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Libraries Boost Offerings for Immigrants

By GREGG AAMOT
The Associated Press
Monday, April 23, 2007; 2:43 AM

OWATONNA, Minn. -- Suleyman Mohamed stops by the downtown library nearly every day, browsing for books about his native Somalia or picking up DVDs that can help him brush up on his English skills.

For him, there's no other place to turn. The local bookstore offers few bilingual Somali/English books, and jobless after working as a janitor, he can't afford to buy his own English-language DVDs.

"It's a very helpful place for the immigrant people," Mohamed said of the library. "But because many struggle with English, they don't know there are a lot of things for them here. I try to tell them."

The shelves of libraries across Minnesota are swelling with books and other materials catering to the state's most recent immigrants _ mostly Hispanics, Somalis and Hmong. In the past few years, libraries have added thousands of books, from free ones from the Mexican government to new ones about Somali folklore, and received federal grants for storytelling.

It's a similar story across the country as libraries adjust their collections and programs to meet the needs of changing demographics. They have become important centers for newcomers who are trying to become proficient in English while connecting to their native languages and heritage.

The State Library of Ohio launched a program in January to help libraries attract more Hispanics. In Texas, Austin libraries tout their New Immigrants Centers, which offer citizenship classes, books on U.S. culture and books in several languages. Houston libraries have growing stacks of books in Vietnamese.

On April 30, the Chicago-based American Library Association is sponsoring El dia de los ninos/El dia de los libros _ Children's Day/Book Day _ for libraries to feature new books and programs for immigrants and refugees. An ALA endowment also helps libraries across the country pay for cultural programs.

"We have always been concerned with new and emerging communities," said Loriene Roy, president-elect of the ALA. "Libraries were writing pamphlets back in 1910 on how to serve their immigrant communities. It's part of our legacy and part of our history."

In southeastern Minnesota, where Hispanic and Somali immigrants have moved for jobs in agriculture and at meatpacking plants, libraries are trying to stay ahead of their burgeoning immigrant populations.

Dodge Center librarian Angie Meyer recently received a $15,000 federal grant for a bear-themed "storytimes toolkit" for Hispanic children.

"Part of it is just finding your niche in your local population. Our main goal is to make it a welcoming environment," she explained.

She added: "We want them to learn English, of course, but they also need recreational material in their own language."

The shelves at the Owatonna library are filled with many of the 20,000 Spanish-language books the Mexican government has donated to Minnesota libraries, prisons and Spanish immersion schools over the past two years. Most of them are textbooks about Mexican history, heritage or geography.

The library also has four English/Somali children's books published by the Minnesota Humanities Commission in the past year, such as "The Lion's Share," a popular Somali animal fable about power and greed.

Well-known American classics, such as Dr. Seuss' "The 500 Hats of Bartholomew Cubbins" _ or "Los 500 Sombreros de Bartolome Cubbins" _ line the children's shelves. Upstairs, adults can find novels in Spanish by J.R.R. Tolkien, Marcella Serrano and other authors, along with self-help English tapes and DVDs.

"It's important that when kids and parents come in, they can look at the shelves and displays and see a bit of themselves there," said Mary Kay Feltes, the assistant director of the library.

Ernesto Velez Bustos, a community organizer, reads to Hispanic and white children at the Owatonna library. His Azteca dance troupe has also performed there, and he returns on occasion for books.

"A lot of immigrants are going there for things," he said, "and they would like to have even more."

© 2007 The Associated Press