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Queens Library: Serving a Diverse Community



Queens County in New York City is one of the most diverse counties in the United States, with more than 50% of its population speaking a language other than English at home. The immigrants hail from many different parts of the world, with most coming from China, the former Soviet Union, the Caribbean, South Asia, Latin America, the Philippines, Korea, Poland, and Ireland. The Queens Library system began developing programs to meet the borough's changing composition in 1977 and is at the vanguard of library-based community programming. The QPL is often touted as a model for how libraries can play a vital role in integrating newcomers into American society.


Queens is always changing as newcomers settle and migrate in the borough. Keeping the library system responsive to the needs of an evolving community required a proactive and flexible approach. That approach needed to be supported institutionally and implemented throughout the organization. The fact that the QPL was able to secure that institutional commitment enabled it to craft dynamic programs of interest to the community and to keep its programming fresh by regularly reevaluating existing programs and designing new ones.


The secret to the success of the Queens Library system's approach is its combination of discipline and creativity, dogged focus on meeting community and flexibility to adapt to changing conditions and demands. The QPL offers several programs of relevance to immigrants, ranging from a directory of immigrant serving organizations in Queens, to international collections in myriad languages, ESOL classes, literacy programs, and coping skills workshops.

Two programs are noteworthy and will be discussed here: the New Americans Program and the Adult Learner Program.

The New Americans Program (NAP), launched in 1977, combines the building of international collections based on the demographic studies of the populations living near each of the library system's 62 community libraries or branches, with coping skills workshops for newcomers, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes, and cultural programs. Circulation in the QPL system is currently 19 million, one of the highest in the country. This indicates that the QPL has achieved a high degree of integration into the lives of the many newcomers in Queens, and done so in spite of the rapidly changing population composition, cultural backgrounds, and linguistic profiles of Queens' residents. In 2005, NAP offerings included 73 coping skills programs in 9 languages, which attracted 1,300 people, and organized 84 cultural and arts programs drawing 6,500 participants. Offerings ranged from discussions of workplace rights and of Islam in Spanish, to dance workshops, author visits, and health seminars on obesity.

The library's ESOL programs are wildly popular, so popular that in 2000 the library created a new Adult Learner Program to oversee the ESOL classes formerly offered through the NAP, as well as family literacy and adult learning center programming. The QPL ESOL program is the largest library-managed ESOL program in the country. These are structured classes taught by paid, professional instructors. Approximately 100 semester-long free classes are offered per year serving between 2,500 and 3,000 students.

The QPL has also run six adult learning centers since 1977. These resource centers operating within existing branches offer small group instruction, tutorials, conversation circles, basic ESOL literacy classes, and pre-GED classes. In addition, through special grants, the Adult learner Program set up computer labs in two branches in early 2005 with the goal of teaching basic computer skills to ESOL students. Hundreds of students have already taken these classes. All services are free of charge. The library recruits and trains volunteers to teach classes at the centers with the help of a staff developer.

The third program component is the newest. Initiated in 2002, the family literacy program offers classes for pre-kindergarten and K-3 aged children and their caregivers at the library. The classes prepare caregivers and children alike for what awaits them when school begins, helps parents understand the educational system here, and teaches them how to be advocates for their children. For older children, the library has partnered with two public school classes (one in Flushing and one in Long Island City). Ten to fifteen families participate in a program that combines parenting and ESOL classes and educational activities for children.

Lessons Learned

The foundation of the success of the QPL programs rests on a number of fundamental principles:

  • Planning. To understand how new immigrant flows and residency patterns affect the potential users of the system's community libraries (branches), the QPL hired a demographer to conduct detailed analyses of its library service areas. These studies are used to plan international collections and coping skills workshops in appropriate languages, design ESOL classes, and sponsor cultural events for area newcomers. The demographer also runs analyses about the Queens population and posts them to the website for the benefit of the public.

  • Outreach and Partnerships. In the early years of the New Americans Program, library staff conducted aggressive outreach into the community to ensure that immigrants were aware of the libraries' programs and not afraid to use them. Years of building trust and meeting community needs have paid off. The QPL system has the highest circulation of any library system in the nation. As the QPL programs have grown over time, so too has their impact on the community. The QPL is always exploring new partnerships and fundraising opportunities to underwrite new programs. Most recently, with access to healthcare, health care costs and health literacy of increasing concern, the library has partnered with a Queens hospital system to offer health screenings and seminars on how best to access health care. It has also partnered with the Queens Museum and the Queens Health Network to provide on-site ESOL classes. On a national level, the QPL is working with US Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the American Library Association on a compilation of library best practices for use around the country to promote immigrant integration. The best practices guide will be issued by USCIS.

  • Community Feedback. In addition to tracking changes numerically, the library is constantly asking its various constituencies about their needs, about whether the QPL's programs are responsive to those needs, and how services could be improved. One questionnaire asked how libraries could help support the work of community-based organizations. That effort resulted in the publication of an online directory of immigrant service organizations in Queens that is regularly updated. The QPL also involves the community in planning cultural programs, suggesting speakers and defining topics for coping skills programs.

  • Funding. The programs described here are large-scale and require significant funding to operate. The QPL uses a combination of federal, state and city monies to run its programs, supplemented by grants from private foundations, many of which are channeled through the Queens Library Foundation, and partnerships with other organizations who have grants in hand. The QPL employs a government grant manager to facilitate funding for all the library's programs.

For more information about the New Americans Program, contact Fred Gitner at fred.j.gitner"at" and for more information on the Adult Learner Program, contact Susan Dalmas at sdalmas"at"

Posted December 2005 (Revised January 2009)


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