Immigrant Asset Mapping at Halifax Public Libraries

Jim Lynch, TechSoup for Libraries /

Immigrants are such a hot-button issue these days that we decided to search for a library that does excellent work to serve these specialized patrons. The U.S. immigrant population is roughly one in six people. Canada is having an immigration spike as well, and the Halifax Public Libraries in Nova Scotia are doing good work to serve them.

Starting in the 1990s, Canada experienced a permanent jump in immigration. Pretty early on, the Halifax Public Libraries got going on what they called "asset mapping" to help their immigrant communities integrate into their new homes. This work had been going on for some years under grants by the Canadian federal government before librarian Ken Williment co-published a paper in 2012 on their asset mapping process. This paper is as relevant now as it was six years ago.

A Community Entry Tool

Ken calls his mapping process a "community entry tool." The intent is to get librarians out of the library and talking to community members, including immigrants themselves, to discover their needs. The process also involves interviewing government, church, and charity social service providers who provide settlement services.

Ken told me, "Asset mapping reveals what challenges organizations and individuals face. The idea is to build trust and relationships with community members on their needs and aspirations." Ken says that his asset mapping technique works well to address the special needs of any type of patron. It is especially useful for what he calls "excluded community members" — homeless people, immigrants, indigenous people, public housing residents, and so on.

How Asset Mapping Is Used Now at the Library

Immigration to Canada has increased dramatically recently. The country has taken in increased numbers of refugees from the Middle East and Africa and most recently Haitians coming over the U.S. border. Halifax Public Libraries has developed an immigrant services plan and a Newcomer Services Department headed up by librarian Heather MacKenzie, manager of diversity services.

Last year Halifax had an influx of 1,300 Syrian refugees who ended up in three neighborhoods. Heather told me that, fortunately, the library got a grant from the Canadian government in 2013 to develop newcomer services. They used asset mapping techniques to create a community advisory team composed of service providers and immigrants. By the time the Syrian refugees arrived, the library was ready, especially in the branches where the new immigrants live. As much as possible, the library gears classes and trainings to cultural events that appeal to the immigrant communities.

What Is Working and What Isn't

The centerpiece of the work is not surprisingly English language learning (ELL) classes. Here are some other things Heather reported that the library has found useful.

  • Working with settlement agencies, the library knew specifically who the new refugees were. They knew early on, for instance, that many refugees had little English and that many were not literate in Arabic, so they could develop programming accordingly.
  • The library held outreach events for refugees in their neighborhoods, where they distributed basic information on library services in six languages.
  • They made sure that they got all refugees possible into language classes. The refugees found conversation groups particularly helpful.
  • The more established refugees also like their citizenship prep classes. These are geared to newcomers who have been in Halifax for at least three years and have a good basic competence in English.
  • The library holds special events showcasing the food, crafts, and culture of its immigrant communities.
  • The library also provided one-on-one language tutoring by volunteers.
  • They added Arabic and Arabic/English language books to the circulation collection.
  • To provide community resources information, the library found that double-sided bulletin boards on wheels worked best. Immigrants preferred having hard-copy resource lists and posters.
  • The library made iPads available for language classes with language learning apps, but many adult immigrants were afraid of them or preferred personal contact. The children love the games on them, though.
  • They partnered with service agencies like the YMCA homework programs for young refugees.
  • The library found it useful to have an iPad with Google Translate at the front desk before they hired Arabic-speaking staff. It got them through early interactions.

Heather says that Halifax is now gearing up for an increase in newcomers and international students coming from Bangladesh, among other places. The library will be ready. They are a member of the Halifax's Local Immigration Partnership, which is in the process of developing a municipal online interactive immigrant resources asset map.

Additional Resources

Creative Commons License
This article was originally published January 26, 2018 on TechSoup for Libraries and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.