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The World's Library

By Rebecca Tuhus-Dubrow

Looking for the new Boris Hakunin detective novel in the original Russian? Need a copy of Tuesdays with Morrie in Korean? The Queens Borough Public Library — working to serve the borough’s diverse immigrant community -- has these books and others in about 23 languages. It has checked out more books than any other library in the country for the last ten years.

Through its New Americans Program, the library works to keep up with the needs of area immigrants, no small feat in a place like Queens. Queens is the most diverse county in the country, and the particular makeup of the population is always in flux. 46.1% of the borough’s population is foreign-born, and 53.5% of Queens residents over the age of five speak a language other than English at home.

The New Americans Program was started in 1977, and consists of English as a Second Language classes, practical workshops conducted in native languages, cultural arts events, and books, CD’s, videos and magazines in many languages. Since 1995, a staff librarian has analyzed the demographics of the borough neighborhood by neighborhood, helping each of the 62 branches better reflect its surrounding community,

For example, the Jackson Heights branch recently offered a workshop on nutrition for children, conducted in Spanish. The branch has plenty of copies of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s popular new autobiography, Vivir para Contarla and Spanish versions of Danielle Steele’s bestsellers. At the Auburndale branch in Flushing, a comparable workshop was offered in Korean, and popular books include a ten-volume novel called Taebaeksamaek, as well as the Korean translation of Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese?, about how to deal with changes in the workplace.

No other library has a program quite like the New Americans Program. The other library systems in the city, the Brooklyn Public Library and the New York Public Library—which includes Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx—provide materials and services for their immigrant populations. But neither coordinates a major program that comprehensively serves immigrants’ needs, nor do they analyze their demographics as rigorously.

Spanish and Korean are two of the major languages in Queens, and some books in those languages may be available in other library systems. But if you are searching for, say, Misevi I Macke Naglavacke, (Mice and Cats), a children’s book by Croatian author Luka Paljetak you’ll probably have to go to the Queens Public Library’s Broadway branch in Astoria.

This title is available in part because of Croatian immigrant Sanja Crnkovic’s efforts to convince the library to order more books in Croatian. The New Americans Program recently bought 135 Croatian books for children, ranging from picture books to easy readers to classics for teenagers. But when Crnkovic moved to Astoria six years ago, "there was a small number of books in Croatian for adults, but absolutely none for children," she said.

Crnkovic, who teaches in a Croatian school, urged her students to borrow the Croatian books, so that librarians would see how much they were needed. At one point, a student’s mother came up to Crnkovic and asked, how was her daughter supposed to check out Croatian books when there were none on the shelf?

Crnkovic also organized an afternoon of Croatian music and dance, featuring a folk group called Croatian Rose at the Broadway branch, which drew about 140 people. Cultural arts events like these, such as Urdu poetry readings and Chinese arts and crafts events, are frequent and popular, and help immigrants to maintain their culture and share it with the other ethnicities of the borough.

These events often are tailored to people from a specific country, because a single language, such as Spanish, can include a wide variety of cultures. An independent Ecuadorian film called Dos Para el Camino was recently screened at the Elmhurst branch, to the delight of the substantial Ecuadorian community there.

But helping immigrants to maintain their culture is only half of the program’s aim. The other half is to help them with the skills they need to succeed in the U.S. Crnkovic’s eleven-year-old son, Viktor, says that he learned English at the library. He read on his own, talked with librarians, and participated in every children’s workshop, program and event offered at his branch, which, he said, "was like a second home to me."

Often, new immigrants are surprised to learn that libraries offer the kind of services like Viktor found at the Broadway branch of the Queens Borough Public Library, and that there is no fee for checking out books. "People walk out of the library with ten books. They can’t believe it, it’s amazing," said Diego Serebrinsky, who emigrated from Argentina in 1997. "When you come here, the first thing they say is, 'Go to the library.'"

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