The Challenge of Building Multilingual Collections in Canadian Public Libraries

Article excerpt

A Web-based survey was conducted to determine the extent to which Canadian public libraries are collecting multilingual materials (foreign languages other than English and French), the methods that they use to select these materials, and whether public librarians are sufficiently prepared to provide their multilingual clientele with an adequate range of materials and services. There is room for improvement with regard to collection development of multilingual materials in Canadian public libraries, as well as in educating staff about keeping multilingual collections current, diverse, and of sufficient interest to potential users to keep such materials circulating. The main constraints preventing public libraries from developing better multilingual collections are addressed, and recommendations for improving the state of multilingual holdings are provided.

In 1973, the National Library of Canada (NLC) began a centralized Multilingual Biblioservice (MBS) that offered public libraries books in a wide variety of languages other than English and French--the two official languages of Canada. Some twenty years later, it reduced "the scope of the work of MBS and donat[ed] the collection to public libraries and deposit centers across the country" (NLC 1994, 2). In 1994 NLC published A World of Information: Creating Multicultural Collections and Programs in Canadian Public Libraries (AWI) as a way of "offering advisory service to assist public libraries serving ethnocultural minority communities across Canada" (2). AWI was designed to help "librarians in towns and small cities ... establish continuing contacts with the ethnocultural minority communities that may use your library's multilingual collection" and thus "find the support and information you need to manage a multilingual collection" (2-3). It began from the premise that all Canadian public institutions should "respond to the diverse needs and interests of all community members," and specifically invoked the Multiculturalism Policy of Canada, which "reflects a conviction that, by accepting and promoting cultural diversity, Canadian society will develop a shared sense of Canadian identity that respects the diversity of the country and its people" (3). More specifically, AWI quoted guidelines about multilingual (ML) collections issued by the Canadian Library Association, which state that "minority language communities of 300 or more people in a library system should receive service on a fair and equitable per capita level and that, for communities of fewer than 300 people ... libraries should provide at least several basic reference books and a newspaper or periodical title" (3). In addition, AWI featured sections that gave practical advice about the importance of establishing contact with minority communities and the ways in which ML communities can help in developing collections by "advising on subjects of interest, popular authors and publications, ... particular community needs ... and screening titles for acquisitions" (5-6). It also contained detailed information about ways in which to build staff skills so as to better serve ML patrons. For example, the benefits of holding training sessions about the key role of ML newspapers were described, as well as the advantages of workshops about "recent international publications ... [so that] staff could become familiar with the names of important fiction and non-fiction writers or titles from, for example, Spain, Greece, the Indian sub-continent and China" (22). Finally, AWI stressed the importance of training staff about cross--cultural communication patterns insofar as "cultural awareness can help staff to understand the impact of culture on behaviour" (23). In other words, as summarized in the Guidelines for Multilingual Materials Collection and Development and Library Services prepared by the Multilingual Materials Subcommittee (MMS) of the American Library Association, "access to library materials for ethnic, cultural and linguistic groups should not be seen as 'additional' or 'extra' services, but as an integral part of every library's services" (MMS 1990, sec. …