Last year, staff at Palo Alto's Mitchell Park Library began to notice that the city's demographics were changing -- and that a large number of visitors to the library were not being served.
"There are so many public libraries doing amazing services and programs for their 'new Americans' audience, and quite frankly, we weren't doing much, just a few bilingual storytimes," said RuthAnn Garcia, the services manager for the library.
So the staff implemented the New Americans program, designed to help non-English speakers assimilate into the community as well as gain their legal citizenship. Their version was modeled after the Queens Library in New York's program of the same name; Garcia traveled to the Queens library to study their approach.
"I was impressed by their commitment to adult learning and engaging their non-English speaking population with multilingual fliers, programs, life-skills workshops, literacy programs and learning centers," Garcia said.
Though many may think of libraries as centers solely for books and, now, digital media, historically, libraries have helped people become familiar with their community.
"I love the idea that a library is the first place a person goes when new to a town," Garcia said.
Before Mitchell Park launched the New Americans program, it had a decent selection of Chinese and Russian books, but the Spanish language selection was severely lacking, according to Garcia. The library then implemented English-as-a-Second-Language (ESL) conversation groups and bulked up its selection of foreign-language materials. Additionally, it programmed its computers for use by speakers of Chinese, Russian and Spanish as well as English.
While these steps were significant, it was not until library staff members created their own version of a New Americans monthly program that they felt like they were truly serving non-English speakers, Garcia said.
Mitchell Park library's monthly programs cover a swath of topics. In this election year, for example, the August meeting was all about the electoral process and how to participate. Other topics have included public transportation and bilingual parenting. A "citizenship clinic" offered free help in filling out citizenship applications as well as understanding the process.
"We have people coming from different Bay Area cities to attend, and we're pleased to see the camaraderie and shared experience between the attendees," Garcia said.
In one meeting, attendees practiced idiomatic expressions, such as "drop a bomb." Tasked with coming up with examples of this new idiom, many attendees laughed and tried to one-up each other's examples. They also had fun with the idiom "climbing the corporate ladder."
Students also spent time comparing phrases from their countries of origin with the ones they had been learning.
Instructor Kitty Merz commanded the participants' attention with her lighthearted mood and her focus on helping the class learn about America. She ending the session by reciting and teaching them the National Anthem.
"We are working on getting them to the next stage, which is being able to understand what a native speaker is saying," she explained.
One of the attendees, Blanca Espa, expressed satisfaction with the program after the session.
"It's an easy way to practice and meet new people in the community," she said.
Although the New Americans program has only been in place for a year, it has already seen its fair share of success.
"Quite a few have already become advanced," said Jungwon Yoon, one of the librarians in charge of the program. "Since they joined our group, I can see they improved their conversational skills a lot. Also, I get positive feedback about their confidence."
Despite the program's launch, the library staff hardly consider the work finished. The library is eager to spread the word about its program and plans to focus on outreach. In the first six weeks of the program this fall, 150 people have participated, almost 20 percent more than attended in the first six weeks last year. Garcia and library Division Head Diane Lai are hoping the newly minted mobile Bike PALS service, along with positive word-of-mouth around the community, will help spread the word.
"We want to add a lot more classes focused on participation. ... We have a lot more things in mind," Garcia explained.
Garcia and Lai both stressed the importance of continuing the work they have started.
"It's on us to make sure we are promoting ourselves in an outwardly focused way," Garcia said.
Added Lai, "We want this to be an inclusive library that brings together the community, and the New Americans program is a big part of this effort."