Monday, December 20, 2010

Serving up world languages

Rogers, Michael. Serving up World Languages. Library Journal, 03630277, 6/15/2003, Vol. 128, Issue 11.

Librarians detail how – and where – to get hard-to-find materials for multilingual communities.
Recent census statistics reveal that the foreign-born population in the United States rose 44 per cent between 1990 and 2000 and, at 28 million, represents roughly 10 per cent of the total population. Of those, 14.5 million hail from Latin America countries. Most new immigrants are concentrated in a handful of states, e.g. California, New York, and Florida, but representatives of numerous ethic groups are spread through the nation. Illinois, Michigan, and Texas now boast Asian populations of 283,000, 104,000, and 312,000, respectively.

Creating collections for these multilingual populations is a challenge for libraries without equally multilingual staff. Librarians, however, possess a rare type of public service Darwinism. It allows them to adapt and find a means to serve their patrons under any circumstance.

Serving a multilingual community requires librarians to identify the needs of patrons with whom they can’t easily communicate. But knowing what materials to purchase may be the easiest part of the challenge. After months of inquiry and study, feedback from patrons, and discussions with experts to develop a working knowledge of what materials are needed to build a collection, librarians can find that locating sources for those items often makes the first leg of the quest seem simple.

Identify the need
Before you begin to buy you must understand where your patrons come from and decide how broad you want the collection to be. Lois Fenker, director of technical and collections services at Seattle Public Library (SPL), says that her collection represents approximately 50 languages overall, but the library “actively collects and selects in about 14 languages, e.g., Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese, Russian, Spanish, French, Italian, German, and Polish. We have several South African languages including Somali and Oromo that have been more challenging.” Initiating a collection in South African languages was spawned by Seattle’s growing immigrant population, which burgeoned in only five years. “People started coming into the branches looking for [foreign-language materials],” Fenker says. Seattle is also expanding its multicultural offerings by creating services and programs to support this population. “ESL is a very important component in developing our multilingual collection,” she says.

Magazines and newspapers also “are very popular and are a real assistance in developing these collections, as in linking people to web sites so they can read in their own language,” says Fenker. They also carry advertisements for popular items such as books, feature films on video/DVD, and new releases by top recording artists. Thus, in addition to serving the community, these sources themselves can become part of the librarian’s arsenal to help identify needed materials.

Sarah Wenzel, reference co-ordinator at MIT’s humanities library, says her institution’s multilingual collecting falls into several areas. In addition to the obvious technical materials, MIT also feels it is part of the school’s mission to provide students with the means for a better “quality of life, self-education, and discovery.” To that end, the library collects modern fiction and nonfiction in French, German, Spanish, Chinese, and Japanese. There also are the occasional Russian or Italian titles. Most of the works are purchased through foreign vendors.

The Toronto Public Library (TPL) has a multilingual collection in “40 languages beyond English,” says Jane Pyper, director of policy and planning. In an officially bilingual country, one would assume that after English, French-language materials would enjoy top circulation, but no so. “Our biggest circulating language is Chinese,” says Pyper. “The next after that is Hindi and Tamil. Urdu also is very popular, and one of our top ten is Gujarti.”

According to recent census statistics, New York City boosts the most culturally diverse populace in human history, a fact reflected in the New York Public Library’s (NYPL) heterogeneous collection. Bosiljka Stevanovic, principal librarian for NYPL’s Donnell Library Center, collects actively in 55 to 60 languages. “We have around 180,000 books and videos, all of which are very heavily used,” she says.
Find authors and suppliers
Once a library identifies a growing ethnic group and understands its needs, the next step is figuring out what to collect and locating dealers. This often is where things get tricky. “All the South African languages have limited publishing output, and there is virtually no distribution to the open market,” says Tom Horne, SPL’s manager of collection services. “The first challenge is finding an outlet. The next is getting those items catalogued.”

When MIT’s Wenzel developed a collection in Japanese, she turned to outside expertise and cleverly consulted resources such as Scribner’s Modern Japanese Writers and relied on that publication’s editor to make her selections. She finds it helpful to monitor literary periodicals like the Journal of Asian Studies. “I look to see who’s being written about and make sure we have their works. Faculty also will request certain titles. And if foreign writers win a prize, I make sure to get their books,” Wenzel says.

