The undocumented are not a distinct or homogeneous population, but a diverse and often amorphous set of individuals who share a common problem: they lack important documents. Perhaps they lack a driver's license because they do not speak enough English (or Spanish, in some cases) to pass a written examination. They may find it difficult to prove residency because they do not have homes, or difficult to establish credit because they do not have jobs. They may not have bank accounts because they just arrived from another country, or they may be hesitant to apply for such because they have entered or remained in a country without government permission. Some lack a work visa or permanent residency document. Some women live in temporary shelters for survivors of domestic abuse and do not establish permanent addresses or acquire documentation because they are in danger of physical violence if their location is discovered.

It is possible to speak of the characteristic needs of undocumented immigrants, migrants, refugees, homeless individuals and families, and domestic abuse survivors; but these categories often overlap, and they do not capture the full range or complexity of individual life scenarios. A report released by the Pew Hispanic Center in March of 2005 titled Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population included over forty pages of statistical charts based on the U.S. Census Bureau's March 2004 Current Population Survey; but even this report dealt only with "the population of foreign-born persons living in the United States without proper authorization." 1 It also used the term "undocumented migrants" interchangeably with "the undocumented population." The Associated Press, in its description of the report, spoke of undocumented immigrants, stating that "the nation's undocumented immigrant population surged to 10.3 million last year, spurred largely since 2000 by the arrivals of unauthorized Mexicans in the United States" and adding that "assuming the flow of undocumented immigrants into the country hasn't abated since March 2004, the population is likely near 11 million now." 2 By referring to this group as "the undocumented population," the Pew report ignored undocumented individuals who are not foreign-born.

Besides indicating relative degrees of specificity, one's choice of terminology with regard to undocumented individuals can also reflect political bias. An article in the August 1, 2003, issue of Library Journal , for example, described a legislative initiative in Arizona that would "require state and local government workers to check the immigration status of everyone seeking public services." 3 The group sponsoring the initiative, called Protect Arizona Now , spoke of "illegal aliens," 4 while sources critical of the initiative, such as the Arizona Republic , used the term "undocumented immigrants," arguing that the proposed legislation would prevent them from receiving, among other things, library cards. 5 Catholic bishops from Arizona and New Mexico opposed the proposal, citing "intense rhetoric" and the possibility that "all kinds of public benefits would be denied undocumented workers." 6 Library Journal published an article in late 2004 reporting not only that the legislation, now passed, made it a crime for public employees to provide services to undocumented workers, but also that Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard had stated that the law only applied to welfare benefits. 7 As legislative battles continue in Arizona and elsewhere, the line between terminology and rhetoric remains indistinct.

One unfortunate consequence of contemporary political rhetoric is that debate tends to focus less on the problems of undocumented individuals and more on the problems that they are purported to cause for others. Most attention is given to the issue of public services for undocumented immigrants/migrants. Initiatives in Kansas 8 and California 9 aim to deny driver's licenses to undocumented workers in the name of discouraging illegal immigration. In 2004, Republican Congresswoman Dana Rohrabacher (CA) introduced the Undocumented Alien Medical Assistance Amendments designed to diminish the cost of providing emergency health care for undocumented immigrants/migrants. It would require hospitals "to determine the citizenship, immigration, and financial status of these individuals, as well as obtain employer information and biometric identifiers such as fingerprints," which, according to the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, "would then be sent to the Department of Homeland Security to initiate deportation proceedings." 10 In such cases, undocumented status (combined with fear of deportation) could lead to denial or neglect of medical care in emergencies.

