Libraries, immigrants, and digital literacy

Library workshopImmigrants to the US generally come with some skills and resources, but not necessarily everything they need to succeed here. For example, many arrive with limited or no facility in the English language. Many also lack adequate computer skills needed to get and perform jobs. Libraries offer both language instruction and computer instruction, but helping patrons with limited English learn digital literacy presents new challenges

In the days when most immigrants arrived by ocean, they arrived in major ports and tended to stay there. If very many of a particular group of immigrants left the port of entry, they usually went to other major cities. Now, the port of entry is likely to be any city large enough to have an airport. Even smaller cities find themselves home to multiple immigrant populations.

Projects in small cities

My home town of Greensboro, North Carolina, for example has a significant concentration of Montagnards from Vietnam. I can’t easily find a list of other large ethnic groups, but I do find a website for the local office of Church World Service, which offers its services in several languages: Arabic, Burmese, English, French, Serbo-Croatian, and Spanish.

Immigrants in Boise and Twin Falls, Idaho speak Karen, Russian, and Hindi among other languages. The Idaho Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Office for Refugees have teamed up to find ways to tackle both the English language and computer and internet literacy challenges at once.

As an article in American Libraries reports, they obtained a grant to train 12 immigrants, presumably with adequate command of English, not only to use computers, but to train newer refugees from their homelands their native languages. They were trained to pass on digital literacy skills first in using a computer at all, and then using the internet in order to find

  • online government services
  • information about family and health
  • educational opportunities
  • jobs

The project began with the modest goal of reaching 200 people in six months. In fact, the trainers had reached 914 people in 212 coaching sessions within three months.

Although one goal of the project was to present the library as a place for learning digital literacy and using computers, organizers expected training sessions to take place in a variety of places. They hoped that at least 25% would be given in libraries. In fact, trainers chose library meeting rooms and computer labs for 71% of the training sessions.

This model should be fairly easy to replicate in other states and cities. Although the article mentions no other comparable programs, they probably exist.

Projects in larger cities

Probably no one is surprised that Minneapolis, a major American city, has a large and varied immigrant program. It had a large concentration of Scandinavian immigrants a hundred years ago. When the Franklin branch of the Hennepin County Library system opened in 1914, a third of its collection was in foreign languages, including not only Norwegian and Swedish, but also Yiddish.

The Franklin Learning Center opened in 1988 primarily to help US-born patrons study for the GED, but its mission expanded to teach English to immigrants from every inhabited continent. Computer skills have since become an important part of the center’s educational efforts—especially after the state announced that GED testing will be offered only on computers beginning in 2014.

The same American Libraries article describes computer literacy efforts of the Franklin Learning, especially outreach to Hmong immigrants originally from China, Laos, Thailand, and Vietnam.

Hmong culture presents special problems to teaching digital literacy. Many other ethnic groups (including US-born people) lack such basic skills as knowing what to do with the mouse. Most immigrant groups must struggle to learn English. Many Hmong arrive without any ability to read or write at all, because the several dialects of the language have not been written down until quite recently.

That said, staff at Franklin approach the problem much the same way the Idaho libraries do. One Hmong-speaking staff member serves a liaison to the community to determine its needs, recruit volunteer trainers, and monitor the progress of the classes they teach. The liaison’s duties include attending parent-teacher meetings at school and other community events to help families adjust to their new home as quickly and painlessly as possible.

Especially to librarians reading this post: an article that appeared in American Libraries a couple of months ago spoke to the need for librarians to write for “civilians,” not just other librarians. So far as I have been able to find, Reading, Writing, Research is the only blog written by a librarian for “civilians.” I would be happy to accept guest posts from other librarians!


Source: “New Americans and the Digital Literacy Gap,” American Libraries
Photo credit: Some rights reserved by Technology & Social Change


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