Ohio librarians build collections, expand services to serve non-English speakers

By Aaron Cousin/Kent State NewsLab

From books in different languages to sewing machines, several libraries in Ohio are doing work to help non-English speakers, immigrants and refugees in their communities.

Andrew Harant became director of the Cuyahoga Falls Library in 2022. At that time, he said, the library didn’t have books in languages other than English. But around 10% of Cuyahoga Falls households speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data. 

“We said, ‘we need to show that this part of our community is represented here in the library. And one way we can do that is to have materials in their own languages,’” said Harant.

Cuyahoga Falls Library then started a community languages collection, which is focused on non-English books. They have books in Nepali, Hindi, Spanish and Arabic, among other languages.

“Some of the students were telling us just how meaningful it was… when they came across a book that was actually in their language,” said Cuyahoga Falls Library marketing and public relations manager Danielle Welling. “Like a little piece of home.” 

Welling said the library also held an international student job fair for refugees in October 2023. It was a part of a city initiative called the Cuyahoga Falls Welcoming Workforce Coalition, which was meant to match refugees with employers who were hiring.

A flyer for the Community Languages Collection at the Cuyahoga Falls Library. (Photo: Aaron Cousin)

The library now also offers a sewing station. There’s an entire room dedicated to sewing machines, multi-colored thread and mannequins. Welling said she met a woman who was a seamstress in her home country but didn’t have a sewing machine when she moved to the U.S., so she used theirs to work.

“That was her livelihood, and her skill and her craft,” Welling said. “So she was using our sewing machines… to continue her craft.”

Westerville Public Library, located outside Columbus, offers free English as a Second Language (ESL) classes facilitated by the Columbus Literary Council. About 8% of Westerville residents speak a language other than English at home, according to Census data.

“It’s a great opportunity for our library, because people are able to come in, spend time here and have an opportunity to see what else goes on,” said equity development specialist Aneeza Pasha-Stamm. 

Westerville Public Library also offers reading logs and audiobooks for kids that speak Spanish, Pasha-Stamm said.

Toledo-Lucas County Public Library hosts mock U.S. citizenship interviews, designed to help immigrants practice for their citizenship tests. Mely Arribas-Douglas, a specialist with Welcome TLC, said there were already several organizations that have ESL classes, and the library wanted to provide additional support.

Arribas-Douglas knows just how important that can be herself.

“When I went through the naturalization process, it was really daunting to review all this material and not come face to face with an immigration officer until how many decades later. So I was very nervous for it,” said Mely Arribas-Douglas, a specialist with Welcome TLC, which focuses on helping new Americans adjust to Toledo. “But being able to practice the interview questions and [your naturalization] application with someone kind of eases that tension.”

The City of Toledo estimated in 2022 that around 3.3% of its residents were immigrants.

Although libraries across Ohio offer programming designed for English learners and immigrants to the U.S., Welling said reaching their target audiences can be difficult. Public libraries in some countries are academic, not public, she said.

Harant and Pasha-Stamm both said that acquiring books in languages other than English can be challenging when the majority of the staff only speaks English. They can’t make assumptions about the backgrounds of their readers, for instance.

“If someone is wanting to borrow a language book in Spanish…we don’t know whether they are originally from a Spanish-speaking community,” said Pasha-Stamm. “We don’t know whether we’re serving someone from an immigrant population, or a non immigrant population.”

In Cuyahoga Falls, Harant says librarians rely on trusted vendors to recommend good books in all the languages the library stocks. 

“Having books in somebody’s native language should not be a big deal,” Harant said. “It should be expected.”

This story was originally published by the Kent State NewsLab, a collaborative news outlet publishing journalism by Kent State students.

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