Denial of library services may not seem terribly serious when compared to denial of medical services, but librarians take it seriously, and their writings on the subject, while still few, reflect both a broader understanding of the term "undocumented" than is evidenced in general literature and a clearer focus on the needs of undocumented individuals themselves. In November 2003, an ALA Presidential Advisory Committee listed "undocumented individuals and their advocates (immigrants, domestic abuse victims, homeless, etc.)" on a list of "major forces affecting grassroots library advocacy." 11 Patrice McDermott, deputy director of ALA's Office of Government Relations, published a report on the USA PATRIOT Act in June 2005 warning that congress had passed an expansion of a driver's license/personal ID provision "which would prohibit states from issuing driver's licenses or IDs to illegal aliens, potentially excluding them from using publicly supported libraries." 12 Tracie D. Hall, director of ALA's Office for Diversity, published an editorial in the May–June 2005 issue of Versed (bulletin of ALA's Office for Diversity) called "Toward a Curriculum of Readiness," which described how, as branch manager of an urban public library, she had "faced every kind of harsh social reality" and had "come to know the interiors of so many lives — who was struggling with heroin; who was living with domestic abuse; who was hiding illiteracy; who was undocumented and coping with exploitative work conditions to make ends meet." 13

"It's outrageous that
we've got the library, of
all places, peddling porn."

Concerns for equal access and effective advocacy are prominent, but librarians who work to meet the needs of undocumented individuals can face political opposition, especially when it comes to collection management decisions. One example of such opposition emerged recently in the case of Denver Public Library's collection of fotonovelas. An article in the September 2005 issue of American Libraries reported that "in reaction to complaints from the anti-immigration group Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform (CAIR), the Denver Public Library is reviewing the content of its collection of fotonovelas — Spanish-language fiction serials that tell stories through photos, drawings, and text." 14 The article goes on to explain that "the fotonovela flap seems to have grown out of CAIR's concern that DPL would attract undocumented Hispanic immigrants if it implemented a proposal to create language and learning centers with bilingual staff inside existing branches to expand Spanish---language collections and ESL and GED classes." 15 There are other issues involved, including the fact that some fotonovelas depict nudity and violence, prompting a syndicated radio talk show host, standing outside of Denver's central branch, to call for the resignation of Denver City Librarian Rick Ashton, exclaiming, "It's outrageous that we've got the library, of all places, peddling porn." 16 Ashton, however, "attributed the fotonovela controversy to 'anti-immigration sentiment,'" noting that "as other public libraries refine their service plans to reflect changing populations, 'they will experience some pushback from people who would like it to be different than it is.'" 17 In the end, DPL cancelled four of its fourteen fotonovela subscriptions "because of their consistent portrayal of sexually explicit content." 18

In light of the possibility of legal and/or PR-driven challenges, public librarians in particular need to base collection management decisions on solid community analysis. Political objections notwithstanding, though, the task of assessing the needs of undocumented individuals presents special difficulties. Standard practices of community analysis and needs assessment were not designed with undocumented individuals in mind and may, if not adapted appropriately, leave them out entirely. Few, if any, working models exist, but one example of relevant scholarly research is Julia Hersberger's Everyday Information Needs and Information Sources of Homeless Parents: A Study of Poverty and Perseverance . 19 Given that many undocumented individuals are also homeless, and that homeless individuals/families are an especially neglected segment of "the undocumented population," Hersberger's findings provide a useful starting point.

Hersberger describes the homeless as "a group of information users ignored in the literature of Library and Information Science," adding that "library literature on the homeless has focused on this group as problem library patrons instead of information users." 20 Choosing to focus on the information needs and sources of homeless parents, she employed extended periods of participant observation to develop an interview guide, later interviewing twenty-eight residents from six family shelters in Indianapolis, Indiana, concerning their "perceived problems, needs, information needs, and information sources." 21 She found, through content analysis of these interviews, that:

  1. Information needs ranged from vague, process-based questions to the specific, and this specificity is tied to prior experience with homelessness.
  2. The complex nature of problems leads to interconnected needs that must be dealt with in certain sequences in order for the primary problem to be resolved.
  3. Homeless parents rely on in-formation networking rather than formal information systems. 22

Because categories overlap, it is difficult to compare the needs of undocumented individuals to the needs of homeless individuals or to speak of the two groups in relation to each other. We could be speaking of the same individual or of an entirely different phenomenon, but several of Hersberger's findings seem applicable, in a general, descriptive sense, to the broad task of needs assessment for undocumented individuals. Undocumented individuals, like the homeless, are often regarded as problem patrons, rather than as patrons with problems. Hersberger's criteria of specificity, complexity, interconnectedness, and relative formality/informality seem relevant given that undocumented individuals face unique, complex sets of survival challenges. Methodologically, Hersberger's examples of extended observation, first-person interviews, content analysis, and attention to social networking present alternatives to traditional methods of data collection such as surveys and community forums.

individuals, like the
homeless, are often
regarded as problem
patrons, rather than as
patrons with problems.

