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Utah libraries among many going multilingual

Christine Johnson, children's librarian at the Denver Public Library, places one of the Spanish-language books on a shelf in the downtown branch.
Christine Johnson, children's librarian at the Denver Public Library, places one of the Spanish-language books on a shelf in the downtown branch.
David Zalubowski, Associated Press

DENVER — On a rainy Saturday, Miereya Gomez quietly thumbed through a book titled "Los Colores" as her two young sons carried comic books to their father in the children's section of the Central Public Library on the outskirts of downtown Denver.

"They really enjoy it here," Gomez said as her husband read a Spider-Man comic to 3-year-old Israel, who listens intently as he hugs his father's knee. "We come here mostly for the kids, for books and movies — educational and entertainment — in Spanish and English."

Dozens of states, including Utah, have seen soaring growth in Spanish-speaking populations in recent years and hundreds of libraries have tried to keep pace by stocking up on books, magazines and movies that meet their needs.

But the growth has been controversial in some places, with critics saying taxpayer money shouldn't be spent on a population that can include illegal immigrants or on proposals that promote languages other than English.

In Denver, where the foreign-born population tripled between 1990 and 2000 largely because of Mexican immigrants, the public library system is considering reorganizing some of its branches to emphasize bilingual services and material.

In Utah, many libraries are reaching out to an increasingly diverse population through efforts such as bolstering their foreign language collections and celebrating multicultural holidays.

Libraries are also going into schools and sponsoring English as a Second Language classes. Earlier this year, there was a Day of the Child/Day of the Book bilingual family reading festival in West Valley City.

Such efforts are important in getting new immigrants to libraries, said Rosemary McAtee, senior librarian for Spanish services at Salt Lake County Libraries, and a member of the Latino and Spanish library outreach group REFORMA.

"Most (immigrants) are coming from countries where public lending libraries are not common," McAtee said. "When they realize the services are free, it's like opening up a whole new world to them."

McAtee said when she started at the Hunter Library in 1995, the Spanish selection was limited to books on how to speak Spanish. Now, there are some 4,000 to 5,000 items from books to magazines to DVDs.

She said English-only legislation that passed a few years ago caused some complaints, but: "We justify it by saying the library wants as many people as possible to utilize the books."

Stephanie Goodliffe, literacy coordinator for the Salt Lake City Library System, said there are titles in 80 languages, or 100 if you include dictionaries and language-learning materials. The largest collections are in Spanish, Chinese and Russian.

"Our goal is to make everyone feel comfortable," she said. "We are trying to reach out to all communities."

Some efforts include bilingual story times, availability of library forms in a variety of languages and identification of bilingual staff, who wear name tags that include their second language.

The Summit County Library is one of six in the state that have bolstered Spanish language selections in the past year using a grant from the Federal Library Services & Technology Act and state dollars.

The libraries have purchased a combined $63,000 in books, videos, DVDs, books-on-tape, magazines, and newspapers in Spanish for children and adults and librarian training and marketing.

Youth Services Librarian Linda Schmida says the funding helped expand the Spanish language selection in Summit County from a few books in the children's section to its own section with titles for all ages. The library also has two staff members who speak Spanish.

"It has probably tripled our Spanish-speaking patronage in here on a daily basis," she said. "It's a big family activity for them."

In Park City, Schmida pointed to census demographics that 19 percent of the population speaks Spanish at home.

"It was very definitely needed," she says. New efforts also include outreach, such as story telling at apartment complexes with large Hispanic populations.

Schmida says the library has added materials to help Spanish speakers learn English, and the additions have also benefited Spanish as a second language speakers.

"A lot of non-native Spanish speakers are asking for Spanish material," she said. "They can practice, keep up their skills. All around, it has been a great thing."

Similar efforts have been taken by libraries across the country, from the Queens Borough library in New York, whose Web site is offered in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian and Korean, to the large Chinese-language collection at the San Francisco library.

"The interest is in rural areas and cities that aren't the usual Spanish areas, like New York or Miami, but in North Carolina, Illinois and the Midwest," said Carmen Ospina, editor of Critica, a magazine for librarians that highlights Spanish-language material.

She said questions about how to start Spanish-language collections have come from librarians in Belton, Mo.; Nashville, Ga.; and towns she had never heard of.

"It's definitely a growing trend," said Carol Brey-Casiano, former president of the American Library Association. "'It's definitely something we're seeing more and more, because the Hispanic population is growing in our country."

The plan being considered by the Denver Public Library system — the largest in Colorado — has come under scrutiny.

Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., sent a public letter to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper this summer asking whether the library was considering Spanish-only branches or converting to Spanish-language material at the expense of English material. Tancredo, an outspoken critic of U.S. immigration policies, said he had been contacted by concerned librarians and patrons.

"When you have a strong cultural identity and there aren't set incentives to become American, it creates a lot of tension and divides the community," said Tancredo's spokesman, Will Adams.

Those concerns were echoed by Michael Corbin, a radio talk show host who helped organize a protest outside Denver's central library after sexually graphic content was found in some Spanish-language adult comic books that have since been removed.

"The library issue kind of borders on multiculturalism, and I don't think we should be catering to any particular group," Corbin said.

Added Bob Copley Sr., co-founder of the Colorado Minutemen: "Here we're being asked to bring another culture in, but it's coming in largely illegally."

Mike Sizer, chairman of Utahns for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, expressed concern about Colorado's plan, saying: "English is what we have to really stress when we're having people come here. . . . That's going to have a lot to do on future success in our society."

Denver library officials say they're not considering Spanish-only branches, but are simply looking to accommodate a city where 35 percent of residents are Hispanic, as are more than half of the students attending Denver public schools.

About 40 percent of the material borrowed from Denver libraries is for children and the use of adult books is decreasing. Meanwhile, about 48 percent of Hispanic households in Denver are families with children, while only 15 percent of white households are families with children, according to figures compiled by the library.

The Denver library's plan suggests organizing branches in four "service styles."

Some would be contemporary libraries resembling book stores with coffee and comfortable seating that emphasize adult material. Family libraries would focus on children's and adult material, while children's libraries might include activity stations. Learning and language libraries would have more bilingual material and offer evening classes to learn English or computer programs.

Under the plan, all branches would still offer popular fiction and children's summer reading events, said Diane Lapierre, director of strategic initiatives for the Denver Public Library.

"This is very specific to Denver and in response to our own community," Lapierre said. "In 1913, we had a branch library with Dutch and English. If anything, this is just a more coordinated effort — we're looking at a system as a whole instead of tweaking one branch at a time."