Small town public library life and library school topics of interest

LIBR 204: Communication Study

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Communicating with Non-English Language Speakers at the Paso Robles City Library


Excellent communication skills are an essential management tool. To be successful, a manager must not only be able to communicate well in a variety of situations (face-to-face, on the phone, in writing), but must also be able to coach staff members to communicate better with both internal and external customers. Special challenges occur when serving the public, including communication with different age groups, where one might use different language levels when talking to a preschooler as opposed to talking to an adult, or communication with those who are differently abled, such as students in the high school’s special education program or an elderly person who is hard of hearing. One of the most challenging interactions in public libraries is communicating with those who speak no (or very little) English, particularly if no one on the library staff is fluent in that language. This particular difficulty is noted by Schramm in his discussions of how communication works. Schramm describes communication between two individuals as two circles of experience which overlap as the encoding and decoding process occurs; if the two individuals fail to speak the same language, then the circles never overlap and communication is impossible (1955).

This is an issue that is faced by Paso Robles City Library staff on an almost daily basis. In the City of Paso Robles, approximately 25% of the population speak a language other than English, and of those, 12% have limited English proficiency (City of Paso Robles, August 5, 2014). The majority of these are Spanish language natives, and for the purpose of this paper, this is the population that will be the focus. Currently, the Library has only two staff members who are reasonably fluent in Spanish, one of whom works part-time, and the chances are high that no one in the library will be able to converse with a Spanish-speaking patron in his native tongue when he arrives to use the library. Management have developed a multi-pronged approach for assisting this population, including helpful procedures for staff on duty, recruiting/improving staff, and use of volunteers.

Evans and Alire state that public libraries in particular present barriers to diverse library users, and may be forbidding to those who do not speak the major language in the community; it can be especially intimidating for new users who will need extra coaching and instruction in library use (2013). Currently, Paso Robles City Library staff have several options for communicating with non-English speakers. Phrase sheets are available at each service desk (Circulation, Reference, and Children’s) with the phrases most commonly needed by staff printed on them. These include directional phrases (“The bathroom is in the lobby”), instructional phrases (“We need to see something with your current address on it to issue a library card”), and correctional phrases (“There is no eating in the library”). Staff can refer to these phrase sheets to assist patrons with a variety of needs. This is a tactic that all libraries can incorporate into their service. Sometimes a patron’s needs are more than our phrase sheet can accommodate. In these instances, the business line for the Police Department can be called. The Police Department always has one or two staff on duty who are fluent in Spanish, and quite often they are the dispatchers who answer this phone line. By passing the phone back and forth between the staff and the patron, the Police staff can provide translations to answer patron-staff communication needs. While this might not be a practical solution in all libraries, it does work well for our small town (population approximately 31,000 (United States Census Bureau, December 4, 2014)). For written communication such as brochures, the City has official staff who act as translators. To achieve this qualification, full-time staff must pass a rigorous language exam; once they qualify, they receive extra pay for providing this service. When the library has written material that is in need of translation, such as registration information to get a library card, the English language version is sent to one of the City’s translators, and they prepare the document. Because there are so few translators for the City (the exam is really rigorous!), often library staff will “borrow” the services of school district employees who volunteer their time to help out. This translation is mainly done with materials for children such as our Summer Reading Program brochures. Finally, if none of these options will assist the patron, staff will often check around the library to see if there is another patron available who is fluent in Spanish. Several tutors who meet with students throughout the day have proved to be helpful in this regard. In extreme instances, staff have even been known to use Google Translate to get the message across. All of these different creative methods of communication allow staff to assist the vast majority of non-English language patrons in a satisfactory manner.

