Cultural Connections

Library's outreach program aims to serve ethnic communities in the county

February 14, 2007|By Laura Shovan | Laura Shovan,special to the sun

Connor Shin can't wait to celebrate the Chinese New Year with his family Sunday. The first-grader, who attends Hollifield Station Elementary School in Ellicott City, will watch a dragon dance and have a traditional meal at a restaurant in Gaithersburg.

But Connor got an early jump on the new year - the Year of the Pig - last week when he participated in the Miller branch library's Chinese New Year event. The children's story time was part of Cultural Connections, a library outreach program targeting Howard County's ethnic communities.

Lew Belfont, Howard County Library's head of customer services, said, "A significant population that is served by the Miller library [is] Chinese and Korean." Belfont and information services librarian Fritzi Newton applied for a grant from the Maryland State Department of Education. The Howard County Library received two Library Services and Technology Act grants totaling $50,000.

The Miller branch used the first Cultural Connections grant to advertise in Korean and Chinese newspapers, buy Korean and Chinese materials and hire two cultural liaisons. The second grant is being used at the east Columbia library, where it will serve the Hispanic population.

Newton conducted surveys of Korean and Chinese library patrons during 2005 and 2006.

"[Newton] had done a great deal of polling and surveying the community," said Susan Stonesifer, who manages the Miller branch.

The library responded by adding foreign-language books and digital video discs, English classes and programs such as the Chinese New Year story time.

"The people who are interested are not just Chinese and Korean," said Tricia Ting, Connor's mother. "It's a nice way to bring the community together," and teach other children about Asian culture, she said.

Grace Lim of Ellicott City brought daughters Jasmine, 7, and Briana, 4, to the program. The family is Korean, but Lim said, "Chinese are very related to Korean culture. ... So they can learn about themselves" and their heritage. Lim said she has noticed the new Korean signs and materials at the Miller branch.

Sheila Robinson, the children's services librarian who led the event, has offered bilingual programs with Jin Lan, the library's Chinese liaison. "We get a lot of Chinese-only-speaking children," she said. "They're just glued to [Lan]. Their little eyes can't be brought away from her," when she reads in Chinese, she said.

Having a liaison helps bridge cultural gaps, said Lan. "Libraries in China are just a place to borrow books," she said, so native Chinese often do not realize the library runs classes, has programs for children and is a place to pick up tax forms.

"I think my job really is a connection, so I can tell the Chinese community what kind of service the library has and also tell the librarians what kind of services the people really like," she said. Local Chinese give her lists of books that are popular in China so that she can buy the books for the library's collection.

The library also sponsors Asian-themed programs for adults. Tomorrow, the Miller branch is hosting "Tea for a Healthy and Happy Life" with Clarksville software engineer Jay Wang.

Wang is a tea hobbyist who runs a Web site that sells tea from China and has information about tea's history. He approached the library about offering the class. "I know that they are running the outreach program. My program is not really targeting the Asian community; it's for everyone," he said.

The staff at the Miller branch also has reinstated the English Conversation Club, which meets Wednesday evenings. When Stonesifer sat in on a meeting, those who attended talked about American customs and discussed their cultural traditions. "It's a great ... sharing of information," Stonesifer said.

At the east Columbia branch, Cultural Connections is in the survey phase. "We have a large Hispanic population, and we're trying to focus it on [its] needs," said Carmen Albuerne, Cultural Connections representative. "It's a real hands-on opportunity to speak directly to customers and find out what we can do to provide them with" resources."

Jinelee DeSouza, a liaison to the Hispanic community, joined the library last week. She will be available for patrons Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays.

Albuerne, who is Cuban-American, said that being part of Cultural Connections is "very personally satisfying." She remembers how challenging communicating with English speakers was for her Cuban-born parents. "For someone who is coming here from another country or is struggling with the language," having a liaison is a great resource, she said.

To participate in east Columbia's Cultural Connections focus groups: Jinelee DeSouza, 410 313-7700. Those interested in participating in the Korean/Chinese advisory committee at the Miller branch: Fritzi Newton, 410 313-1967.

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