Most libraries buy materials based on reviews, but multilingual collecting requires a different set of tools since reviews often are unavailable or written in the language in question, unless of course the authors reviewed are famous beyond their native borders. The Internet improves access to foreign review sources, but even that is limited. Wenzel finds attending foreign book shows, such as the Guadalajara Book Fair for books in Spanish, very useful. Criticas magazine is another excellent resource for Spanish-language materials.

Bookstores especially are a rich mine for supplying both materials and information. “When every immigrant group arrives, they are interested in having connections to their homeland. A bookstore often is one of the first [enterprises] that opens in a community,” says TPL’s Pyper. “For Tamil, we deal with a local bookstore.”

“We have an excellent Japanese bookstore in Cambridge,” MIT’s Wenzel says. “I’m hoping it will help me out by doing an approval plan for Japanese literature. I’m now on the lookout for a good Chinese bookstore for the same thing.” While one dealer might handle books, another could be a prime source for newspapers and magazines, and the next might deal only in audio. To find resources, Pyper insists, “You must tap into the local community.” Wenzel advises purchasing newspapers online because sometimes the print product come by boat, and it can take weeks for them to arrive.

Don’t reinvent the wheel
If there aren’t any local dealers, librarians need to tap into their greatest resource – each other. Fenker says that when developing Seattle’s multilingual resources, staffers talked to librarians in other cities. “We also had staffers visit New York [city systems] and Toronto to understand their experiences in developing these collections, learn the vendors they work with, and get any other help they can offer. Librarians reach out to each other,” Fenker says.

Other commonly accessible sources such as OCLC’s WorldCat provide solid leads. When Seattle initially investigated buying foreign materials, it also grappled with the prospect of cataloguing. Using WorldCat to view how similar materials were catalogued elsewhere allowed the librarians to see who was collecting the needed titles, presenting another source for locating vendors. As at other libraries, Horne reveals that SPL selects its foreign-language materials “partly by availability and partly by other public libraries; we’ve found libraries in the OCLC database that had selections and we asked them.”

Library organizations also can help. “One very important resource for me,” says MIT’s Wenzel, “has been the Western European Studies Selection of the Association of College and Research Libraries’ web site. I wish there were one in Asian Studies”.

WESSWeb: One-Stop Shopping for European Language Materials
Many libraries now collect in the languages of the world, but the standard European languages still are popular and materials are needed. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) Western European Studies Section (WESS) has amassed a remarkable collection of links to numerous multilingual vendors on its homepage ( Though geared to academic libraries, the site, dubbed WESSWeb, is a treasure trove for public libraries. It offers links to regional and historical resources, contemporary periodicals, and more, in ten languages, including Dutch, French, German, Liberian (Spanish and Portuguese), Italian, and Scandinavian. Each main segment has several subsections with links to reference resources, newspapers and magazines, bookstores, vendors, and native-language search engines, among others. WESSWeb also offers links to online text collections, historical documents, European library catalogs, and indexes and guides to Western European periodicals in the humanities and social sciences.

Gordon Anderson, WESS vice chair and European studies bibliographer and reference librarian, University of Kansas Libraries, says that in compiling WESSWeb, ACRL relied on the skills “of each of the librarians in charge of the subject sites. It’s very much a group effort.” For libraries without expert researchers, Anderson says that rooting out resources shouldn’t be hard if librarians look within the profession for guidance. There are librarian groups for numerous languages within both ACRL and the American Library Association (ALA). “It’s all very much interwoven,” he says. “Go through ALA’s International Relations [Round Table]. That would be the first echelon. They’ll refer you to the right group.”

The Lapp of luxury
Toronto enjoys the luxury of a highly diverse multicultural staff—interpreters in 90 languages are available to call-in patrons. “For all of our languages, with the exception of six, we actually have staff who speak, read, and know the culture of the languages, and they do the selection,” Pyper says. “They have a knowledge not only of the library’s collections and community but the literature of the countries. We also have local vendors in most of our languages.”

When compiling a Somali collection, Pyper discovered that a large supplier of Somali materials was located in, of all places, Stockholm, Sweden. “Through your customers you learn where other language groups have gone, and you make connections to them,” she says.

The Internet has been a boon to locating materials in the most-difficult-to-find languages. “Before the Internet it was more of a hardship. You had to know someone in a country who would help you. You went about it any way you could,” NYPL’s Stevanovic says. Sometimes all efforts hit an insurmountable wall. “I’ve still never been able to get in touch with anybody in Indonesia,” she laments.

