Volume 28, Number 3, Fall 2006

LSTA Grant Makes Library Interpretation Service a Reality

by: Randi Weiss, Joe Sciacca, and Jan Ison, Lincoln Trail Libraries System

Lincoln Trail Libraries System (LTLS), Champaign )Ill.), has announced the launch of the PolyTalk Library Interpreters Network. Funded by an Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) grant awarded to LTLS by the Illinois State Library, PolyTalk's goal is to enable non-English speaking library patrons to make full use of the resources of Illinois libraries. The project provides staff of Illinois libraries access to an online database of volunteer interpreters. Volunteers provide telephone-based interpretation to help the librarian and patron communicate with each other. Over seventy-five interpreters who speak more than twenty different languages are part of PolyTalk.

PolyTalk is the first statewide effort to provide interpretation services to all Illinois libraries. “Illinois libraries face a significant challenge communicating effectively with limited English-speaking patrons,” says LTLS Executive Director Jan Ison. “Libraries need an efficient way to communicate with these users.” Nearly one in five Illinois residents speaks a language other than English at home. The linguistic diversity of the communities served by Illinois libraries is increasing faster than the language capabilities of library staff.

PolyTalk will expand the level of service available to non-English speaking patrons by providing a secure database for library staff to locate and contact a volunteer interpreter fluent in the patron’s language. Bilingual interpreters will provide real-time interpretation to make the resources of Illinois libraries accessible. In addition, PolyTalk includes a multilingual language kit to assist staff and patrons in navigating simple, library-specific interactions. Using the language kit, the librarian can negotiate the initial patron contact, identify the patron's language, inform them of the availability of the PolyTalk service, and provide an overview of library services in the patron’s native language.

PolyTalk will increase library awareness and library services to previously underserved populations. LTLS expects a noticeable increase in library use, as well as the establishment of local networks of librarians, interpreters, and non-English speakers.

“Just think how helpful it would be for you to have an English language interpreter available if you visited a library in a foreign country,” says Project Director Joe Sciacca. “PolyTalk can open up the world of library resources and services to thousands of non-English speaking Illinois residents.”

Librarians in Illinois can begin using PolyTalk today by registering online for a staff account. Once registered, librarians can use the database to locate an interpreter and contact them by phone to provide real-time interpretation.

LTLS is actively recruiting bilingual speakers to expand the network. Bilingual librarians and non-library staff are welcome to participate. Volunteer interpreters can complete the registration process online or contact PolyTalk staff for further information.

The language barrier faced by Illinois librarians is not unique to our state. Libraries in communities of all sizes around the country are challenged to provide meaningful service to non-English speaking patrons. We've had numerous inquiries from librarians in other states about the project and we are exploring opportunities for partnerships to expand PolyTalk beyond Illinois. Now that the initial investment in developing the PolyTalk volunteer network, database, and language kit is complete, we are currently developing plans to make PolyTalk self-sustaining as an ongoing subscription service. Our vision is that PolyTalk will become a standard multi-type cooperative network service that all libraries can rely on when needed, just as we have come to rely on others for interlibrary loan and delivery to provide customer services we cannot provide ourselves.

To learn more about PolyTalk, please contact project coordinator Randi Weiss (217) 352-0047, ext. 229; project director Joe Sciacca, ext. 206; or LTLS executive director Jan Ison, ext. 221, e-mail, or visit the PolyTalk Web site.