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10 Tips For Building the Best Bilingual Library Collection

Building a bilingual library collection whether you are in charge of a dual language school or any other sort of a bilingual school, building a bilingual collection has its own set of challenges. Whether you’re a bilingual librarian or you’re trying to build up your Spanish collection as you practice Duolingo, managing a multilingual library is oftentimes much more difficult than managing a library with only one language.

What is a Bilingual Library?

A bilingual library is one whose purpose and goal of a bilingual library is to provide library services and resources of comparable quality and quantity in two languages. This does not mean that the library has accomplished its goal. Many bilingual libraries have not reached its goal nor even approximated reaching this goal, but they all share this drive and purpose. And it is at the heart of all of their work.

In much of the United States, the bilingual library would likely be one focusing on English and Spanish. This stands to reason as these are the two most spoken languages in the country. This does not necessarily mean that they are the only bilingual libraries. Most often, a bilingual library is one found in a school with a bilingual or dual language program where the goal is to promote the acquisition of two languages. This often presents a unique set of challenges for librarians that manage these collections and for the schools that attempt to attract candidates to the library position.

Building a bilingual library collection whether you are in charge of a dual language school or any other sort of a bilingual school, building a bilingual collection has its own set of challenges.  Whether you're a bilingual librarian or you're trying to build up your Spanish collection as you practice Duolingo, managing a multilingual library is oftentimes much more difficult than managing a library with only one language.

Features of a Bilingual Library

*Not all bilingual libraries will have all of these features, but they are features that promote the realization of their goal of providing library services and resources of comparable quality and quantity in two languages*

  • physical and digital collections in two languages
  • catalogs that are accessible in two languages, preferably of equal usability for individuals who may only speak one language
  • comparable reference materials in two languages
  • cataloging that indicates language (ex: S or SPAN for Spanish)
  • signage and promotional materials offered in two languages
  • library programming in two languages
  • bilingual library staff (ideally each staff member but collectively at least)
  • intentional and equitable budget
  • library plans and policies focusing on the goal and purpose of a bilingual library provided in two languages

Essentially, a bilingual library provides all of the same resources and programs in one language as they do in the other language. This is a tall order and often requires strategic, intentional planning and action by staff from library director down the ladder to support staff and volunteers.

Tips For Building a Bilingual Library

1. Recruit and Hire Bilingual Staff

One of the best ways to build a bilingual library is by hiring bilingual staff. Bilingual staff and volunteers can be instrumental in the selection of materials in both languages because they can read the materials. They also have a vested interest in the language community that they serve and can provide insight into the types of programming that patrons may enjoy and engage in. They may be aware of the reading culture of the community.

How to Do This? Seek out bilingual staff when posting. Attempt to nurture relationships with bilingual patrons and volunteers who may be persuaded to join the profession or volunteer to facilitate programming in both languages or the language that you may not speak. Seek ways to support multilingual staff to become certified library media specialists. In the absence of bilingual staff, attempt to seek out input from individuals who speak the language to make resource purchasing and programming decisions.

2. Collect and Analyze Data

If you want to improve your bilingual collection, you need to analyze your data: collection statistics, purchasing statistics, circulation statistics. Data, data, data! If you want to improve your bilingual collection, you need to know what your baseline is. Be prepared to face some hard truths. It’s okay, though! Remember: When we know better, we do better. As you analyze your data, remember that this is a baseline and your circulation may be lower in one language versus the other for a variety of reasons: lack of engaging books, lack of new books, patrons unaware of your bilingual collection or resources.

Some questions to ask:

  • How many books do you have in each language? In each section: fiction, nonfiction, graphic novel, etc.
  • What resources do you have in each language? Books, databases, reference, etc.? Is there a gap?
  • How does your circulation compare in each language? Monthly, yearly, fiction, nonfiction, etc.?
  • What percentage of books acquired is in each language? Are you spending too little in one language?
  • How does your programming compare in each language?

**Remember: Diversity audits from vendors are often not the best for analyzing your collection for non-English languages**

3. Seek Vendors to Fill Gaps

Big vendors like Follett and Mackin can help you curate lists, and they’ll do it FREE. Oftentimes, when needing to buy resources in another language, you will need to use vendors other than the ones that you normally use. Books may not be in the format that you would like – swallow your pride and buy the paperback. Better yet, buy 2 paperbacks because you know those books won’t be easy to come by and will wear out faster than hardcover or library binding. Also, be prepared to pay more for books because some may need to be shipped from much farther away and you’ll have to wait longer to receive them.

Ways to Find Alternative Vendors:

  • search for bookstore chains in countries that speak the language you’re trying to buy for (ex: La Casa Del Libro is a chain bookstore in some Spanish-speaking countries)
  • attend conferences – oftentimes the vendor areas have vendors that specialize in materials in different languages
  • speak to bilingual staff or patrons
  • search the library websites in countries that speak the language you’re buying for – start with the capital city
  • use Google Translate to translate complete websites
  • Amazon also has been helpful in sourcing books in other languages

Text complexity consideration: Books in other languages often have higher text complexity due to the nature of the languages. For Spanish at least, a good rule of thumb is to take the suggested grade level and add 2, so a book suggested for grades 3-5 would usually be best for grades 5-7.

