Like all social institutions, the public library has had to evolve with the times. And as Latinos, especially immigrant Latinos, have increasingly settled in Chicago’s suburbs over the years, suburban libraries have developed ways to better serve their changing communities.
“People come here for passport services. People come here for BMI, blood sugar and cholesterol tests,” said Sandra Lopez, community engagement manager for the Round Lake area library. “People come to check out our library of items, which includes sewing machines or telescopes or Roku sticks, wifi hotspots — all those things you wouldn’t necessarily think of as being part of a library.”
At the Round Lake Area Library, a monthly book club offers readers the opportunity to discuss literature in their own language.
“What they told me is that they feel like it’s an area, a space and a time where they can just focus on themselves,” said Elvira Flores, who runs the Round Lake Book Club.
“We talk about the book and everyone’s different points of view in the book, and then just in their lives, because we always find something to tell in real life.”
Book club member Sandra Camarena said she was not a big reader before visiting the Round Lake area library, but joining the book club made her an avid reader.
“Sometimes there is a barrier because of our language, so having this opportunity in our library to pick up books in Spanish is very interesting and it is one of the things that motivated me to come,” said said Camarena in Spanish.
Lopez says that during the early days of the pandemic, patrons increasingly turned to the library for help with issues that went well beyond batteries.
“For example, the school district has gone virtual. Many families in the school district didn’t have a computer or didn’t know how to use one and they also had a language barrier,” Lopez recalls. “So we asked our school district partner to contact us and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got this problem. Can you guys help? And we developed computer courses that we were able to give to parents in need.
In the western suburb of Northlake, the Northlake Public Library’s bilingual adult reference librarian, Karla Alba, says staff develop their programming based on community feedback.
“That means they trust us more with what they’re asking for, and if they need something that they don’t know if we’re providing it or not, they feel like they can. come in and ask for it,” Alba said. “It’s important for people to know that we are here to help them in their language and that we can also celebrate their origins at the same time.”
Part of making the library Latino-friendly includes programming and signage in Spanish, said Jackie Ceron, Northlake Public Library’s youth services librarian.
“When we have new families coming here for the first time, I want them to know this is their library, this is their space,” Ceron said.
Ceron relies on his own education when selecting resources for children who come to his library.
“The other day I bought some books about El Cucuy, which is like a childhood myth that the Mexican community grew up listening to, which are now on story time,” Ceron said.
Northlake patrons Fiona Ayala and Noemi Guizar Miranda both said they started coming to the Northlake Public Library to find activities for their children. But now they are also coming back for themselves.
“I was born in Mexico, came here and just recently took my citizenship test,” Ayala said. “The fact that they offer this program so you can study for the test. That was one of the most amazing things.
“It’s surprising because no other place celebrates Children’s Day and here they celebrate it,” Guizar Miranda said in Spanish. “Mother’s Day, Day of the Dead – they have events similar to our traditions that make us proud of our roots.”
Ayala and Guizar Miranda say they often recommend Northlake Library to friends and family, which librarians say is key to building trust in the community.
“A lot of the time, we think customers will come because they talked to a family member, or a friend, or just someone in the community,” Alba said.
“It just makes me feel good that there’s a place where you can feel comfortable that people are always ready to help you when you know you need help,” Ayala said. “And this is the library – a place I didn’t expect.”