Multilingual Queens (New York): A most bookish borough

Harold F. Schiffman haroldfs at
Fri Aug 17 13:34:53 UTC 2007

August 17, 2007
The City Life

A Most Bookish Borough


It can hardly be a coincidence that the nations most ethnically diverse
county, Queens, has just been awarded the top prize as the nations busiest
library system. No surprise at all, says Lacey Chan, the librarys Hong
Kong-born demographer, who tracks the ceaseless tide of neighborhood
change so that the systems 63 branches can meet readers polyglot
curiosities and ambitions. They can find collections to read in 70
languages, an exotic stream in a checkout torrent that put the library in
the lead last year with a record 20.2 million items in circulation. You
come to work in the morning, says Ms. Chan, and find people waiting in
long lines.

Remarkably, Queens libraries, like the rest of New Yorks public library
system, had been operating under pinched budgets, shorter hours and
smaller staffs since 9/11. Thats changing now with renewed support from
City Hall, and Tom Galante, the Queens Library director, is already
restless at being No. 6 among the worlds busiest systems. Id like to take
out Toronto next, he says. No easy goal since No. 5 has roughly the same
population as Queens, yet it has 40 more branches spending 50 percent more
per capita. But dont bet against Queens, where branches hum with free
English-language lessons. For decades, the library has run a New American
assimilation program, capitalizing on a warp-speed cycle of migration that
sees the system signing up as many new members each year as those who move

Just as politicians scheme for a Know Nothing subversion of the
immigration debate, the Flushing branch thrives as a Learn Something
antidote. Readers can check out dozens of items at a clip. Far more than a
book, video and music bastion for Queens booming Chinatown, the branch has
shelves stocked in a dozen other languages, from Bengali to Urdu. At the
English shelves, a mother in body veils cautiously eyes her daughter in a
stylish head scarf gleaning the Young Adult section.

Even the graffiti on the way to the library seems literately exotic,
blocked out in strutting Korean ideograms by one vandal aiming for the
elevated subway riders on the No. 7 line. The 7 ride is the closest
excursion the city offers to a pungent Silk Road experience. It heads east
from the tourist humdrum of Times Square and ends at Main Street (and the
Flushing library), racing above the homes of the reading laureates of



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