Library service to new Americans is a challenge in every community in the commonwealth. Though the service is widely supported in the library community, limited resources make it difficult to implement and sustain a broad program. However, one might ask if such outreach efforts, more narrowly focused, might provide an opportunity for public libraries as they seek a defining image that will drive additional state funding.

Three children sharing a book.

Family programs with a cultural theme have been universally popular.

As with most urban areas in Virginia, Arlington County has become increasingly diverse — from 4.3% of the population being foreign--born in 1960, to 28% in 2000. Only 27% of the foreign-born are naturalized citizens. The public schools work with sixty different languages in their classrooms. All of this is happening in a county of twenty-six square miles with one of the highest population densities in the United States. Like most densely populated urban areas, the county is experiencing the full range of urban challenges — from education to affordable housing to transportation issues to gang violence. The situation is made more complex because the county prides itself on being "socially committed" but has increasingly limited resources to make this commitment a reality.

Young boy.

Celebrating the Chinese New Year.

During the past ten years, library outreach services in Arlington have mirrored best practices across the country in quality and scope, but not always in the quantity needed to make a substantial impact. The definition of outreach has been very broad, similar to the classic ALA definition that calls libraries to remove any and all barriers to service. Three county outreach centers provide small collections and services specifically designed to help new Americans and introduce the more comprehensive services and collections of the seven library branches. Programs and services in the library and through thirty active partnerships support early literacy. Bilingual story times, including the locally produced and broadcast series Cuentos y Más, attempt to cross language barriers. There are reading clubs in all middle schools, including two in Spanish, and there is a reading club for adult new readers. The library system also offers two computer labs, and there is library-developed newcomer information on the county website. In addition to weekly cable programming in Spanish, the library participates in community cultural festivals. And there is a jail library, maintained long after it was legally mandated.

To make these services a reality, substantial attention has been paid to infrastructure. However, the challenges have frequently overwhelmed the best intentions. While all of the following are essential to an effective program, they require extensive and ongoing resource investment that is not always possible: recruitment and retention of bilingual staff, including pay differential; collections in all formats reflecting most native languages, as well as support for learning English; public awareness campaigns, including branding, nontraditional publicity and publicity channels, and signage; comprehensive staff training on multicultural awareness; and multiyear plans for finding and growing partnerships. To accomplish these goals, dedicated time and staff are essential. Without that investment, it is clear that the service will not come close to matching the vision.

In Arlington County, though the library staff was committed, and did good work both individually and as a team, it became apparent in the last six months that it was time to step back and assess our outreach services. What had we learned?

Several children sitting on floor.

Arlington libraries serve a diverse population.

  • The vision is sound and its values are strongly supported. As stated in Arlington Public Libraries' New Americans' Plan 2006 , "…information in its broadest definition can make a difference in one's life. The Library is committed to being Arlington's gateway to information — for every Arlingtonian. New Americans are a part of this vision: the collections, programs and services must be made accessible to them as they experience new lives in the Arlington community."
  • Many services and programs are provided under many umbrellas, but the impact of any particular service or program is often unclear or undocumented. Evaluation techniques and metrics are not clearly defined, understood, or, in many cases, available for ready use.
  • Broad cultural programs appear to have as much impact as skill-directed programs. Family programs with a cultural theme have been universally popular. However, it is difficult to determine if program participation leads to library use.
  • Programs, particularly in their initial phases, appear productive, but tend to lose energy and focus over time.
  • Computer access is a primary connector to the library. Many question whether it should be seen as an end in itself.
  • Staffing overall is, and will remain, limited. The library is staffed almost exclusively for in-library service, making outreach frequently problematic.
  • Recruitment and retention of bilingual staff in a highly competitive labor market is problematic, thus creating a major barrier to effective service.
  • Not all staff embrace the concept that service to new Americans is essential to the library's mission, particularly given competing priorities and the demands of more vocal customers (the "I am a taxpayer" syndrome).
  • No brand or unifying concept is in place to describe the whole of outreach, making it difficult to grasp all that is covered. "Service to New Americans" does not seem adequate.
  • Collections in world languages and ESL materials are popular, but it is impossible to include all languages present in the community. Marketing, merchandising, and signage are essential to ensure use, yet they are often employed on a hit-or-miss basis.
  • Success is all about relationships. Personal contacts with partners; with the target audience, including those not yet in the library; with schools; with children; and with families are critical success factors, but difficult to build and maintain on a large scale.
  • Partnerships allow libraries to reach into the community at places and times where people gather. However, the act of building and maintaining the relationships necessary for effective partnership is staff-intensive.
  • Volunteers are difficult to recruit for outreach activities.
  • Many staff members feel that outreach services should focus exclusively on providing connections to the library, where a full range of services are available, rather than serving as an end in themselves.

Given this assessment, two models of service were developed. The first was a broad service model focused on skill levels as well as culture, with all staff expected to own the service and participate actively in implementation. The second was a more limited and targeted service focused on skill-level development, particularly preliteracy skills for children. Staff felt that the second model had a greater chance of success because of its limited focus. However, the values expressed through the first model were so deeply embedded in the library's mission that we found we could consider no other. No one was ready to narrow the library's focus.

Was anything achieved through this reexamination, given that the model of service did not change? We did target areas for further work to strengthen the program. These areas included metrics and evaluation tools, signage and marketing, clear definition of audiences, reevaluation of partnerships for value to the mission, and staff training. But most important, the program was refocused and reenergized through this reexamination. It is clear that planning and periodic reassessments will be required to keep energy high and the service focused for maximum impact.

"This is who we are, and this is what we contribute to building community across the commonwealth today and every day."

A larger question emerges from this local examination. What the Arlington Public Libraries are experiencing is not unique. Everywhere in the commonwealth, libraries are attempting to reach out into the community to serve new Americans, particularly populations without public library experience. Though library missions almost universally embrace service to the unserved and the elimination of barriers, limited staffing and resources continue to lessen what can be done in most libraries. The work is important, but resource realities drive choices every day. No easy solutions are on the horizon; libraries may just have to struggle with current resources and refocus and reenergize frequently.

To view the challenge on a macro level, public libraries in Virginia have struggled to find a defining image that would say to the governor and the general assembly, "This is who we are, and this is what we contribute to building community across the commonwealth today and every day." Is library service to new Americans that defining image? Would it encourage new and consistent state funding? Or, as I fear, is service to new Americans tainted by concerns in the larger political world about the "undocumented"? If so, is there a subset of this service, a narrower focus, which might provide a universal image and a positive message? And would this image and message lead to increased funding while still serving the library's broader focus?

Successful funding strategies are based on choosing a market niche with universal appeal, few negatives, and limited competitors or strong partners, and then marketing the initiative under a single brand across the state. And that niche in 2006 may well be early literacy in its broadest definition and application, such as seen in the governor-supported early learning initiative Smart Beginnings. Service to new Americans would be furthered by a well-funded early literacy program. At the same time, our local vision could continue to drive the broader local activities for new Americans of all ages and needs — always a work in progress and never enough. It is worth considering — and perhaps pursuing aggressively on a state level now. VL

Ann Friedman served as director of Arlington Public Libraries from 1995 until 2006. She was president of the Virginia Public Library Director's Association in 1998, cochair of VLA's Legislative Committee from 2000–2004, and honored with VLA's George Mason Award in 2004.