America as a Brand-New Book, Waiting to be Cracked Open

WASHINGTON POST

Pin-Pin Lin treks twice a week with her two sons and a big shopping bag to a crowded library in the borough of Queens. The Taiwanese immigrant herds her boys as they plunder books from library shelves and toss them in the bag.

Sitting between her sons at a library table while they riffle through the books, she looks up words in an English-Cantonese dictionary and frets about any "no-good" English words they might read, speak or think.

"I no want to miss anything," explains Lin, who every Thursday morning, when her boys are in school, attends English language class at the Queens library. "If I don't learn about American culture and speak English, I could lose them. If they think I not understand, they not do what I say."

Book-obsessed, worrywart immigrants like Pin-Pin Lin are the driving reason why the Queens Public Library is far and away the busiest in the United States. Most library books in Queens do not go out of date. They wear out from overuse and fall to pieces.

The library circulates the nation's highest number of books, tapes and videos--15.3 million a year.

In the sprawling borough that lies across the East River from Manhattan, library card holders check out more books per capita than users of any big city library system in the country. The 1.95 million residents of Queens use the public library five times more frequently than residents of the District of Columbia. The Los Angeles library system serves about 1.4 million more people than the Queens library, but last year people in Queens checked out 4 million more books.

"We have complaints all the time from our older clientele, who want quiet and who want space. Well, our libraries aren't quiet and, for the most part, they aren't spacious," says Gary Strong, director of the Queens Public Library, one of three public library networks in the city. There is also a library system in Brooklyn, and the New York Public Library serves Manhattan, the Bronx and Staten Island.

"The people who use our library are highly motivated," Strong adds. "They want jobs. They want to learn how to live in America."

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Queens has the highest percentage of foreign-born residents of any borough in New York, a city that at the end of the 20th century is sponging up one of the great waves of immigration in its history. Nearly half the residents of Queens speak a language other than English at home. More than a third were born in a foreign country.

The extraordinary love affair between immigrants and libraries is a century-old story in New York, as it is in other American cities that have been immigrant gateways. The most crowded libraries in New York have always been in neighborhoods with the largest population of recent immigrants.

That love affair continues at the end of the century, but with complications, especially in Queens. The book lovers who elbow one another for space in the library's 62 branches are more than ever before a mixed bunch--racially, linguistically and culturally.

The busiest branch in the nation's busiest library system is in Flushing, which has been inundated in the past decade with Chinese, Korean, Indian, Russian, Colombian and Afghan immigrants. Until a handsome new library building opens this summer, the Flushing branch is crammed into a former furniture store.

Inside, there are not nearly enough little chairs for all the little kids who devour picture book after picture book. Stacks of foam pads are available so kids and parents can sit on the tile floor.

Queues form behind computer terminals that allow immigrants to search home-country periodicals using Chinese, Korean and Roman writing systems. "Watch Your Belongings!" signs are in English, Spanish and Chinese.

"Have you ever wondered where the new South Asian materials are?" asks a sign taped to a pillar in the Flushing branch library. "Well, wonder no more. They're here! You can find materials in: Bengali, Gujarati, Hindi, Malayalam and Urdu."

"We have gone from a dozen countries to 100 countries," says Strong. "We are not just waiting for them to come to us after they have solved all their problems, after they have a job and after they have the kids in school. We go after them."

Immigration had already transformed Flushing from a staid middle-class Italian and Jewish community into a polyglot boom town when Ruth Herzburg took over eight years ago as library branch manager. Herzburg quickly discovered that the branch was falling behind the newcomer mix.

Herzburg tentatively put a small collection of Korean-language books out on a shelf five years ago.

"Those books walked off the shelves. Before that, we didn't really know the Koreans were here," she said.

By spending more money per capita on books and other materials than any other major urban American library system, the Queens Public Library has marshaled its resources to seduce each new group of immigrants and lure them into the branches.

Library emissaries work with recent arrivals. They explain how the library can show them how to get a driver's license, navigate the Internet and learn English.

"Starting with survival skills, they get introduced to the library, and it is often the beginning of a lifelong habit," said Adriana Acauan Tandler, head of the library's New Americans program and herself an immigrant from Brazil. "The secret of our success is that we give people what they want, instead of what we think they should have."

Pin-Pin Lin tries to steer her boys, ages 10 and 13, away from Chinese-language books. She prefers they read only in English. To that end, she makes sure they leave the library after each visit with 20 or so English books.

"I don't care if they read all. Kid is kid. If they don't like books, I bring them back and get more," said Lin.

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