Hersberger's research, especially her content analysis, makes use of the work of Brenda Dervin in The Everyday Information Needs of the Average Citizen: A Taxonomy for Analysis . 23 Dervin's general assumptions and findings include these essential ideas: "individuals want to control their own life environments"; "in the modern, technological world, information is essential for asserting this control"; "average citizens have difficulty in assessing and meeting their everyday information needs"; and, "by examining elements of the average citizen's information system and their linkages, a better understanding of how ordinary citizens attempt to assert control over these life environments will be reached." 24 Dervin's analytical taxonomy includes nineteen categories of information need: finance, child care/relationships, housing, health, employment, education, transportation, public assistance, shelter, crime/safety, migration, law, housekeeping, family planning, recreation and culture, miscellaneous concerns, consumer concerns, discrimination concerns, and veteran concerns. Sixteen of Dervin's categories of need (all but the last three) emerged in the course of Hersberger's interviews. All seem relevant to the lives of undocumented individuals.

In terms of basic definitions and goals, needs assessment for undocumented individuals needn't be terribly different from needs assessment for other individuals. In both cases, needs assessment could be defined as "an attempt to gather, organize, and interpret information on the community's needs and interests." 25 One could argue, in the case of undocumented individuals, that it is difficult to speak of "the community" as a singular entity, and that one should focus more specifically on the needs and interests of individuals. This is as true for members of the general population, though, as it is for undocumented individuals. In other words, undocumented individuals are part of "the community," every member of which could rightly be regarded as an individual with distinctive information needs. A general definition of needs assessment is adequate for use with undocumented individuals, then, especially if interpreted in light of G. Edward Evans's three "laws" of collection development:

  1. As the size of the service community increases, the degree of divergence in individual information needs increases.
  2. As the degree of divergence in individual information needs increases, the need for cooperative programs of information materials sharing increases.
  3. It will never be possible to completely satisfy all of the information needs of any individual or class of clientele in the service community. 26

Evans's definition of "needs" is also useful in grounding a practice of needs assessment for undocumented individuals. Needs, he writes, are "situations (community, institutional, or personal) that require solution," though "it does not always follow that a need is something the group or person wants." 27 "Interests" could be either needs or wants, depending on the situation.

Broadly speaking, then, needs assessment for undocumented individuals should aim to discover situations in the lives of undocumented individuals that require solution. The one need that all undocumented individuals share is a need for documentation, but this conclusion is not very helpful in and of itself. For one thing, undocumented individuals do not all need the same document(s), and documents differ greatly in terms of their requirements and uses. Second, in addition to documents themselves, undocumented individuals may need information concerning documentation, including the fact that they need it, why they need it, and how to acquire it. Third, need for documentation is rarely an isolated circumstance. It is usually part of a complex series of interconnected situations. Based on Hersberger's research, then, six more specific goals of needs assessment for undocumented individuals could be:

  1. To understand an undocumented individual's own perception of need;
  2. To assess an undocumented individual's prior experience of need, and its relation to current need/perception of need;
  3. To contextualize an individual's need for documentation by viewing it in relation to other needs;
  4. To prioritize an undocumented individual's needs such that primary needs may be resolved in an efficient sequence;
  5. To identify and evaluate information sources (formal and informal, individual and social) currently used by an individual; and
  6. To identify and evaluate new, potential information sources relevant to an undocumented individual's actual and/or perceived needs.

Rather than suggesting that we assess undocumented individuals in relation to broad and over-simplistic categories (i.e. immigrants, migrants, refugees, homeless, abuse survivors), these goals urge researchers to acknowledge the importance of individual perception, experience, context, complexity, and resourcefulness.

