Immigrants and Americanization

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Children dressed in the costumes of many different countries hold signs indicating the languages in which books are available at the Los Angeles Public Library, 1939. Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library via California Digital Library.

From 1880 to 1920, more than twenty million immigrants arrived in the US. Many traveled by steamboat at major ports and then set out via railroad for destinations across the country. Public libraries responded in specific ways to this massive influx of European immigrants, and, in certain parts of the country, to immigrants from Puerto Rico, Mexico, the Philippines, and Japan.

In response, public libraries amassed foreign-language collections that reflected the particular needs of the ethnic and national groups represented in their respective communities. Established in 1918, the American Library Association’s Committee on Work with the Foreign Born published a series of guidebooks for adapting collections to meet the needs of immigrants, starting with The Polish Immigrant and His Reading in 1924, followed by German, Greek, and Italian volumes. The emphases of these guides was on expanding collections to attract immigrants to libraries, supporting their reading interests, and giving librarians tips about serving people from other cultural backgrounds.

Public librarians in some places also made more holistic changes to library programming to engage recent immigrant arrivals. Beginning in the 1930s, Pura Belpré, New York City’s first Puerto Rican librarian, transformed the New York Public Library’s 115th Street branch into a vibrant community center for newly arrived Puerto Rican immigrants by purchasing Spanish-language books, instituting bilingual story hours, and offering programs on traditional holidays. With these innovations, Belpré modeled to other public libraries ways to serve the needs of Spanish-speaking patrons and advocated for the importance of their inclusion in public library strategy.