For Asians, Languages No Barrier at Libraries

Times Staff Writer

In the 10 years after he left Taiwan, Albert C. Lin thought he had lost touch with his homeland. He shuffled off to school in Buffalo, N.Y., worked for a while in Albuquerque, N.M., and finally settled with his Chinese wife and two children in La Mirada.

Then he walked into Los Angeles County’s Norwalk Regional Library. And there, on shelf after shelf, he came upon his cultural roots--in Chinese-language art books, encyclopedias, cookbooks, film magazines, newspapers, business books, music tapes, kung fu novels and more.

He said it was like coming home.

“We love it,” said the 42-year-old immigrant who is a biology teacher at Biola University. “We have a chance . . . to continue contact with (Taiwan). This is a very good medium to keep us informed on what’s happening there. It’s very important.”


The library’s selection of about 4,000 Asian-language books--including titles in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese--is just one example of the expanding collections throughout the Southeast area, where sharply increasing Asian populations have opened a new chapter in library service.

10,000 Books for Asians

The Norwalk library is the hub in a regional system that makes available about 10,000 Asian-language books at selected branches in Artesia, Bellflower, Hawaiian Gardens, Lakewood, La Mirada, Paramount, South Gate and Whittier, according to Lilly C. Loo, who oversees the county system in this area.

Rapidly expanding collections are also available at the Long Beach Public Library, which offers an estimated 2,000 volumes; at the Cerritos Public Library, which houses 1,400 Asian-language books; and at the Montebello Regional Library, where 11,000 of the volumes share space with the county’s 8-year-old Asian Pacific Resource Center--a research facility offering reference books both in Asian languages and in English.

“We’re responding to the needs of . . . a huge Asian population,” said Evelyn MacMorres, the central-county administrator at Montebello. That city, whose population of more than 56,000 is now about 14% Asian, lies near other largely Asian communities such as Monterey Park, where the Asian influence is readily apparent, MacMorres said.

“Most of the streets have bilingual signs with Asian characters,” she said.

The Asian population of Los Angeles County, which doubled between 1970 and 1980, nearly doubled again by 1985, reaching nearly 800,000, according to census figures and recent United Way estimates.

Reshuffling Budgets


Library officials said they are simply reshuffling their budgets to accommodate the changing readership. Asian-language books still make up less than 2% of the county book stock in the Southeast region, far below the volume of English- and Spanish-language books, Loo said.

But libraries are trying to respond to the demand, Loo said, devoting up to 10% of their book-buying budgets toward new Asian-language titles. So far, she said, the effort has not caused complaints that other collections are being shorted.

“You never have enough money to purchase all the books you need,” she said. But “if you have a lot of people come in and ask for books, and you don’t have them, you are in fact turning away your customers. These people are a part of the community with a special need.”

K. C. Chiang, 50, a mechanical engineer at the Bechtel Corp. in Norwalk, said he has watched the Norwalk library’s collection grow from just a small shelf of a few Chinese books 10 years ago. He said he visits the library on Imperial Highway, near Norwalk Boulevard, two or three times a week during his lunch hour.


“It’s not because of a language problem,” Chiang said. “I not only like to read books in my native language, I read in other languages too--like German. A lot of books you have to read in the original language. After the translation it’s lost.”

Only 10 Volumes in 1980

At the city-operated Cerritos library, the Asian book collection numbered only 10 volumes in 1980, a city spokesman said. But now there are about 1,400 volumes, and the library spends $7,000 to $8,000 a year--roughly one-tenth of its book-buying budget--on the collection, according to Barbara Dickson, the library’s technical services officer.

The selection there is typical of those at other libraries. Asian authors with names like Du Tu Le, Matsumoto and Ye-Chow Chiang dominate shelves that are sprinkled with an occasional translated work by an American writer--Ernest Hemingway’s “A Farewell to Arms,” Mario Puzo’s “The Godfather” (“Bo Gia,” in Vietnamese), James Clavell’s “Shogun.”


Magazines are packed into boxes marked “Reader’s Digest, Japanese.” Copies of the Beijing Review rest near handsomely embossed volumes of the Pan-Chinese Encyclopedia.

“The Asian community has supported our library tremendously,” said Waynn Pearson, head librarian for Cerritos, where 55,600 residents are 22% Asian. “I think we’ve seen evidence of that in the schools, in the manner in which (Asian students) have excelled.”

Much of the growth in the Asian-language collections has been attributed to Project ASIA, a collecting and cataloguing service at the Huntington Park Library. With 13 staff members and a yearly budget of $500,000, the county-administered program is designed to purchase popular Asian-language books, prepare them for use by library card-catalogue and computer systems, and ship them to the libraries that order and pay for them.

Nearly 2,000 Books


The service has helped the Long Beach Public Library’s collection grow from a few dozen “token” selections in 1980 to nearly 2,000 books today, including about 1,000 in Vietnamese, 400 in Chinese, 350 in Korean and 200 in Japanese, said Harriet Friis, head of the library’s literature and history section.

“A majority of our books come through the project,” she said. “We just don’t have the people on staff who read those languages. It’s been a tremendous help.”

County library officials used federal grant money to launch Project ASIA five years ago, Director Kate Seifert said. Most of the budget goes toward paying staff members who speak the four major languages well enough to buy the books and catalogue them. Libraries pay the cost of the books plus a small cataloguing fee.

“If you’re a library, and you want to spend $5,000 on Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese books, we’ll use that budget and buy the books for you,” Seifert said.


The books come from retail stores in places like Little Tokyo and Koreatown in Los Angeles, she said. So far, the project has acquired and catalogued more than 83,600 Asian-language books representing more than 15,000 different titles.

The project has accounted for about half of the volumes available at libraries in the county’s Southeast region, Loo said. It has also accounted for about 90% of the Asian-language books at the Cerritos library, Dickson estimated.

Asian Videos, Audio Tapes

Libraries have augmented the service by buying some books on their own, acquiring an increasing number of Asian videotapes and audio tapes, and accepting donated books from Asian patrons, library officials said. Popular Asian-language books include kung fu novels, cookbooks, romance novels, beauty guides and American citizenship books. Loo said the most popular Chinese author seems to be kung fu specialist Chin-Yung.


“His books are never on the shelf--never,” she said. “His books come in anywhere from 6 to 10 parts . . . and they’re always checked out as a set. I know people who read them and stay up till 2 or 3 o’clock. It’s that absorbing.”

Seifert said there is “really very little difference between what the American reader wants and the Asian reader. Kung fu is the equivalent of Louis L’Amour (westerns). . . . adventure stuff. The taste is very similar.”

But Cerritos City Councilman Dan Wong, 44, who immigrated to America as teen-ager, said the cultural emphasis on learning seems to be vastly different.

“My mother had a third-grade elementary school education,” he said. "(But) I remember when I was young in Hong Kong, she kept telling me, ‘If you want to be somebody, you have to have a good education.’


“When you walk into the Cerritos library, on any given day, you count over 50% Asian kids. I’d say even 65% to 75% are Asian.”