Monday, August 1, 2005

DENVER — A plan to redesign seven Denver Public Library branches with a Spanish-language focus has created a row over the library’s role in light of the city’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

At a series of public meetings last week, library officials said the “Language and Learning” branches would feature an increased Spanish-language book and periodical collection, a bilingual staff and classes for Spanish speakers on subjects such as English acquisition, high school equivalency and computers.

Head librarian Rick Ashton said the Language and Learning concept, which is being reviewed by the Library Commission and a 50-member advisory board, was required to address the needs of Denver’s growing Spanish-speaking population.

Hispanics make up 34.8 percent of Denver’s population, up from 23 percent in 1990, and about 20 percent speak Spanish at home. Children from Hispanic families account for 54.1 percent of the enrollment in Denver public schools.

Although some patrons have praised the library’s vision, the Language and Learning idea has met with resistance from those who say that the proposal is another step toward placing Spanish on an equal footing with English as the national language.

“The library is a purveyor primarily of written information, and it should be provided largely, say 95 percent, in the native language of our country, which is English,” said Fred Elbel, president of Colorado Alliance for Immigration Reform.

Increasing the Spanish-language collection will discourage newcomers from learning English, critics say, and give preferential treatment to Spanish speakers at the expense of immigrants from Russia, Vietnam and other countries. “I’m totally against it. I think anyone entering the United States should learn English,” Denver resident Dick Traeyhouse said after a recent forum. “To pick one language is wrong.”

Critics also contend that the libraries will offer yet another incentive for illegal aliens to choose Denver as their home. Immigrants need not prove their legal status to receive a library card, say critics and library employees.

Library official Beth Elder countered that the library has long acted as a “gateway” for immigrants, helping them adjust to life in their new country. “Libraries have always welcomed immigrants and always been a resource for immigrants to improve their lives,” she said. “Libraries have always had a role in helping them become members of the community.”

Denver’s library plan places it at the forefront of major cities moving to cater to Spanish-speaking patrons, said Ana Elba Pavon, president of Reforma, an affiliate of the American Library Association that seeks to promote the inclusion of Spanish materials at U.S. libraries.

“They are on the cutting edge with this,” said Miss Pavon, who heads children’s services at the Mission branch of the San Francisco Public Library. “They’re restructuring their system so they can provide better service to the Spanish-speaking community. … They have a lot of pretty revolutionary things going on with this.”

Library officials declined to give estimates as to what percentage of the collection would be in Spanish, but they stressed that the branches still would carry materials in English and other languages. The library currently allocates 6.8 percent of its budget for Spanish-language books and magazines, library Commissioner Wesley Brown said.

The Library Commission and advisory board are slated next month to give final comments, but critics contend that the plan is already in place.

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