Atlanta: Border Issues Cause More Than Whispers at Libraries

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Mon Jun 26 12:31:37 UTC 2006

>>From the LA Times, June 25, 2006,0,6669467.story?coll=cl-books-features


Border Issues Cause More Than Whispers at Libraries
In suburban Atlanta, outcry and applause follow a decision to cut funds
for Spanish titles.

By Jenny Jarvie Times Staff Writer

NORCROSS, Ga.  Carlos Gonzalez scanned Norcross Public Library's thin
shelves of Spanish-language fiction: There were no works by Isabel Allende
or Octavio Paz or even Miguel de Cervantes. The Salvadoran immigrant, 33,
who visits the library to check his e-mail and read the online version of
El Salvador's daily newspaper, El Diario de Hoy, chuckled as he looked at
the translated works of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King. "For me, I don't
have a lot of options here," Gonzalez said last week, after checking out
"El Alquimista" by Paul Coelho, which he had read before. "It's just a
little collection." There are 798 Spanish-language adult fiction books and
CDs dispersed among the 13 public libraries of Gwinnett County, a suburban
Atlanta area with more than 105,000 Latino residents.

Four months after introducing Spanish adult fiction to library shelves,
the Gwinnett County Public Library Board recently dropped its $3,000
budget for adding more titles in the coming year. Amid the ongoing
national debate about illegal immigration, some Gwinnett residents
question whether their public libraries should provide materials and
services to immigrants. In turn, many librarians across the country fear
that Gwinnett County's decision sets a dangerous precedent for the
nation's public libraries. "Shame on them," said UCLA librarian Gary E.
Strong, who has worked as state librarian of California and head of Queens
Borough Public Library in New York. "The mission of the public library is
to serve everyone in the community. It has nothing to do with whether they
are legal or illegal, or speak English or not."

Illegal immigration is a thorny issue in Gwinnett, a rapidly developing
county that is home to the largest Latino population in Georgia; from 1990
to 2004, Latinos climbed from 2.9% to 15% of the overall population. When
Spanish-language editions of "Harry Potter" books and Harlequin romance
novels began to appear on library shelves, some residents were startled.
"I would like to register my discontent with the purchase of pleasure
reading materials in any language other than English," a resident wrote to
the board in April. "While it is true that Gwinnett County is a melting
pot, it is the American way to learn English and to assimilate to our
culture, not to make it easy for those who may not be proficient in
English. Hopefully no more purchases of this type will be made using our
tax dollars." Although the Spanish adult fiction is popular 40% of the 798
works were checked out last week, compared with 37% of the overall
collection of 859,699 books Lloyd Breck, chairman of the library board,
said the decision to stop buying such books was "very simple." The budget
would not accommodate every foreign language, he said, and the board did
not want to privilege one language over another.

"We're not trying to be rude to anyone," Breck said. "We just didn't want
to start buying pleasure reading materials in Spanish at the exclusion of
other languages. We have so many communities of immigrants here: Chinese,
Koreans and Cambodians." But Brett Taylor, a board member who said he did
not agree with cutting Spanish-language fiction, said the decision was
shaped by broader concerns about the influx of Spanish-speaking
immigrants. "The discussion was that we didn't need to be buying Spanish
material for a population that needed to be encouraged to speak English,"
Taylor said.

And so the quiet libraries of Gwinnett County entered the blaring national
debate on illegal immigration. An editorial in the Atlanta
Journal-Constitution condemned the board's decision as "a political
gesture, a rude one, toward Hispanics," and the board received scores of
e-mails from across the country. One of the first to e-mail was Julie Leto
Klapka, a Latina author of Harlequin novels, who said Latino residents
worked hard in the U.S. and had every right to escape through fiction.
"There's this assumption that all immigrants are poor people who live 20
to a trailer and don't deserve to read novels for fun in their native
languages," she said. "That offends me. Why should Hispanic readers be
treated any differently than white readers, or redneck readers, or
whatever they are?"

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Assn. of Latino Elected
Officials, said Gwinnett County had a large and growing number of Latino
residents who paid income, property and sales taxes and who should, in
turn, be served by public libraries. Gwinnett County is not the first
place to debate public library services for immigrants. Last summer,
opponents of illegal immigration gathered outside Denver Public Library to
call for the resignation of the city librarian, who they said was
providing services for illegal immigrants at taxpayers' expense.

In April, Republican Colorado Assemblyman David Schultheis, attempted
unsuccessfully to persuade the state Legislature to prevent public
libraries from purchasing any materials, besides textbooks, in a language
other than English. As a growing number of Latinos settle in the U.S.,
some fear they are not making enough progress in learning English. Nearly
20% of U.S. residents ages 5 and older speak a language other than English
at home, and about 92% of the population has no difficulty speaking
English, according to U.S. Census data. Raul Gonzalez, legislative
director of the National Council of La Raza, a Latino advocacy group, said
that taking Spanish books off the shelves would not encourage immigrants
to learn English. Already, he said, many immigrants across the country
were enrolled in long waiting lists for English-language classes.

"This policy is based on being aggressively misinformed," he said. "It's
like telling people we want them to eat healthy food, and then banning hot
dogs and Coke and not giving them any food." But K.C. McAlpin, executive
director of ProEnglish, a national English-language advocacy group, said
immigrants in the U.S. shouldn't expect to be catered to in their native
languages. "There shouldn't be a willy-nilly accommodation of the
non-English-speaking community," he said. "We don't want to dissuade them
from learning English by providing too many books in other languages. If
it goes too far, if they can find everything they need in Spanish, that's
not appropriate."

Though fiction titles in Spanish are new to public libraries in Gwinnett
County, they have long been on the shelves of many of the nation's
libraries along with Italian poetry, Chinese satire, Urdu thrillers and
Polish detective novels. The Los Angeles Public Library has had
Spanish-language books since it was founded in 1872, and California pools
its resources to provide more than 25,000 titles in at least 50 Arabic,
Asian, European, Hispanic, Indic, Scandinavian and Slavic languages. Many
librarians with expertise in serving immigrant populations say that
providing foreign language material improves immigrants' English. "It has
the opposite effect of what the critics say," said Leslie Burger,
president-elect of the national American Library Assn. "It integrates them
into the community, encourages them to learn English and helps them
improve their overall literacy."

The role of public libraries, Burger said, is to develop balanced
collections that reflect the diverse interests of the community. "I would
hate for us to say libraries are for people who speak or read English
only," she said. But late last week, the debate about whether Gwinnett
County's public libraries should stock Spanish fiction had barely
registered at one of its most diverse branches, Norcross Public Library,
which serves a population that is 40% Latino. As patrons of varied
ethnicities looked through the stacks or did online research, Jesus
Jimenez, a 35-year-old Mexican immigrant, pored over USA Today. He said he
was not concerned about whether the library stocked Spanish books. "I'm
just trying to get good at English," he said.,0,6669467.story?coll=cl-books-features

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