The right staff mix can lead to success when communicating with non-English language natives. Finding staff who are fluent in foreign languages is challenging; with 82% of the librarian population being white (Beveridge, June 20, 2011), and only 25% of United States residents being fluent in a second language (McComb, April 6, 2001), finding Spanish-speaking staff will continue to be a challenge. When the Paso Robles City Library recruits for any level staff positions, Spanish fluency is listed as a plus, but is not required. This is typical of many organizations, according to Evans and Alire, who acknowledge that matching a library’s staffing diversity to that of the community is generally a goal rather than an achievement due to the lack of minority candidates in the field (2013). Knowing that our staff is lacking in Spanish fluency, recruiting among Spanish-fluent librarian groups such as REFORMA should be a key part of our job advertising process. When ranking applications for interview, including Spanish-language fluency in the ranking process may ensure a greater diversity among hired staff. Another factor in hiring those with Spanish-language fluency may be advocating to change the City’s fluency exam. The current exam is one used in the social services profession, and contains a great deal of terminology used in that profession which is not used in everyday conversation. This may be why there are no library employees who are considered to be “fluent,” even when they are able to have conversations with native Spanish speakers on a regular basis. A second area of advocacy would be for part-time staff to be part of the testing process which is currently only open to full-time staff. Spanish language fluency monthly stipends could be prorated as are other part-time benefits such as vacation and sick leave. With two-thirds of library staff being part-time, this has the potential to boost the library’s Spanish-fluent staff numbers dramatically. A final area for improving staff fluency is to encourage staff to attend classes offered at our local junior college. There is educational reimbursement money available for full- and part-time staff to help defray the costs of attending school. By reminding staff of this opportunity, management may spark an interest for staff to become at least partially, if not totally, fluent.

The Paso Robles City Library has a unique approach to their use of volunteers. Rather than just using volunteers in traditional roles such as shelving or in support groups such as the Friends of the Library, volunteers are used in positions throughout the library including manning service desks, overseeing Story Times, and even copy cataloging. By opening up the volunteer program in this manner, the library has been able to recruit over 100 high caliber community members who enjoy the opportunity to provide excellent customer service and use their talents effectively. Many volunteers are retired librarians and school teachers, making them the perfect candidates to work the reference and children’s service desks. While several of the volunteers are relatively fluent in Spanish, it would be helpful to have a list of those who are (they would not have to take the fluency exam). This way, staff would know if a Spanish-fluent volunteer was working at the same time as they were; staff could ask the volunteer for assistance in translation. At the San Luis Obispo County Association of Parks and Recreation Administrators annual workshop on March 7, 2015, and group of library staff and support group members discussed the creation of and recruitment for a Spanish-fluent concierge volunteer position. If the library were able to successfully recruit several of these volunteers, they could be available for the Spanish-speaking community during specific hours, leading to a potentially greater use of the library. Management will be pursuing this idea.

Although it is challenging to meet the communication needs of every interest group in a community, once a group is identified as an underserved population, efforts should be made to assist them. Management should examine current staff resources available to them, assess and provide tools current staff need to communicate with these groups more effectively. When recruiting for new staff, including information in the job description and requirements that will encourage applicants who are versed in assisting this underserved population to apply, and, by selecting those who meet those requirements as candidates for interview, management can be sure they are doing their best to provide service to these groups. By opening up volunteer opportunities to community members, recruitment can be focused on providing service to underserved populations. In all these ways, management can make certain that the public library is truly for all members of the public they serve.


Beveridge, S., Weber, S., & Beveridge, A. (June 20, 2011). Librarians in the U. S. from 1880-2009  Plan [Data file]. Retrieved from http://blog.oup.com/2011/06/librarian-census/

City of Paso Robles (August 5, 2014) Limited English Proficiency (LEP) Plan [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.prcity.com/government/…/pdf/…/Transit-LEPPlan8-14.pdf

Evans, G. E., & Alire, C. A. (2013). Management Basics for information professionals American Library Association

McComb, C. (April 6, 2001). About one in four Americans can hold a conversation in a second language: Spanish is by far the most frequently spoken second language. [Data file]. Retrieved from http://www.gallup.com/poll/1825/about-one-four-americans-can-hold-conversation-second-language.aspx

Schramm, W. (1955). How communication works. The Process and Effects of Mass Communication, 3-10, 13-17.

United States Census Bureau (December 4, 2014). El Paso de Robles (Paso Robles) (city), California. State & County QuickFacts [Data file]. Retrieved from http://quickfacts.census.gov/qfd/states/06/0622300.html


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