Diversity Isn’t Lost in Translation at the Bologna Children’s Book Fair

Photo courtesy of Jodi Wortsman
Photo courtesy of Jodi Wortsman

This past March I traveled to Bologna, Italy to attend the Bologna Children’s Book Fair as part of a study abroad course offered through Dominican University. The Bologna Children’s Book Fair is one of the largest international publishing events in the world. Many publishers visit the Fair in order to acquire publishing rights for international materials. It is also a great place to spot upcoming trends and attend informational seminars. It was amazing to see exhibits and participants from all over the world. This year 75 countries were represented at the Fair from Sweden to Colombia to Iran; visitors really got the sense that this is an event that is truly global in scope.  It made me realize how the United States is just one small part of the international effort to promote literacy, cultural awareness and reading to young people throughout the world.

Attending the Fair reinforced my passion for diversity and inclusion to see people from all cultures and backgrounds working together towards the common goal of promoting books and literacy to young people. It was also good introduction to my growing awareness that much of the world doesn’t speak English as their primary language. Traveling to Italy and being unable to express myself and communicate with those around me was both a frightening and frustrating experience. It gave me valuable insight to how those who don’t speak English might feel in the US. I definitely take for granted the ability to speak the dominant language and this trip has given me new perspective on the daily situations non-English language speakers encounter. Language and literacy barriers can make everyday basic activities like ordering food or asking for directions seem like daunting tasks. For me, this was just one week of struggling to communicate. I cannot imagine the difficulty of living this way every single day. This experience has motivated me to learn more about how we can serve non-English speakers and English language learners in our libraries.

In 2007, ALA developed a toolkit called, “Serve the world at your library.” This toolkit provides strategies and practices for serving English language learners at your library as well as outreach programs for attracting non-English speakers to the library. Below are some tips from my experience and from the toolkit, which can be downloaded in its entirety here.

  1. A smile is truly universal. It’s simple and something we already do, but welcoming everyone to our library with a genuine smile shows patrons a willingness to help without judgment or scrutiny.
  2. Display “Welcome” signs, programming flyers, and directional and informational signs in the languages spoken in your community. Consider using graphic signs that depict easy to understand images.
  3. Speak clearly and simply. Keep in mind that this person may have no knowledge or familiarity with libraries or library services so avoid jargon and complex terminology.
  4. Be Patient. The person you’re communicating with wants to understand you as much as you want to be understood. This may take a few attempts using various communication methods in order to reach a mutual understanding.
  5. Learn as much as you can about the cultures and languages in your community. The more we educate ourselves about the diversity in our community the better prepared we are to serve its needs.


Our guest blogger today is Sophie Kenney. Sophie feels lucky to be a Children’s Services Associate at the Glencoe Public Library in Glencoe, Illinois where she loves leading the Book Babies storytime program and enjoys just about every other aspect of her job. She is optimistically planning to graduate with an MLIS from Dominican University after the fall 2014 semester and can be reached at skenney@glencoepubliclibrary.org.

Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.

If you’d like to write a guest post for the ALSC Blog, please contact Mary Voors, ALSC Blog manager, at alscblog@gmail.com.

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