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Going beyond English for all inclusive libraries

Jeffco library increases Spanish language assistance, programs collections


During the first few years after Gloria Pérez-Álvarez moved from Guadalajara, Mexico, to the U.S. in Jefferson County, she would only venture out into the community for necessary errands such as to and from the grocery store.

“I stayed hidden,” she said.

She spoke to few people, and only when she had to. She preferred to stay behind her husband — a Denver native who speaks English.

However, about five years ago, Pérez-Álvarez started going to the Lakewood Library to get Spanish-language books and other materials for her two young children, who are now 5 and 3.

“I wanted to get fun and interesting material for them,” she said, “but I felt disappointed about the options and size of the collection.”

But that was before she learned that the library offers 10 times what is available on the shelves because she could not approach library staff with questions since her English was so limited.

Now, Pérez-Álvarez, 32, speaks English nearly fluently and has been working at the library for about a year and a half as a bilingual patron experience associate.

“I would love for more Spanish-speaking people to come to the library and learn about the resources available,” Pérez-Álvarez said. “We are very interested in making the library more inclusive.”

The Jefferson County Public Library is committed to serving everyone in the community, said Simone Groene-Nieto, the library’s coordinator of services to diverse communities. And one way the library is moving toward accomplishing that is the recent launch of its Spanish-language phone support in the call center.

The call center handles an average of 500 calls a day from people asking about everything from renewing items or how to get a library card to learning more about a library event, Groene-Nieto said. Before the launch of the bilingual service, Spanish speakers would often have an English-speaking household member call for them because the library’s call center did not have an efficient way to reliably meet their needs in Spanish, Groene-Nieto said.

“That’s why it’s key to make this change,” she said. “It allows people to self-select a Spanish speaker to serve them in their language.”

Elisa Higuera is a bilingual patron experience associate who works in the call center. Higuera, whose parents are from Sinaloa, Mexico, said she grew up speaking both English and Spanish.

“When I was little, I would always have to translate for my family,” Higuera, 30, said. “Now, with the new service, they can come here with confidence and speak with someone they can relate to.”

There are 10 Jeffco library locations, and six of them — Arvada, Belmar, Columbine, Edgewater, Lakewood and Wheat Ridge — have at least one bilingual staff member on duty at all times that the library is open, Groene-Nieto said. In addition, the library will also continue to increase its collection of Spanish books, movies, CDs and magazines, Groene-Nieto said. The library system is also offering new programming for Spanish-speakers, such as Spanish story times for children, and English conversation tables which are meant to be complimentary to English language classes.

Amarely Quintanilla is a Lakewood resident who has been a library patron for about 10 years. She is bilingual and works in a hospital, and said she would read anything in Spanish that she would read in English, specifically to improve her vocabulary.

“I want to be able to help people as much as I can, so I want to be as fluent as possible,” Quintanilla said.

She said she is thrilled the library is increasing its Spanish-language collection, but added that she is an avid traveler and would be interested in checking out books in other foreign languages, too.

“Learning a foreign language is exciting and fun,” Quintanilla said. “It can ignite more interest in the foreign language section of the library.”

The library also has a bilingual team that goes out into the community and does English-Spanish story times at Jeffco’s Head Start schools and local preschools with a focus on those that are Title 1, said Robyn Lupa, the library’s coordinator with kids and families.

“The English speakers are learning a new language, and the Spanish speakers get to connect with someone in their own language,” Lupa said. “It’s a win-win for both. Even the shyest kids come out of their shell.”

Jefferson County’s demographics are changing, Groene-Nieto said, and the library recognizes it needs to change along with it.

“Libraries are access points and all people have the right to access information through the library,” Groene-Nieto said, adding that includes the community’s Spanish speakers. “We want everyone to feel welcome, and help them live and thrive in the community.”


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