An immigrant from Bangladesh finds herself at home in libraries
New York City, with its towering skyscrapers and endless avenues, is one of the most diverse and multicultural cities in the world. It is home to 3.1 million immigrants with new Americans arriving each day. Twenty years ago, as a Bangladeshi teen, I was one of those newcomers.
New York City was big and loud and noisy. It took some effort, but I soon learned how to navigate the streets, feel at home on the subway, and explore all that it had it to offer. There was no shortage of things to discover. However, one thing in particular stood out to me—something that most Americans simply take for granted—I was amazed to discover how much my local library offered the community and me.
I spent many hours at the library. The staff was always welcoming, hanging out there did not cost any money, and it was an incredible source for meeting people and learning about local events and resources. I was struggling to feel comfortable reading, writing, and speaking English. The library was a remarkable place for me in an often chaotic and overwhelming world.
My passion for books and community outreach inspired me to continue pushing forward. It came as no surprise that, years later, I chose to pursue a career as a community librarian, a position where I could welcome strangers, excite people about books, share local resources, and shepherd new Americans.
This path, though, was not easy for me.
I applied to Queensborough Community College for a two-year Associates Degree. I was anxious about tackling a four-year degree and the tuition costs would have been so much higher. At school, I took classes and worked part-time, leaving me precious little free time, but wherever I could, I visited my local library. I loved borrowing materials in my native language, Bengali. I cherished those free library materials.
During my second year in college, I got a job as a Customer Service Representative in the library. Within a year, I was promoted to a Customer Service Supervisor in the Catalog Department. After I completed my MLIS, I was offered a Supervising Librarian position. As a supervising librarian and cataloger in a public library system, I am always excited to work with international materials. I catalog books and other items in Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, and Punjabi. I have now been working in a public library in Queens for 17 years.
I particularly enjoy bilingual children’s books. A bilingual title gives young new Americans and their families the wonderful opportunities for children to read in English while parents read in their native language — and then they can all talk about it. And, it also encourages native English speakers to explore a new language.
One of the fun things about being a librarian is connecting with other groups who promote literacy and a passion for reading. For instance, Reach Out and Read of Greater New York partners with healthcare providers to have them “prescribe” books for children. They also connect the children with local librarians, who help the families sign up for library cards and story times. During the pandemic, they, along with Ferst Readers, WNET, and the Children’s Museum of the Arts prepared “take care kits” with cleaning supplies, PPE, children’s books, activity books, and art supplies for families who tested positive for COVID-19 and were quarantined at home. It is wonderful to be a part of the village that helps ensure the children have access to quality books.
Recently, I was offered the chance to translate two children’s books from English to Bengali. Reach Out and Read of Greater NY had collaborated with Platypus Media, a Washington, D.C. publisher, to make some of their books available to children in the New York Bangladeshi community. They needed a Bengali native speaker who was familiar with the local community to assist in the translation. The translations had to be both accurate and meaningful for children. I was thrilled to take on this challenge. This was my first time translating a book from start to finish. It used my skills as a Bengali speaker and as an international language materials cataloger.
There are many challenges when serving a diverse population. One is finding books that speak to each community. Another is cataloging myriad language materials. I mostly deal with non-roman characters, and have to struggle to display them correctly. My library catalogs all international languages following the LC Romanization table along with the original scripts. Even if I enter them correctly, often those original scripts do not display correctly on the OPAC or in other public-using devices where specific software is not available. Catalogers need more convenient tools to translate those non-roman characters and suitable fonts to display them correctly.
I have been in the United States now for almost 22 years. While I am technically not a new American any more, I am committed to do what I can to help new — and existing — Americans know what resources are available in the many languages spoken in my community.
I love being a librarian in the most diverse city in this country and hope that I inspire today’s youngsters, no matter what their original language, to love books and treasure their local library.
Our guest blogger today is Shahnoor Islam. Shahnoor is a Bangladeshi-American who has worked for Queens Public Library since 2005. She is the Supervising Librarian/Cataloger at Metadata Services, TSD. Shahnoor lives in Queens, NY with her husband and two children, Ariana and Arshan. She can be reached at ShahnoorSIslam@gmail.com.
The two books Shahnoor translated into Bengali are available from National Book Network, Baker and Taylor, