Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Use of Public Libraries by Immigrants

Academic journal article Reference & User Services Quarterly

Use of Public Libraries by Immigrants

Article excerpt

The United States has experienced increased immigration rates since 1990 and public libraries are faced with providing services to immigrants from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. Which immigrants are the most likely to utilize public library services? This study uses data from the U.S. Current Population Survey from 2002 to compare households of immigrants from various world regions on the use of public libraries in the past month and the past year. Immigrant households' rates of library use are also compared to households of native-born U.S. citizens.

American public libraries have a long history of service to the foreign-born. While today's immigrants have much in common in terms of library needs with immigrants from earlier periods, the demographic character of newcomers to this country has changed substantially For example, one hundred years ago immigrants were predominately European. Today's immigrants are much more likely to be from Latin America and Asia. (1) Immigration rates have increased since 1990. According to U.S. Census Bureau data, in 2000 immigrants were more than 11% of the U.S. population for the first time since 1930. (2) By 2004 there were 34.2 million foreign-born residents in the United States, or 12% of the population. (3) In addition to immigrants themselves, the 2000 census showed that fully 20% of K-12 students were children of immigrants. (4) It is undeniable that these numbers of immigrants are having and will continue to have a significant impact on U.S. institutions such as public libraries.

How are public libraries serving such diverse populations? Materials in languages other than English, bilingual and bicultural staff members, literacy instruction, and English-as-a-second-language courses are some of the more common strategies. In addition, libraries can partner with federal Americanization agencies. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services has had vendor booths at American Library Association Annual Conferences to promote naturalization and citizenship materials for public libraries. Federal outreach to immigrants through public libraries dates back at least to the World War I era. (5)


There have been many studies on characteristics of public library users and nonusers. Lawrence White stated that at least fifty such studies have been conducted since the 1930s. Douglas Zweizig and Brenda Dervin focused on sixteen studies that they identified as truly comparable. (6) In their analysis of these studies, Zweizig and Dervin concluded that 10-23.5% of U.S. adults use the public library at least once a month, and 21-64% at least once a year. (7) Most of the studies examined demographic variables as predictors of library use. Of these, education level was consistently the strongest predictor. Socioeconomic variables such as income and occupation were weak predictors, and age was curvilinear (use increased with age to a certain point then decreased). Sex, race, and marital status were not important predictors. (8) Judith Payne found that the presence of school-aged children and the education process were strong reasons for library use. (9) Carol Kronus identified family size and county size as influential. (10) Some researchers found nondemographic variables such as attitudes and habits were better predictors of library use than demographic variables. (11)


Studies have also been done on immigrants' use of public libraries. These generally focused on immigrants from specific geographic regions and located in particular areas of the United States. Most studies of immigrant library users concern Latino immigrants. While the professional literature contains a wide variety of articles detailing experiences of or suggestions for serving immigrant populations, only those providing numerical or statistical data are reviewed here.

Around 1990, Amado Padilla used a focus group to gather perceptions from Latino immigrants in East Palo Alto, California. …

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