing from the Filipino Diaspora.

Two men talking in front of ethnic themed booths.

Displays help share cultures from the community.

"Reading about a
community is one thing,
but interacting with it
is far better."

"The turnout has been amazing," said Library Director Izabela Cieszynski. "More than seventy people attended the event presented by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. Several audience members joined in an impromptu salsa lesson!" Even the programs that drew smaller audiences showed strong diversity. For example, thirteen people participated in the discussion of the Japanese novel Snow Country by Yasunari Kawabata. Those thirteen represented East Indian, Italian, Irish, African-American, and Japanese cultures. An anonymous patron wrote on a program evaluation, "Reading about a community is one thing, but interacting with it is far better. Culture is important, but bringing culture and history together is very important. This is the history of my neighborhood. I want to know it."

The program ended in December 2005, but the partnerships that were formed will last much longer. Cultural groups are looking forward to more presentations; the professors have all expressed interest in working on other programs; and the community is already asking, "What's next?"

Because of this intense program series and the publicity it generated, the library's message reached new audiences. According to program surveys, thirty-one percent of our participants had never attended a library program before. Participants also reported that their experiences were overwhelmingly positive, and that this made them feel more comfortable in the library setting.

For more information on NNPLS and its programs, call (757) 247-8875 or visit us on the web at . VL

Sacil Armstrong is programs and information coordinator for the Newport News Public Library System and can be reached at (757) 926-1350 or .