Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Libraries and Hispanics

The Gwinnett County Library Board's decision to cut their Spanish language fiction budget sheds more light on the firing of former director Jo Ann Pinder (apparently no official reason for her firing has been given).

It's looking more and more like a clash of cultures is at work, with the ousted Pinder as the liberal (who supported the Spanish budget) and the board as the conservatives, who want to move in a different direction.

The "liberal" model of dealing with the growing Hispanic community is to encourage bilingualism, illegal immigration, and champion bi-culturalism. The "conservative" way is is opposite: assimilation, encourage Hispanics to learn English, and an end to open borders.

Until now, America has taken a laissez-faire attitude toward Hispanics because they provided a service and no "threat" was perceived. They are "doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there" as Vincente Fox put it. That explains why America has allowed Hispanics to "get away with" illegal entry into the country without much of a fuss at all. But with illegal immigration now a national concern, this model is disintegrating.

Is it the business of libraries to encourage Hispanics to stay within their own separate culture or prod them to assimilate? Do libraries spend money on foreign language material when budgets don't allow them to satisfy the needs of their predominantly English-speaking users? The answer, I speculate, depends on the librarians.

Gwinnett's Spanish language collection is described as being "an instant hit" resulting in a dilemma: Do you halt a popular service because funds should be spent on programs more useful to most of the community, and in a larger sense because the popular service discourages assimilation and instead fosters a widening chasm between two American cultures--and therefore works to weaken national unity (although of course not everyone agrees with this reading)?

The article quotes Board member Brett Taylor:

Libraries, he said, should be about bringing different parts of the community together. "Even if we're reading in English and they're reading in Spanish, we see each other," he said. "We're together."

But we're not. Together but apart. That's the problem. Suppose over the next decade 40 million Vietnamese migrated to the United States. And suppose they made little effort to learn English and most spoke only Vietnamese. Then what? Libraries scurrying to find the funds for trilingualism? We see each other so we're together? A people whose primary language is English trying to learn Vietnamese to connect in some way with their fellow Americans--instead of them learning English? Is it in the best interests of immigrants to not learn English?

How many libraries have strategic plans for services for immigrant communities? How do you decide how much to spend on foreign-language materials? Should libraries strongly encourage immigrants to learn English and deliberately keep foreign-language collections to a minimum?

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