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A Trailblazer in Immigrant Services: The New York Public Library
The year was 1910 and there was a huge influx of immigrants into New York so much so that the foreign-born population rose to 41 percent. Meanwhile, the New York Public Library, a free public library of New York was being birthed into existence. In 1895, an agreement was signed to consolidate the Tilden Fund and the Lenox and Astor Libraries, two private libraries in New York. The Tilden Fund financed the construction of The Research Library located on the corner of 42nd Street and Fifth Avenue. Construction was completed and the New York Public Library opened its door to the public in 1911.
From its very beginning, immigrants used the library. Librarians at the New York Public Library upheld the philosophy that the library should be accessible to all and provide library resources for all peoples of the community, and decided to stock a foreign language collection of over 100,000 books representing over twenty-five different languages to meet the reading interests of immigrants in the society. This effort was much criticized by the press and even others in the profession. This huge influx of immigrants was threatening the homogenous landscape of the society. New York was comprised primarily of White Anglo-Saxon Protestants and there was a fear of different and unfamiliar cultures and peoples. To deal with this perceived threat social scientists of the day prescribed an assimilation theory where in practice the new immigrant had to depart from his/her culture, learn English and adapt American ways and customs. In other words, become Americanized and lose his/her ethnic identity.
Librarians, way ahead of social scientists of the time, had already seen assimilation or Americanization as somewhat chauvinistic and embraced the idea that in a democracy the cultures of its resident groups enrich the society and should be preserved. They did want them to learn American ways but they aimed for what we know today as cultural pluralism preferring the “salad bowl” to the “melting pot” concept. (Dain p. 67)
A library spokesperson in responding to these criticisms said “It is cruel to deny reading matter to people too old or too exhausted by their labor to learn English; besides the right book in any language would introduce them to American life and ideals.” (Dain p. 67) According to one Chief Librarian Esther Johnston, (Chief Librarian of the Seward Park Library on the Lower East Side in 1921) “the library should in every way show respect for the opinions, customs and religions of [the older immigrants] whom American life treats cruelly.” (Dain p. 67)
One of the other reasons why librarians wanted foreign language books according to Esther Johnston was for “exhibits so that children could see the culture from which they had sprung and [we] didn’t think that forced interest in American life was very wholesome... Our [aim was to provide] good reading matter and [we hoped] that the ones who read it would a little sooner find themselves understanding the country.” (Dain p. 67)
Many saw this method of giving immigrants books in their own language as a measure that will impede assimilation. Librarians however had a different perspective. They felt they had to meet these new immigrants on their own level - through their own language and culture to teach them American ways. Modern social scientist would later embrace this perspective claiming that when an immigrant enters a new and strange society he/she is apprehensive and taking away the few things that are familiar - their culture and language - paves a more difficult road to assimilation.
The library not only provided reading materials but implemented programs and services that directly met the informational, educational and recreational needs of the huge immigrant population it served. Some of these programs include ESOL classes, Citizenship classes and cultural programs. It should be mentioned here that other organizations supported the library in some of these ventures to make it possible. For example, in the first quarter century of service, the YMCA sponsored ESOL classes in 14 branch libraries. The Library also made an effort to hire foreign assistants who spoke the language. Thus, when immigrants entered the library they were greeted by someone who spoke their language.
Dain, Phyllis. The New York Public Library: A Universe of Knowledge. New York: The New York Public Library in association with Scala Pub., 2000.
During the week April 15-21, New York City celebrates its 7th Annual Immigrant Heritage Week by proclamation of the Mayor of New York. A wide array of events has been scheduled “to promote and reflect the diversity of the immigrant communities in New York.”
The New York Public Library soars on with its large platter of free services to immigrants.
In January 2006, the New York Public Library inaugurated New York City’s first municipal green building - The Bronx Library Center. The Bronx Library Center is home to the Latino and Puerto Rican Cultural Center, a broad mix of materials, programs and exhibitions that reflect the rich cultural experiences of the people of the Bronx.
The collection, in both Spanish and English, includes titles on history, culture, literature, and the arts, as well as classic and popular fiction.
Materials in various non-print media, as well as items directed toward children and teenagers, are also available. Databases in Spanish and English are accessible on the 127 public-use computers located throughout the building. Books and DVDs in Chinese, Bengali, Hindi, French, Russian and Vietnamese are also available.
Currently the Bronx Library Center offers the following free programs for immigrants:
English Classes for Speakers of Other Languages (next registration is April 14, 2010 at 6 p.m.)
Computer Classes in English and Spanish
Citizenship Classes (sessions on Friday, June 4, 11, 18, and 25, from 6-8:30 pm) Classes will be conducted in English and attendance at all four sessions is required.
Free Cultural Performances every Saturday at 2:30 p.m.
Performances include Latin Jazz and Salsa Concerts, Flamenco music and dance, Mariachi music and dance, West African music and dance, and more. To find out what’s being featured on any given Saturday, please call the library at 718-579-4244 or visit us online at http://www.nypl.org/events
Group Tours in English and Spanish are available by appointment.
To celebrate Immigrant History Week 2010 the Bronx Library Center will host a Marimba Concert by the Marimba Maya Quetzal on April 17 at 2:30 p.m.
Also, check out the special Book/Flag display on the 3rd Floor.
To get a full experience of the Bronx Library Center and all its offerings, visit us at 310 East Kingsbridge Road, Bronx, NY 10458.