For My Immigrant Family, the Library Opened New Doors

What libraries can do to reach more families like mine

Andrea Duarte-Alonso May 22, 2023

This is part of a series on rural libraries. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.

When I was 11 years old, in 2007, my mother, younger brother and I entered the Nobles County Library in Worthington, Minn. We had walked nearly a mile from home through our small, meatpacking community to enjoy a lazy summer afternoon at the air-conditioned library. As soon as we arrived, I slipped from my mother’s hand to zip my way to the children and young adult section.

Once I reached my destination, I kneeled toward the bottom of a gray shelf, filled with magazines laid out in chronological order. I placed my index finger at the top of each Teen Vogue magazine, looking for the latest issue—the dreamiest moment I could have as a young reader. Once I found the newest edition I had not read, I slipped it out of the organizer and sat crisscrossed, enjoying the latest summer fashion trends and celebrity interviews.

After 20 minutes, my mother walked over to my nook and checked in, “Encontraste algo – did you find something?” I would nod, return to another shelf, and scan the young adult novels.

The library was neither huge nor fancy for a town with under 13,000 residents. But on summer days, it was an important escape for my family. My mother was a stay-at-home mom during our pre-teen years, while my father worked full-time at a beef plant in Windom, Minn. (30 miles east of town), which meant he took the only car we had.

My mother values education, and it was a no-brainer that she’d find the importance in bringing us often to the library. Instead of being antsy, doing nothing inside, my mother preferred we’d be in an environment that nourished and fed our brain in a way that she could not offer at home. While my mom didn’t speak English well, it never deterred her from bringing us to the library; in fact, she loved the zero-cost experience.

At a young age, I already knew most of the crevices in the building and recognized the staff. While I scavenged through young-adult fiction and magazines, my brother hopped on a computer, as my family did not own a computer until I was in the eighth grade. With his library card, he could log on for almost an hour at a time, playing games and roaming the web.  I also used the computer to check my emails and online messages on social networks.

My mother, who was born in Mexico and had an education, would find a new book every two weeks to pick up. She’d mostly look for instructional books that could help her with speaking and writing in English. Sometimes, she’d go by the community activities wall (near the front entrance) and check out new events or businesses needing employees; this allowed her to spread the word to our friends and neighbors.

In 2015, the summer after my high school graduation, my dad announced that our family would be moving to Marshalltown, Iowa, a town of 27,000 and home to a JBS meatpacking plant. I had hoped to have a fun summer with friends that I grew up with, but instead I sought refuge at the Marshalltown Public Library.

As I drove up to the library, my mouth dropped. It was one of the nicest and largest library buildings I had ever seen in a small city. As I entered, each step I took left my jaw hanging lower. Natural light flowed in through the building’s multitude of windows, giving the space a bright aura. Artistic murals with vibrant colors felt incredibly welcoming, especially to those who grew up in similarly colorful cities and towns in Latin America.

I started to realize that libraries provided comfort that my parents’ could not. My parents did what they could to make our home as nice as possible, but the library couches and spaces were always so inviting. The library space allowed for a sense of euphoria, and an escape from my reality. I felt intelligent and eager inside the library—it excited my plans for higher ed.

By 2017, my parents had moved back to Worthington. I returned in 2019 after graduating college to start the Lead for America Hometown Fellowship, which places fellows in roles that serve their communities. Right as I reentered the library, a staff member, an older white woman with short, dirty-blonde hair, recognized me. I did as well. We chatted for a bit, and to my surprise, she commented on how she’d stayed up to date with my life through the newspaper (as my undergraduate accomplishments had been publicized by the local news outlet).  It moved me to see how caring and aware library staff are of their patrons.

Moving back home meant living with my parents again, but home didn’t provide the creative juices I needed to be successful in my fellowship. Thankfully, at the library I found a table area that faced a window with a view of the road and a nice landscape of bushes, with a charging station and a comfortable office chair. This is where I did most of my work that first year—it’s a quiet space with great wifi, and the surrounding bookshelves create an intellectual and productive atmosphere.

The positive experience encouraged me to apply for a Nobles County Library board position, and I was appointed in 2020. The question that previous and current board members always ponder is, “How do we get all people of our communities into our space?” I wished to support the library in continuing to become a welcoming and resourceful space, especially for immigrant families.

During my time as a board member, I realized just how important it is to have supportive patrons and a library director (and staff) that is eager and willing to try new things. Since the library transitioned to a new director, more events started to come up for community members, such as bingo and painting. These events are mostly packed. 

My time as a board member was cut short so I could pursue other interests, moving to Madison, Wis. to attend law school, but it left me with more ideas for how libraries can improve. (Law school was not for me, and I soon returned to my role as an English teacher in Worthington.) I’ve considered ideas such as virtual reality headsets for educational (and/or fun) purposes, or offering classes in coding, poetry and other interests.

Libraries can also do more to support immigrant and non-English-speaking communities. Worthington is incredibly diverse: According to the U.S. Census, more than 40% of residents now identify as Hispanic or Latino, more than double the rate from 2000. Many come from Central America and Mexico. Worthington also has a growing population of African and Asian immigrants, from places like Ethiopia, Eritrea, Laos and Burma, among others. My local branch could create a table space where pamphlets of educational resources are available in various languages, providing a mini welcome center for people new to the community. Resources could help educate individuals about the city, the role of government, politics and beyond.

It is also important to offer fun workshops that are culturally competent: Instead of Bingo, for example, there could be a Lotería night, and more events with authors of color and/or authors who write in languages besides English. Most importantly, libraries should promote their fax and printing services. Many individuals are in dire need of these, especially immigrants who might need to print off paperwork for an upcoming visit to a consulate’s office, for their children’s schoolwork, or for legal needs.

Library cards, necessary to use a library to the fullest, should also be more accessible. In Nobles County, all interested library card members are required to provide proof of residence and show an ID to receive a card; minors must be present with a guardian and also show the indicated items. Providing proof of residence might be hard for newcomers or those without one steady address. Providing an ID might also create a sense of fear for those who don’t have a US-specific one.

Obtaining a library card should be as easy as subscribing to a newsletter! The Postville, Iowa, library, for example, has an online application that asks for the name, address, and an email. So long as you are from the area, once you submit you receive your card.  

The incredible power the library still has is that it is free, although not every family knows that. Therefore, libraries need to meet people where they’re at, doing outreach in the community; perhaps staff should attend cultural events or school events where there will be people of all backgrounds present to share information. Libraries must ask questions, creating surveys for community members asking about their interests and what they know about a library. Whatever it takes, even as libraries in some states come under fire, libraries should not give up in promoting their resources for the greater community. 

I’m beyond grateful that my mother brought me to the library for the first time because she needed to print documents. And I’m grateful to the libraries and staff that welcomed me and allowed me to use its services to the fullest.

This is part of a series on rural libraries. Read the first article, on censorship, here. Sign up for our newsletter to receive updates.

A woman wearing a sweater smiles at the camera
Andrea Duarte-Alonso

Andrea Valeria Duarte-Alonso is a first-generation Mexican-American from the great plains of the Midwest. Born in Dodge City, Kansas, to immigrant parents working in the meat-processing industry, she had the opportunity to live in multiple small towns that are largely populated with immigrant families. She’s a poet, freelance writer and educator based in Worthington, Minnesota.

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