Philadelphia has had a long history when it comes to libraries. Benjamin Franklin started the country’s first library, The Library Company, which remains open today, 287 years later.
Today, the Free Library of Philadelphia finds itself in a unique position. While most public libraries are operated by local governments, FLP is managed by an independent board of the City of Philadelphia and the Free Library of Philadelphia Foundation.
While many agencies of government, at all levels, have pushed back against immigration cutting budgets and services, the nation’s 16th largest public library has many services for those who are foreign born.
What Philadelphia libraries offer immigrants
At Free Library of Philadelphia branches, a slew of resources are tailored to immigrants and refugees’ needs, including:
- ESL classes, which are offered with help from volunteers and the Center for Literacy.
- Free online tools for learning English.
- Access to vital documents and brochures about the library and city that were translated into five languages: Spanish, French, Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic.
- The program Edible Alphabet teaches participants about the English language through cooking classes. It’s a collaboration between the Culinary Literacy Center and the Nationalities Services Center.
- Circulating non-English materials.
Depending on the community they serve, certain branches will offer materials and programs in specific languages, said Nate Eddy, the strategy coordinator for the Free Library. For example, 13 percent of the materials are Chinese language-based at the Independence branch near Chinatown, according to a 2012 Pew Charitable Trusts report.
As part of the Lillian Marrero Library’s ongoing focus on native Spanish speakers, Eddy said the branch on Lehigh Avenue near 6th Street recently piloted an English language program that guides participants in accessing city resources, like schools.
Eddy noted that visiting a library with materials in your primary language has more staying power for immigrants.
“That sends a positive message to you,” he added. “You may think, ‘Wow this place is welcoming, and I really want to take advantage of what’s happening inside these walls.’”
Having a library card also allows immigrants to benefit from the standard amenities — like free Wi-Fi and access to computers and printers — offered at the Free Library locations in the city.
There are more than 50 branches in Philadelphia which can be found on a map here.
Why libraries are welcoming to immigrants
Paul Guequierre, the director of communications for the Urban Libraries Council (ULC), said civic service is natural for libraries, making them an important access point for immigrants in a new city.
“Libraries are there to serve everyone, including immigrants,” he added. “They’re a place where people are not judged, where people are helped, where people are served.”
The Free Library signed a ULC statement on libraries’ duty to promote race and social equity, and an inclusivity statement on its website names all of its Philadelphia locations as “safe havens” for disenfranchised people of any demographic.
But the Free Library has been offering resources for immigrants for at least a decade, Eddy said.
“Philadelphia has always been home to immigrants and the library is a trusted institution for any of these people,” he added. “They come to the library just to gain access, just like a lot of other folks.”
— Text and photos by Grace Shallow