Active Inclusion: the Experiences of ALA”s Serving Refugees, Immigrants, and Displaced Persons Sub-Committee
15 December 2020
Libraries have traditionally seen themselves as places open to all members of the community, creating opportunities for everyone. However, being welcoming is as much a question of what you do proactively. We interviewed the Sub-Committee on Serving Refugees, Immigrants, and Displaced Persons of the ALA, to find out about their work.
1. What is the background of your committee within ALA?
In 2017, the American Library Association’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services (ODLOS) Advisory Committee launched the Serving Refugees, Immigrants, and Displaced Persons (SRIDP) sub-committee. The group consisted of members from ODLOS Advisory Committee, REFORMA: the National Association to Promote Library & Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, APALA (Asian Pacific American Library Association), IRRT (International Relations Roundtable), and other leaders in the field who were interested in developing services to immigrant and refugee communities. At the time, the purpose of the sub-committee was the following:
- Research, advocate and provide outreach to promote library services to refugees, displaced persons, and persons held in border detention facilities.
- Report to ALA membership and council, on a regular basis, progress in this area.
- Research, inventory, compile, and publish best practice toolkits and resources for providing library services to refugee populations across the country and around the world.
- Attempt to engage/contact/partner with outside organizations with similar goals
- Make special efforts to reach children and youth in these circumstances in order to offer comfort and education during these difficult times.
- Determine best practices for communicating across the association on these issues.
SRIDP’s first project was a partnership with Mortenson Center at the University of Illinois Library. Project Welcome aimed to learn about and articulate ways libraries can address the information needs of refugees and asylum seekers in order to support and empower them in their resettlement and integration process.
Since then, we have created nationwide efforts to promote immigrant social inclusion. For example, we designed a Welcoming Week Guide to support the movement created by the Welcoming America organization to bring together newcomers and long-standing community members in neighborhoods across the country. We are currently working on several projects to strengthen and provide tools and training for libraries in this critical area of immigrant rights. For example, we are updating ALA guidelines, providing webinars, influencing policy, and forging partnerships on a national level.
2. What do you hope to change by forming a group and working together?
The hope of the initial committee leaders was to establish the importance of serving immigrants and refugees in all kinds of libraries but especially public libraries. U.S. libraries have a very long tradition of supporting access to information and education for all newcomers; however, in the past, these aspirations were mostly limited to assimilating new immigrants to the mainstream culture. Today, we recognize that the U.S. is not a monoethnic country with one cultural heritage, but it is built on the knowledge, experiences, and contributions of people from all over the world. Therefore, this diverse heritage should be ingrained in libraries’ collections and philosophy of service. Rather than focusing on assimilating immigrants to the status quo, our group hopes to promote cross-cultural or bilateral exchange.
3. How do you see the role of libraries in supporting refugees and immigrants?
Our priority is to strengthen LIS education or professional development so that library workers recognize and leverage immigrants’ information capacity and resilience. Immigrants are using information and digital tools in dynamic ways. First, we encourage U.S. library workers to recognize immigrants’ information capacities and resilience. Secondly, we provide mechanisms for transitioning and building immigrants’ existing information skills to the U.S. context. Assistance includes resource borrowing privileges, access to the internet, language support, immigration services, and employment assistance. Overall, we emphasize the need to rethink library philosophies, spaces, collections, and programs in ways that create a sense of belonging for refugees and immigrants.
4. What barriers are there to greater service provision?
Like many other countries, the U.S. continues to be divided socially and politically. Misinformation, demagoguery, and anti-immigrant rhetoric influence many areas of U.S. society. Libraries are not removed from this bureaucracy. Some library workers find service to immigrants to be “too political.” Yet, libraries remain one of few institutions where public trust and credibility are still recognized. Library workers are well-suited to enact positive change. In light of ongoing strife, our sub-committee tries to model the type of awareness, collaboration, and solutions-building that is missing throughout the U.S. as well as library practice.
5. What impact have the government’s policies so far had on immigration? How has this affected the ability of libraries to offer services targeted at immigrants and refugees?
The U.S. is seeing unprecedented hardline immigration policy. From proposed limitations on student visas, to the dismantling of the critical Temporary Protected Status (TPS) and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) programs, to family separation in immigration detention, plus record-breaking 10-year deportation highs and refugee acceptance lows, the U.S. continues in its trend of draconian immigration measures. There has certainly been a chilling effect such that immigrant communities are less likely to engage with public service providers. For example, a tentative public charge ruling would deem immigrants who have received public support as ineligible for permanent residency. For some immigrants, the legitimacy of traditional public messengers (i.e., faith-based organizations, the media) is now feeble.
Fortunately, many still view libraries as trustworthy. We must do what we can to maintain our integrity. Other issues pertain to budget constraints. Both policymakers and library administrators need to be aware that allocating funds towards programs serving refugees and immigrants is not a burden, but an investment in a sustainable future of the U.S. and world in general.
6. What about attitudes to immigration in U.S. society as a whole?
It is very difficult and dangerous to generalize. The U.S. is incredibly polarized; there are immigration supporters as well as opponents. Like other countries — even nations that were historically perceived as tolerant and hospitable — the U.S. is struggling with nativism and xenophobia. Through our work, the SRIDP sub-committee tries to dispel a prevalent lack of understanding.
For example, we emphasize that migrants, asylum seekers, and refugees are not a monolith, and a single narrative or template of immigrants does not exist. Library workers must be mindful of wider ethnic and linguistic variations among immigrants and also have the knowledge of immigration history, current policies and the world in general to challenge discourse portraying refugees and immigrants as threats to U.S. security and culture. We believe that a more informed U.S. society and library profession can help eradicate essentialism.
7. How have libraries reacted?
Our committee is part of ongoing, strategic efforts to foster social inclusion among immigrants and refugees. Libraries are key to ensuring that immigrants are included in the democratic process, especially in this incredibly complicated year; immigrant representation and inclusion were key areas of concern in the 2020 census, the presidential election, as well as COVID-19 relief efforts.
Library workers across the country have resisted marginalization by protecting and even strengthening service to immigrant communities. There have been incredible demonstrations of solidarity through cultural heritage programming, census 2020 outreach, and digital access and throughout this extraordinarily difficult period.
8. Where do you hope that library services to refugees and immigrants will be in ten years?
We hope that there will be greater pathways for immigrants to enter the library profession. Immigrants are not simply library constituents but potential colleagues. Especially for highly-skilled immigrants, the library profession presents a remarkable post-migration career opportunity. We also hope that there are effective solutions to the types of global challenges that prompt migration. For example, we need substantive, systematic answers to climate change and climate-induced migration. Furthermore, we hope for a better economic outlook and, with it, a firm financial commitment to supporting immigrant communities in libraries. Lastly and most important of all, we hope that there will be more proactive, forward-looking projects aimed at investing in immigrant communities.
Read more about plans for IFLA’s own upcoming Guidelines on Library Services to Refugees, Immigrants, Migrants and Asylum Seekers.
 Geiger, A. (2017). Most Americans–especially Millennials–say libraries can help them find reliable, trustworthy information. Pew Research Center, August, 30.; Horrigan, J. (2020). Libraires, Trust, and Social Capital. Urban Libraries Council. https://www.urbanlibraries.org/files/ULC_White-Papers_LIBRARIES-TRUST-AND-SOCIAL-CAPITAL.pdf
 Rainie, L., Keeter, S., & Perrin, A. (2019). Trust and distrust in America. Pew Research Center. https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/07/22/trust-and-distrust-in-america/