Hersberger's research also models alternative, supplemental methods of data collection, organization, and interpretation, including extended observation, first-person interviews, content analysis, and social network mapping. Community forums and field surveys are not likely to produce usable results in the case of undocumented individuals, and social indicators are often skewed by researcher bias or vague terminology. Interaction with key informants, however, by means of extended observation and first-person interviews, is a feasible approach to data collection. Content analysis (including use of Dervin's analytical taxonomy) and social network mapping may be especially effective techniques for the organization and interpretation of data.


1 Jeffrey S. Passel, Estimates of the Size and Characteristics of the Undocumented Population (Washington, D.C.: Pew Hispanic Center, 2005), 1.

2 Associated Press, "Undocumented Immigrants Close to 11 Million," in MSNBC U.S. News [online newspaper] 21 March 2005 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

3 "AZ Initiative Would Keep Undocumented Immigrants from Services, Library Cards," in Library Journal [journal online] 1 August 2003 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

4 Protect Arizona Now [website] 2004 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

5 "AZ Initiative."

6 Gill Donovan, "Arizona Bishops Oppose Immigrant Proposition," in National Catholic Reporter, The Independent Newsweekly: [newspaper online] 29 October 2004 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

7 "Arizona Initiative Limiting Benefits to Illegal Immigrants Shouldn't Affect Libraries," in Library Journal [journal online] 24 November 2004 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

8 Hank Avila, Kansas Legislative Research Department, "Transportation and Motor Vehicles," in Kansas Legislator Briefing Book 2005 [briefs online] 2004 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .
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9 Driver's Licenses for Undocumented Aliens [website] September 2005 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

10 Angela Hooton, "MALDEF Opposes H.R. 3722, the Undocumented Alien Emergency Medical Assistance Amendments of 2004," in MALDEF: Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund [website] 8 May 2004 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

11 Carol A. Brey-Casiano, "Working Draft: Our Advocacy Vision Statement," in Presidential Advisory Committee Retreat , November 7–8, 2003 [website] 7 March 2005 [cited 12 April 2006]; available from .

12 Patrice McDermott, "Privacy/USA PATRIOT Act," in ALA Office of Government Relations [website] June 2005 [cited 3 November 2005]; available from .

13 Tracie D. Hall, "Toward a Curriculum of Readiness," in Versed: Bulletin of the Office for Diversity, American Library Association [bulletin online] May–June 2005 [cited 3 November 2005]; available .

14 Beverly Goldberg, "Denver Reconsiders Fotonovela Collection," in American Libraries 36.8 (2005): 12–13.

15 Ibid.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Ibid.

19 Julia A. Hersberger, "Everyday Information Needs and Information Sources of Homeless Parents: A Study of Poverty and Perseverance" (Ph.D. diss., Indiana University, 1998).

20 Ibid, abstract in Dissertation Abstracts International 60.05A (1998): 1375.

21 Ibid.

22 Ibid.

23 Brenda Dervin, "The Everyday Information Needs of the Average Citizen: A Taxonomy for Analysis," in Information for the Community , ed. M. Kochen and J.C. Donohue (Chicago: American Library Association, 1976), 19–38.

24 Ibid.

25 Beatrice Kovacs, "Advance Study Outline for Needs Assessment" and "Framework for Collection Development: Needs Assessment," in LIS 615: Collection Management (UNC-Greensboro, Fall 2005).

26 G. Edward Evans, Developing Library and Information Center Collections , 4th ed. (Greenwood Village: Colorado: Libraries Unlimited, 2000), 22.

27 Ibid, 32. VL

Christopher K. Richardson is a full-time M.L.I.S. student and graduate assistant at UNC-Greensboro . He holds degrees from the College of William and Mary and Union Theological Seminary-PSCE, where he completed his Ed.D. in 2001. He will complete the M.L.I.S. this fall and hopes to find work in the areas of library instruction and academic reference. Visit him on the web at or email .