Keeping Immigrants at the Forefront of Queens Library’s Mission

Posted by Dennis Walcott on November 13, 2017 at 9:59 AM

A few days before the release of her latest book this summer, the Indian-born young adult writer Mitali Perkins tweeted about the impact Queens Library had on her when she first came to this country, saying it “meant everything to this little immigrant years ago.”

Through Sonia, one of the main characters in “You Bring the Distant Near,” Ms. Perkins hints at why it did. In an early scene in the novel, which tells the story of the experiences of an Indian family that emigrates to the U.S. and settles in Queens, Sonia’s father takes her on a tour of their new neighborhood. The first place he shows her is her school. The second is Flushing Library, the busiest library in the Queens Library system, drawing 1.2 million visitors each year. “This is for you,” he says.

With this comment he implies a Queens Library fact: immigrant New Yorkers are at the forefront of the library’s mission.

In 1977, Queens Library launched the New Americans Program (NAP), then, a first-of-its-kind initiative to respond to the rising number of people who were relocating to Queens from other countries. The goal was to help them adjust to their new home, and keep them connected to the ones they left behind by building a multilingual collection and creating programming that met their needs, such as coping skills classes and cultural events.

Since then, Queens Library has continued to find new ways to adapt to the learning and informational needs not only of immigrants, but all the people of the borough of Queens, where nearly half of its 2.3 million residents were born outside of the United States, and only 43 percent ages five and older speak English at home as their primary language.

Currently, we circulate reading material, DVDs and CDs in more than 40 languages, including Spanish, Chinese, Hebrew, Korean, Polish, Russian and Bangla. We operate 68 English Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) courses per year at 19 of the 63 libraries that comprise our system and 58 ESOL classes at our seven Adult Learning Centers. In addition, we offer 70 volunteer-led informal English conversation groups at 22 sites.  

We’re also attuned to the challenges many of our immigrant customers confront as they try to become naturalized, seek citizenship or find housing, and partner with non-profits and community-based organizations throughout New York City to provide assistance with paperwork, legal matters and other help around these issues.

As the circumstances of our customers change, so do our approaches towards supporting them. When enforcement activity against undocumented immigrants increased this year, we offered Know-Your-Rights workshops and written guidance on what to do in the event of a raid or an arrest.      

The recent elimination of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program prompted us to offer workshops to help participants complete their renewal applications before the October 5 deadline.   

Beyond this, we’ve worked hard to create a climate in our libraries that reflects our values of inclusion and welcoming. Last April, we launched a system-wide initiative to demonstrate that Queens Library is here for all of our customers, no matter who they are, where they’re from, whom they love or their immigration or housing status. The “Queens Library is for Everyone” campaign encourages our librarians and other public-facing staff to deepen their engagement with the public by taking actions as simple as saying hello when a customer comes through the door or as bold as going beyond the walls of their buildings to the nearest school, senior center, grocery store or bus stop to introduce people to our programs, services and resources.

More recently, we kept open the doors of our library in Corona and another in the Rockaways to deliver 31 consecutive hours of service to New Yorkers who are unable to visit during our regular hours.  

By breaking down our walls, and bringing our resources more directly to our customers, Queens Library is shouting from the rooftops what the father in Mitali Perkins’ book told his daughter: This is for you.

What other libraries and associations are doing in the face of DACA changes:

King County Library System

Los Angeles Public Library

American Libraries Association:


Dennis M. Walcott
President and CEO
Queens Library

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