CHICAGO — Chicago has always been a city of immigrants, its neighborhoods defined by the cultures that settled them. These days, that's nowhere more apparent than in the city's 76 branch libraries.
Chinatown's library - the branch with the highest circulation activity - is a busy hub from 9 in the morning till 9 at night, with people reading the 14 Chinese-language newspapers, connecting to friends at home via the Internet, or checking out the thousands of popular Mandarin and Cantonese paperbacks, yellowed from age.
In Humboldt Park's library, branch manager Andrea Telli switches easily between Spanish and English as she helps students track down books for school reports or answers adults' questions on housing vouchers or ESL classes. The library, she's noticed, "is often the first place new immigrants come."
And the busy Northtown Branch is "like a mini United Nations," according to manager Rose Powers. She stocks materials in Russian, Spanish, Urdu, Hindi, Bengali, Hebrew, and Yiddish, and is trying to find out how to get some in Bosnian.
A decade or so ago, doomsayers began predicting the demise of the public library. But today, as the country prepares to celebrate National Library Week (April 18-24), libraries in Chicago and many other cities are thriving - and reaching out to the populations that most need them. In many neighborhoods, that means building an Urdu or Somali collection, holding classes on cultural survival, and becoming a source of information that goes beyond encyclopedias. A recent survey by the Urban Libraries Council found that two-thirds of its members had collections in more than 10 languages. Five - Queens Borough, N.Y., Minneapolis, Seattle, Los Angeles County, and Rochester, N.Y. - have collections in more than 80.
The trend "is reflective of an ever-deepening sense of what it means to truly be the public's library," says Joey Rodger, president of the Urban Libraries Council. Many libraries, she notes, now label their foreign-language books the "community languages" section. They're making efforts to hire more bilingual staff, to offer classes in everything from computer skills to seminars on tenants' rights, and to make more connections with local social-service agencies.
That libraries are a resource for immigrants is logical. They're free, they have a wealth of information about new and unfamiliar communities, and their computers offer the best means to connect with friends, family, and news from back home. But as they recognize that niche - even in cities that until recently have seen few immigrants - libraries are becoming to get innovative in the services they provide.
Those services range from small actions - like shelving children's and adult nonfiction books together in the Humboldt Park branch, so that adults learning English won't have to feel embarrassed by going to the kids' section - to the field trips that New York's Queens Borough Library has organized to places like the United Nations or Yankees games.
"We're still serving in our traditional roles - lifelong learning and education support - but we have to be more proactive and creative in how to serve new communities," says Susan Glenn, gateway services manager for the Minneapolis Public Library.
In Minneapolis, that's meant expanding their foreign-language collection - it now has materials in 177 different languages - creating a library website that's viewable in Somali, Hmong, and Spanish, and developing a Library Links program that reaches out to new immigrant communities.
At the Franklin Learning Center, new Americans come for help on homework, ESL and GED courses, and more basic instruction - how to order pizza or get around the neighborhood.
Warsame Shirwa, a Somali immigrant who works with Library Links to reach out to the Somali community - most of whom, he says, are shocked when they discover the library is free - found that the library was the best source of cultural information when he arrived in Minneapolis six years ago. "In Africa, if someone is a lawyer they behave a certain way. Here I can see the American carefree culture - someone with hair dyed blue or yellow going to law school, and someone who is clean shaven with a suit and tie going to law school."
Within the Somali community, Mr. Shirwa says, new arrivals tend to go first to get their Social Security Card, and next to the library. One friend of his was well-educated, but spoke no English when he arrived. He brought his family regularly to the library's English language learning center, and now has an MBA, owns his own home, and works at a neighborhood development agency. "This is their gateway to the US system," says Shirwa.
Another way libraries are reaching out is by recruiting and hiring multilingual speakers. My Tran arrived in Chicago in 1988, an educated Vietnamese woman with limited English. Her first stop at a branch library was to get help for her ESL class. She went on to get an electrical-engineering degree from the University of Illinois-Chicago, but the library became such a valued place that she started working there, moving up from library page, to part-time clerk, to full-time clerk, to - with help from the city to support her library-science degree - librarian.
"The first time I came here, everything was so new to me," Ms. Tran explains. "Whatever experiences I have to help me exist in this country, I want to share." She now works at Chicago's Bezazian Branch, which serves a varied group of immigrants, from Vietnamese to East Africans.
Stumbling blocks, of course, arise. As a community's demographics change, libraries in formerly all-white neighborhoods can find themselves suddenly ill-equipped to serve, say, Bosnian or Kurdish immigrants. Many libraries are seeing drastic budget cuts. And it's not always easy to get the word out about activities: One recent financial-skills class for Polish speakers in Chicago went unattended, perhaps because the likeliest beneficiaries were in the English language class next door.
Ms. Rodger recounts the story of a friend who was a librarian in California. He wanted to send out a bookmobile into an area with undocumented immigrants to provide healthcare information and school support for children, but was told that nobody would use it. "They said, 'In our neighborhood, if people get into a government vehicle, we never see them again.' So he developed a truck that looked like the canteens where they bought hot dogs - they could stand outside and point to what they wanted."
It's that most basic of concepts - that libraries are open to all, no matter what their status - that makes them attractive to America's newest arrivals. "It's one of those places with a great big welcome sign embedded in the walls," says Mary Pipher, author of "The Middle of Everywhere."
Ms. Pipher refers to libraries - along with schools and healthcare centers - as "cultural brokers," the agents by which an immigrant can learn to navigate society in a foreign country.
"Everybody needs to learn to speak English, to read and understand English, and to gather reliable information," says Pipher. "Schools and libraries are stop No. 1."