A country’s political climate can play a significant role in the availability of materials. Susan Caron, TPL’s collection development manager, says, “We’re anticipating that it’s going to be hard to get some of the Middle Eastern languages. When the war was going on in Yugoslavia, we couldn’t get some of the Slavic languages. Collecting is very much influenced by international events, so supplies can dry up because the publishing industry in these countries is affected. When civil society comes to a stop, books aren’t the highest priority.”

Where $ comes from, where $ goes
Immigrant communities can develop with a surprising speed, and compiling new collections quickly can tax already bowstring-tight finances. TPL allots $1.7 million for its multilingual collections, which represents more than 12 percent of its overall book budget. In addition to operating dollars, SPL also has used a Carnegie grant for the past two years to assist in the development of its primary languages. “Spanish is a growing population, but is not covered by the grant,” says Fenker. MIT also used a grant to buy Asian studies journal, both in the vernacular and in English.

Foreign-language databases are as rare as English-language materials are plentiful. Some of the leading ILS vendors offer Chinese, Japanese, and Korean modules. A few also include custom interfaces with matching keyboards in multiple languages, but those are more for searching the Internet and the OPAC. “One of our areas of focus is French-language resources, and those are easier to find,” says TLC’s Pyper. “But multilingual databases or databases focusing on multilingual content are difficult.”

Toronto created its own solution by building a service called News Connect, an Internet subject gateway that links to multilingual newspapers worldwide. “We built the font translation into the computer, so you can look at in Arabic or Chinese, etc. We’ve gathered what is available on the Internet into a single site, so people can find their own language.” MIT has one foreign-language database of historic Chinese literature. The interfaces are multi-lingual.

Get the word out
Once your foreign-language collection is in place, how do you apprise the community of this new resource? Simple word of mouth is best, but there are other opportunities. Toronto advertises the locations of its collections on its web site, though the interface is still only in English. “People want to know where to go, because we can’t have all languages at all branches,” says Pyper. In response, TPL recently placed large collections at certain branches and smaller deposit collections at others “so that the Chinese community will know that these are the five branches with the big collections.”

The library also does outreach via community newspapers, church fliers, and settlement workers in the library. “They see new immigrants and help them with settlement issues, but at the same time we’re introducing [new residents] to the library,” says Pyper. “They love that there is a free library card and materials available in their languages.”

Another route for outr each is through classroom visits by immigrant children. “Especially with people from countries lacking a free public library system, bringing the children in makes them aware of what’s available. Then the parents come,” says TPL’s Caron. Collections going unused has never been the problem. Toronto, North America’s busiest library system, has 98 branches. In 20 of them, multilingual titles account for more than 20 per cent of overall circulation. “NYPL does a lot of programming,” says Stevanovic says, “including literary readings and stagings, so people become aware of the books.”

Though libraries with multinational staffs will find it easier to compile a multilingual collection, others can accomplish their goals with equal satisfaction. The Internet can help, but following the example of other librarians is the fastest path to success. Public and academic libraries of any size, in any location, can apply their methods to build the multilingual collections they need.

World Languages Toolbox
Go to for a list of over 80 vendors that deal with materials in languages from around the world. Special thanks to the collection development librarians at NYPL’s Donnell Library Center.

15 tips for developing multilingual service

  • Find out where your patrons are from and the languages they speak and read.
  • Hire bilingual staff, or work with native speakers from the community. You’ll find people through schools and cultural organizations.
  • Connect with local booksellers or newsstand owners who sell in the languages in question.
  • Rely on librarians at major public institutions.
  • Talk to academic librarians who collect in the field and source ALA groups.
  • Look at advertisements in regional periodicals to see what is getting promoted.
  • Read English-language journals that cover the culture of a population.
  • Track prize winners from the countries in question.
  • Find works of distinguished writers in collections of translated writing or translated books. Then buy original titles.
  • Cull reviews online via web sites for newspapers in a given country.
  • Attend international book fairs, such as Frankfurt (for books in many languages) or Guadalajara (for Spanish).
  • Use your web site: provide links to international web sites, such as major city newspapers. If possible, create a mirror of your library site in languages used by large populations. An excellent example of this in Spanish is Las Vegas-Clark County Library District’s
  • Reach out to potential patrons through schools and social service organizations.
  • Advertise your collections on the library site and in literature.
  • Organize programming for large immigrant groups.

By Michael Rogers
Michael Rogers is Senior Editor, LJ

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