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APLIC-I Conference 1998
March 30 - April 1, 1998

Reaching Out to Chicago's Multicultural and Multiethnic Populations through Innovative Library Programs

By Diane Rubino, Population Council

At the 1998 Annual APLIC-I Conference, participants were fortunate to see an informative and moving presentation by Charlotte Kim, Assistant Commissioner for Neighborhood Services, Chicago Public Library (CPL). Ms. Kim described how the CPL has created an inclusive environment, embracing the city's diverse communities and groups in her talk, Reaching Out to Chicago's Multicultural and Multiethnic Populations through Innovative Library Programs.

As a port of entry for immigrants since the turn of the century, Chicago is a vibrant mix of cultures and ethnicities. The Public Library system endeavors to meet the needs of everyone in its constituency. The CPL Mission Statement is the heart of this valiant effort to connect with all of the city's residents:

We welcome and support all people in their enjoyment of reading and pursuit of lifelong learning. We strive to provide equal access to information, ideas, and knowledge through books, programs, and other resources. We believe in the freedom to read, to learn, and to discover.

The CPL has an attitude—a good one. Staffers think of themselves as local information ambassadors. Because of this conviction, the Library has taken up the gauntlet thrown by the rapid and constant emergence of new groups in the community. The cornerstone of the outreach program is the staff itself; employees hail from countries as eclectic as their patrons, such as Bangladesh, Hong Kong, Korea, Pakistan, the Philippines, Poland, and Russia. Branches maintain a language bank that contains names and contact information of bilingual or polyglot employees and have even hired staff to mirror the demographic make-up of their service areas.

The Library also seeks to address the needs of the city's diverse population through careful collection development. The foreign language stock has been shaped by responding to the needs of patrons and parallels local immigration patterns over the last century. The original emphasis was on European languages, but as the demographic profile of Chicago changed, the library began to develop a compilation of texts in non-European languages with special attention given to southeast Asian dialects. Currently, the Library has materials in 125 languages for adults and children. Thirty branches of the CPL also collectively house the nation's second largest selection of African American history and literature. Additionally, about 35 branches have developed substantial Spanish language holdings to meet the demands of local patrons. Other specialty collections include Chinese, Korean, Polish, Judaica and Holocaust, Irish, Arabic, Lithuanian, French, Vietnamese, and Native American materials.

In addition to its diverse holdings, the CPL offers services and programs to the mixed racial and ethnic residents of Chicago. The Library currently has four major "ethnic concerns" committees comprised of staff members who volunteer their services: African American, Asian Pacific, Hispanic, and Polish. These groups translated library card applications, informational brochures, signs, and public awareness campaigns about library hours, services, and programs. Committee members also assist the Acquisitions Department acquire foreign language materials, prepare booklists for the public, conduct cultural diversity workshops, and hold language classes. Equally important, all neighborhood libraries are given latitude to assess the unique needs of their local communities and initiate and implement new services and programs.

Ms. Kim also described to conference attendees an innovative after-school program initiated by the CPL. Nearly a decade ago, a local librarian, noting an influx of immigrant latchkey kids without language skills to do school assignments, devised a program to address this problem. The library hired teachers and offered after-school classes four days a week. In the first cohort, fifty students didn't miss a single class! The program culminated with a graduation ceremony in which the children told stories describing how the program helped them move into mainstream classes quickly and pledged to help newly-arrived students in subsequent years. Other branch libraries have since recognized a similar need in their neighborhoods and have developed their own tutoring programs independently or in cooperation with community organizations.

Many branch libraries work with social service organizations who assist in the transition of refugees and other new immigrants. Because of their sudden, often sizeable influx, refugees represent a complex challenge to CPL staff. Libraries have responded by offering materials and meeting room space for English as a Second Language classes. Residents will also find citizenship application forms at local branches. Additionally, the CPL joined with other organizations to create a citywide program, Chicago Matters, that features neighborhood forums on immigration issues and special book collections and information guides to supplement these meetings.

By continuously initiating services and programs throughout the city, Ms. Kim and her colleagues are helping people of every ethnic and racial group achieve a better understanding and appreciation of other cultures. In undertaking these tasks, neighborhood libraries have gone far beyond their original mandate as educational institutions and have become cultural and community centers as well.

As APLIC-I members were reminded in a recent meeting, the full title of our organization is Association for Population Libraries and Information Centers - International. We have much to learn from how Ms. Kim and the staff of the Chicago Public Library have created a flexible, welcoming institution that actively and creatively responds to the needs of it's constituencies.

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Last updated 04/29/01