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Libraries work to meet county's diverse needs

LAWRENCEVILLE - There are a row of boxes in the back of the Lawrenceville library branch filled with books you'd expect to see at a library. There's a John Grisham book. There's "The DaVinci Code" and "Angels & Demons." There are books on fitness, real estate and carpentry.

So why is Karen Harris, the Gwinnett County Public Library diversity projects coordinator, so excited to see them? Because they're written in Spanish, and they're ready to be shipped to the library branches where they're needed the most.

"Oh, my gosh," she exclaims, peering into a bin on a recent Thursday. "My customers are going to be so excited."

Harris, who is also the manager of the Norcross branch, was looking at a portion of 75 titles the library recently ordered, totaling 195 adult Spanish fiction and nonfiction books, said Cindy Murphy, library marketing director. There are plans to order more.

It's the most recent addition to the library system's vast array of Spanish-language offerings, which range from kids' books and periodicals to storytimes for children, a phone translation service and an exhaustive bilingual section of the system's Web site at www.gwinnettpl.org.

The collection of materials will be placed at the Norcross, Lilburn and Buford branches, Murphy said. "That's where we anticipate the materials will be the most popular," she said.

The books are part of a "floating collection," which means the library will track where the items are being returned. If, for example, many of the books are checked out in Buford but are returned to the Snellville branch, then the library may add

Spanish-language items in Snellville, Murphy said.

The library offers Spanish-language periodicals at some branches, such as La Vision, People and Reader's Digest. There are also plenty of brightly colored children's books in Spanish. And, of course, there are books and materials that can teach you how to speak English and ones to teach you other languages, too.

But books and magazines are just the beginning of the library's multicultural offerings.

Expanding diversity

Harris became a part of the library system in 1996, when there was already a selection of Spanish and Korean materials available. In 2001, she was asked to create a diversity program, so she started her research in Norcross.

Her central question: "What do we need to give these communities to make the library a vital need for them?" she said.

The three most common things foreign residents wanted from the library, she found, were people they could communicate with, materials to help them adjust to living in the United States and ways to help their children in school and understand what they are learning.

The library has worked to meet those needs in a number of ways. The library's Web site features an expansive Spanish-language section at www.gwinnettpl.org/enEspanol/Main.htm. Through it, Spanish speakers can find basic library information, plus links to a variety of resources both online and in the community for Hispanics.

The libraries have held bilingual storytimes, Harris said, and the reactions from customers are positive.

"It's just a magical experience to see them recognize their native tongue," she said.

The library also has portable kits called "Storytime A Go Go," some of which have bilingual books and activities.

Another part of the library's efforts is not just to reach out to those from other countries, but to expose all library patrons to different languages and cultures.

Recently, for example, a French teacher came in to read the classic "Madeleine" stories in both French and English, Murphy said.

"Those things are so well-received, no matter what language anyone speaks," she said. "The interest is there. It's really rewarding."

There are a large number of Spanish speakers who come to the library, but the branches draw visitors who hail from around the world. At the Norcross branch, Harris sees a diverse clientele, including people from Asia, Africa, Vietnam and China. Many Bosnians come to the Lawrenceville branch, Murphy said.

One of the library's most innovative ways to help those visitors, regardless of their native tongue, is the Language Line. It's a service available in all branches that connects the librarian and foreign visitor to a translator via telephone to help answer questions. The librarian chooses from about 150 languages, describes the situation to the translator, then hands the phone to the visitor. The translator then tells the librarian in English what the visitor has said.

When the visitor is on the phone with the translator, "you just see the light bulb come on," Harris said.

Expanding strategies

In April, the library launched an eight-week bilingual literature program called "People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos" with students from the English Language Institute of Gwinnett Technical College. The established program is used across the country and is available in English, Spanish or both. It's designed to get people talking in a relaxed atmosphere about advanced works of literature, especially those people who might not otherwise read such works.

The stories are read aloud, and then participants discuss the works and how they relate to their own lives. Gwinnett was the first public library to offer the bilingual version of the program, Harris said.

"It was a roaring success," she said.

The library recently received a grant to hold the next series of "People & Stories/Gente y Cuentos," which will be completed by June.

Reaching out

A big part of being a multi-cultural resource is getting the word out, Harris said. After all, non-English-speaking residents can't use the language line, take advantage of the bilingual Web site or see the range of foreign-language books and other materials if they don't know to come to the library in the first place.

In Harris' words: "You've got to show them the riches."

Murphy said people from some cultures may not realize the value of a public library.

"Once we get them in, they're sold," she said. "Once they're here, we like to think we really keep them around."

Harris recently participated in the Spanish Language Outreach Training Program, which trained five Georgia librarians. There, a representative from Athens shared a motto that she says encompasses the library's outreach efforts.

"The library has to step up and become the teachers of the community," she said.

Murphy said the library's diversity efforts are part of a larger mission.

"I think all people in all situations demand lifelong learning, no matter what your language," she said. "That's a library's role, to fulfill those needs of lifelong learning."