4. Network

You are not the only librarian building a bilingual library. There are many others, and they’re looking for people like them to network with. Social media is a great place to search as well as reaching out to your country’s library association like ALA or AASL. Surprisingly, one of the best things that I ever did was stumble upon an Ask a Librarian form on the website for the Biblioteca Publica de Madrid in Spain and ask about vendors, popular titles, and book awards. I was lucky and could speak the language so that facilitated asking and receiving a response. If you don’t speak the language, though, Google Translate can be a big help!

5. Examine Your Library Organization

The way that your library is organized can have a great effect on your bilingual library. What message might you be sending by having the Spanish section in the back corner on only one shelf and behind a screen? By having signage in only one language? By only genrefying the collection in one language? By only having programming and staff that speaks one language? By acquiring few books and resources in one language? By only featuring and suggesting books in one language?

Organize your library so that if someone who only spoke one language came in, they would be able to navigate your library and be able to find engaging books in their language just as easily as someone who only spoke the other language.

library book bins with front-facing shelving

6. Make Decisions Based on Equity NOT Equality

When you make a decision based on equity, you are saying that you recognize an inequity in your library and do things to try to counteract that inequity in an accelerated manner. If you make decisions based on equality, your collection in the other language will struggle to catch up.

What might this look like?

  • Spending more on materials in one language to counteract a gap
  • Selectively weeding the collection in one language to make more room for materials in the other
  • reorganizing your library to show greater importance to the language collection with lower circulation
  • feature more materials in one language to increase circulation if circulation is low
  • purchasing and featuring different materials at different times based on differing curriculums
  • program offerings based on needs of each language group – needs are not always the same!

7. Plan and Create Policies That Focus on the Bilingual Library

Creating and maintaining a bilingual library is a conscious, intentional decision, and your policies and library plan should reflect this. Policies should reflect the unique situations that could arise in a bilingual library. Your library plan should also specifically focus on the purposeful development of your bilingual collection and services.

What might this look like?

  • policies written in both languages for the public to understand them
  • selection and collection development policies that clearly include language as a determining factor
  • library plan’s goals specifically focus on the fact that your library serves speakers of two languages
  • budget goals that focus on language
  • curriculum and engagement goals that focus on ways to engage speakers of both language communities
  • professional learning targets with the goal to impact multilingual patrons

8. Budget For Bilingualism

If your library has less than 5% of its collection in one language and 25% of your library patrons speak that language, your budget will need to reflect your NEED. You have a collection gap that needs to be addressed. Your budget should be planned accordingly – to fill the gap as quickly as possible. Language needs to be a factor in your budget.

Ways to accomplish this:

  • budget to spend more for the language that has a gap as compared to what the population is (ie: spend 50% of your budget on Spanish materials even if your Spanish-speaking population is 25% –>fill the gap!)
  • you have a clear budget plan so as to ensure that you spend what you want to spend on each language (ie: 10% on English digital resources, 20% on Spanish digital resources, etc.)
  • track your spending on materials in each language – oftentimes orders of materials in other languages have lower fulfillment rates than orders for English materials
  • remember that your budget may also need to be higher for materials in one language just because materials in other languages have a higher cost and/or will be of lower quality and will need to be replaced more often

9. Know How to Navigate Your Library in Both Languages

Knowing how to navigate your library in the language that you speak is something that you already know. Is your library as easy to navigate for someone who doesn’t speak the language that you speak? Is signage easy to see? Is each section labeled in each language (ie: English chapter fiction is labeled in each language)

Another thing to consider: How do users of each language use your online library catalog? For example, doing a Destiny search on my catalog for dog and then filtering my results for books in Spanish, I get many more results than if I search for the word “perro” (Spanish for dog). The reason for this is that subjects are entered into catalogs in one language only usually. This is important to know for your patrons, so that they know how to find the most accurate results for what they are searching for.

10. Keep an Open Mind

Overseeing a bilingual library can be frustrating. It can be easy to let observations become assumptions and cause you to lose faith in your ability to manage a bilingual library. You might question the value of providing and budgeting for materials in 2 languages if the materials in one language have low circulation. Don’t give up! Keep experimenting. What works in one library, does not always work in another.

Remember: Libraries exist to serve their communities. If your data does not reflect that you serve patrons of 2 languages, then you are not adequately serving the patrons of 2 languages. It is your job to ensure that you are, and this may require you to think outside the box in terms of the ways that you have normally served your community.

Building a bilingual library collection whether you are in charge of a dual language school or any other sort of a bilingual school, building a bilingual collection has its own set of challenges.  Whether you're a bilingual librarian or you're trying to build up your Spanish collection as you practice Duolingo, managing a multilingual library is oftentimes much more difficult than managing a library with only one language.

Conclusion:

Building a bilingual library collection can be a difficult task. You need to do all of the things that you would do in a collection with materials exclusively in one language two times. If you’re not yourself bilingual, this can add even more complications. These tips should help put you well on your way with a plan and intentional strategy to build your bilingual library collection. Some websites, including this one, also have free library lesson plans in 2 languages to help you!

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