Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
It's not because they don't like books.
The Pew Research Center surveyed America's public library usage and found that while Latinos tend to value library services higher than other racial groups, a relatively smaller number of them actually take advantage of these services.
"Hispanics pose both a challenge and an opportunity to the library community," write Pew researchers Anna Brown and Mark Lopez.
According to their survey, only 72 percent of Latinos report having visited a library, compared with roughly 80 percent of white and black Americans. The share of foreign-born Hispanic immigrants who used libraries was even lower—just 60 percent:
So, what's preventing Latinos from walking into their nearest public library?
It's not an aversion to books. Hispanics report reading the same number of books as black or white Americans in the 12 months prior to the survey.
It's also not that they find libraries unhelpful. Latino respondents who frequented a library thought pretty highly of the services available there. Half of the foreign-born Hispanic respondents said that closing the community library would be bad for their families (their children tend to use libraries more).
The problem is that Latinos lack information about what they stand to gain from public libraries. If they've arrived in America recently, Hispanic immigrants may not have figured out where the nearest library is, either because they don't speak much English or they have other priorities, Lopez tells CityLab. He says that only 73 percent of foreign-born Hispanic respondents could locate their nearest library, compared with roughly 90 percent of U.S.-born Hispanics, whites, and black respondents.
But even if they walk by a library everyday, Latinos might not go in because they don't seem to find them very easy to use. That perceived difficulty may come from the fact that not all libraries have Spanish-language resources available, says Lopez.
Of course, many Latinos do use public libraries. Cities with big Hispanic populations are better equipped to cater to Spanish-speaking patrons. The New York Public Library, for example, offers a lot more than just Spanish-language reading materials, with English classes and bilingual "story-time," readings, and cultural performances, says Adriana Blancarte-Hayward, the library's outreach manager. NYPL's Bronx Library Center showcases exhibitions from a large Puerto Rican collection for the benefit of the neighborhood.
America's Hispanic population is growing fast. If U.S. libraries want to draw in new patrons, they might want to follow NYPL's lead and collaborate with local schools, consulates, community, and cultural organizations to spread information about their services. But even smaller tweaks could go a long way, says Sapna Pandya, director of Many Languages One Voice—an organization working to empower immigrants.
"Even having something as simple as a welcome sign out front in English and Spanish can make a world of difference," Pandya says.