Doing the Right Thing for Country and Community

By Meyers, Arthur S. | American Libraries, March 1997 | Go to article overview
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Doing the Right Thing for Country and Community

Meyers, Arthur S., American Libraries


After 71 new citizens from 22 countries were sworn in, and before the fireworks began on the Fourth of July, a reporter asked me, "Why does the public library coordinate the event?" I thought about it for a moment and then said, "It is the right thing to do."

Actually, arranging for these public ceremonies twice a year is a logical element in the library's overall goal of "Building the Better Community." It is a community responsibility we have been carrying out for several years, and it is one that other public libraries should consider.

We started down this road in Hammond, Indiana, in 1986, beginning with the National Issues Forum, where vital issues were discussed in public forums under knowledgeable leaders. A year later, as part of the bicentennial celebration of the U.S. Constitution, a grant from the Indiana Humanities Commission enabled us to bring "Jefferson Town Meetings" into the community. These discussions of the fundamental issues of government were moderated by civic leaders and held in a variety of locations.

Speaking of democracy

The mayor of Hammond, seeing the timeliness of discussing democracy, suggested that the bicentennial celebration become a continuing renewal of America's ideals through a public naturalization ceremony for new citizens. (Traditionally, the swearing in of new citizens is held in a federal court before families and friends.)

The mayor sensed that a public citizenship event would have a positive impact on our "salad bowl" community. The northwestern most city in Indiana, Hammond adjoins Chicago and has drawn immigrants from all over the world for the past century. Pride in heritage is still present in the Calumet Region.

We held the first public naturalization ceremony in a school atrium, and it was both festive and moving. The mayor soon realized the impact would be even greater if it was part of a prominent outdoor celebration. The traditional Fourth-of-July music and fireworks in Harrison Park, centrally located in the city, would be a perfect setting. He brought together several organizations and coordinated the first outdoor ceremony. The library's role was primarily to set up a Bill of Rights exhibit and distribute brochures on the Constitution.

For the past six years, the community celebration has been conducted in the park. Over this period, the library's role has evolved into coordinating the naturalization portion of the celebration, while the Park Department arranges the music and fireworks.

Two vital elements make the event possible: First, the enthusiasm of Federal Magistrate Andrew Rodovich, a Hammond resident whose grandparents were immigrants from Yugoslavia. As a federal judge conducts the naturalization ceremony, the park in Hammond becomes the courthouse with all the decorum of the formal setting.

The second requirement for a naturalization ceremony is an official from the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, who formally moves that the petitioning immigrants become new citizens as they have met all the requirements. We are fortunate in this instance also: Thomas Farris, an INS official in Chicago who also lives in Hammond, is just as enthusiastic about the community ceremony as Judge Rodovich.

A smooth process

In April and May, I call the mayor and the Park Department to determine whether the celebration will be on the evening of July 3 or 4, depending on when the holiday falls during the week.

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