News / Edmonton

Diversity of languages vital at Edmonton Public Library

Employees are hired at Edmonton Public Library branches for their knowledge, experience, and even for what languages they speak.

The EPL has more than 56,000 items in 30 different languages in its collection – the highest numbers yet – which are brought in based on census data and customer requests.

Census data released last October indicates nearly 240,000 Edmontonians now have a mother tongue other than English or French; mostly Chinese, Tagalog and Punjabi.

The largest world language collections at the EPL are Chinese and French, while Tagalog and Punjabi are two of many on the rise, said Mary Bennett, EPL adult collections librarian.

“That’s the latest surge, so we have made an effort to address that increased population,” she said. “I would say that those languages … are where we’ve seen the most demand or the most use.”

An increase in the items, especially over the last five years, is complemented by the fact library staff combined can speak more than 30 languages. But a recruitment method that began as a pilot project just over a year ago ensures staff who speak specific languages work in certain areas of the city.

“For the first time we put a required language, a requirement of Punjabi, in a library assistant position at the Mill Woods branch,” said Pam Ryan, EPL director of collections and technology.

Job postings have included a preference for languages other than English in the past, but are only now starting to require it, said Ryan, noting that following an inventory in December of the languages frontline staff can speak, she expects the practice to expand.

Asha, who did not want her last name used, was the hire at the Mill Woods branch just over a year ago. The library assistant, who moved from India in 2010 with a bachelor’s degree in library science, speaks not only Punjabi, but also Hindi and Urdu – and uses them daily with customers.

“I have been approaching when I find them reluctant to approach people,” said Asha. “Once I talk to them, then the comfort level is there and they know there is someone who they can approach in their own language, and that’s no (longer) a barrier for them.”

On top of census data and customer requests, 18 community librarians across the city connect with diverse groups and agencies, reporting back what is needed and desired. Ryan said those positions don’t have a language requirement, but that they may in the future.

Newcomers' first stop: EPL

Known as public community hubs, libraries are often the first place visited by newcomers to a city.

At least that’s the case in Edmonton, according to Mana Ali, child and family service co-ordinator at the Edmonton Mennonite Centre for Newcomers.

EMCN staff send new Edmontonians to their nearest Edmonton Public Library branch, or even offer a tour and taste of programming.

“It’s a place where they can go morning, evening, during the day. (And) where they can get information and get connected to their community,” said Ali.

With a variety of languages already spoken by frontline staff at EPL branches across the city, Ali is happy to know that certain areas are being targeted and that more will be.

“I think it’s really important because there is a lot of diversified communities in certain neighbourhoods,” she said. “Like Londonderry, Castledowns, Mill Woods.

“Having somebody that speaks their language, it’s easier to communicate, then they can access the resources.”

Library language numbers


items are in the world languages collection at the EPL, which includes physical items such as books, DVDs, etc. in 30 languages.


Chinese is the largest collection at 17,001 items, which were circulated nearly 160,000 times in 2011.


items exist in each of the languages Dinka and Tigrigna.


branches offer English Conversation Circle, which is one of EPL’s many language learner programs.


of the collection is for adults, while 38.1 per cent is for juveniles and 1.4 per cent for young adults.


Punjabi is the 10th largest collection at 1,471 items, which were circulated more than 6,200 times in 2011.


branches are home to the majority of the world language collection: Stanley A. Milner (26 per cent), Whitemud Crossing (12.6 per cent), Londonderry (9.4 per cent), Lois Hole (9 per cent), and Mill Woods 7.8 per cent.

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