In 2019, the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) received an IMLS National Forum Grant to bring together members of ALSC and the Association of Children’s Museums (ACM) to develop a best practices resource for library and museums serving people who have recently immigrated to or sought refuge in the United States. While COVID-19 prevented an in-person gathering, a virtual forum and We Are ALSC Chat occurred in 2022 and 2023 respectively. The following information culls together ideas from these forums and current research on how public libraries might become a welcoming space for immigrant and refugee families.
Forum participants repeatedly returned to the idea that building trust in libraries is an inherent part of creating and crafting the library to be a welcoming space for immigrants and refugee communities. This idea has been repeatedly backed up by research on the relationships immigrant groups and libraries have. Six ideas are presented below that can help libraries work on building trust with immigrant communities and become a welcoming space for them.
Partnerships can provide insight, build connections, and increase the impact of your library and/or museum and other community organizations’ work.3
Involving key leaders of immigrant and refugee groups increases understanding of those groups,6 and encouraging other community members to be involved in these efforts can help ensure the whole community welcomes its new neighbors.7
Establishing Your Space to Be Welcoming
The physical space of a library or museum communicates a lot about who is welcome in the space, what behaviors are expected, and if it is a safe place for families. Aspects of the physical environment, staffing, programming, and exhibits and displays were identified by ALSC and ACM members during the forum as important contributors to making library and museum spaces welcoming for children and families of immigrants and refugee groups. Indeed, research has found a reduction of loneliness for recent immigrants that felt the library provided a safe and welcoming space for them in their community1.
Consider these factors in making your space more welcoming and safe for immigrant and refugee families:
Decor: flags, art, and other pieces of decoration can provide a cultural connection for families to their home country.
Furniture: comfortable seats, that are clearly available for use help show this is a space to relax in.
Greetings: acknowledging people as they come in, giving friendly greetings, and having staff make other meaningful and culturally appropriate gestures can help welcome people.
Signage: graphics, rather than text, offer quick help and wayfinding regardless of language spoken.
Sound: silence can be alienating - background music, conversations, and children playing help tell families this is a space for everyone.
Surveillance: many immigrants may be fearful of governmental institutions; consider how security guards, police, cameras, and photo-id requirements might present barriers to service.
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For further questions or comments regarding this work, please contact Sarah Polen, ALSC Deputy Director, at spolen at ala.org.
ACM and ALSC thank the members of their organizations who participated in community forums and research to create this resource,
which was made possible by an IMLS National Leadership Grant for Libraries.