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Struggles for Spanish speakers at libraries - fewer choices, limited services

Max Schulte / WXXI News
The Lincoln branch library on Joseph Avenue in Rochester has the largest Spanish-language collection of library materials in Monroe County.

Libraries that closed in response to the coronavirus pandemic are offering curbside pickup and online options for community members. Some Spanish-speaking residents, however, are struggling to access library materials. 

Myrna Gonzalez said even before the pandemic, Spanish-language resources and books were limited at the Lincoln Branch Library on Joseph Avenue in the city of Rochester. Now options are even more restricted, she said. 

“Health books, diet books, and magazines because they think we don’t like to read,” said Gonzalez. “Hispanic people don’t like to read. They just read the magazines and watch soap operas. That's the mentality.”

Gonzalez said that when she compares the English-language selection to the Spanish, she feels like a second-class citizen.


The Lincoln Library on Joseph Avenue has the largest Spanish-language collection in the Monroe County Library System.

Credit photo provide by Myrna Gonzalez
Myrna Gonzalez, right, is the president of the Bilingual Council in Rochester.

“We develop that collection just like we would any other collection based on what we see going out based on what our patrons want or what they tell us they want,” said Sarah Lehman, site supervisor at the Lincoln Library.

Thirty percent of the library’s budget goes to Spanish-language books, Lehman said. Out of more than 2.2 million books in the county's library system, there are about 9,000 books in Spanish, including ebooks and audiobooks. 

Part of the holdup in getting some new books in Spanish, she said, is that libraries sometimes have to wait months after the English version of a book premieres before they can order the translation, depending on the publisher.

Plus, some Spanish-language authors are more popular in markets outside of the U.S., so it’s harder to access those books because fewer are printed, and those that are available have to be imported.

As for e-books, Adam Traub, the associate director of the county library system, said that they are often three to four times more expensive for libraries than the going list price. On top of that, there’s a limit to the number of times that an ebook can be checked out before it “self-destructs.”

“Being able to build a 21st-century collection for our community in English or Spanish, or any language, is really hampered by some of the publisher restrictions that they’re putting in place like, for example, a book disappearing from our e-shelf after 26 checkouts,” said Traub. 

Credit photo provided by Adam Traub
Sarah Lehman is the site supervisor at the Lincoln branch library.

But some people couldn't access an ebook even if it were available because of a digital divide. For some, the library is the only place they can use a computer or get internet access. 

This means that since libraries have had to close their doors, certain services, like translating documents or assisting with technology literacy, haven’t been accessible.

“We’re seeing a lot of patrons that are trying to get more help or trying to apply to jobs,” said Lehman. “When they rely on the library for that and if they can’t get in, that can be challenging. So we’re printing a lot of resumes, things like that.”

Angelica Perez-Delgado, president of Ibero-American Action League, said the organization’s caseworkers serve about 2,000 people in Rochester's Latino community. She said about 200 of those people are without access to a working phone, while others lack access to a computer.

The U.S. Census Bureau estimates that just over nine percent of the population in Monroe County is Hispanic. That’s about 68,500 people. However Julio Saenz with Ibero said that their estimates are closer to 80 thousand, given the influx of people displaced from Puerto Rico after hurricanes Irma and Maria, as well as more recent earthquakes.

For anyone providing services, she said that it’s important to note what the barriers are for the people who need them.

Credit Ryan Williamson / CITY Newspaper
CITY Newspaper
Angelica Perez-Delgado is the president of Ibero American Action League

“People don’t have time to ask for help," she said. "They’re trying to survive day to day, so we need to be here. We need to make sure that resources are available, that we’re providing services in a way that are meaningful to them and that we’re moving beyond some of the red tape.”

For Gonzalez, the library patron who feels like a second-class citizen, the disparities are everywhere -- and they are harmful.

She's the president of the Bilingual Education Council, an advocacy committee of parents of bilingual students, like a PTA. She said greater language access and more dual language options for Spanish speakers could help bridge the divide.

“I wish that our community has the same opportunities that the English speaker community (has), that our kids have the same opportunities that the English speaker kids (have),” she said.

Noelle E. C. Evans is an education reporter/producer with a background in documentary filmmaking and education.
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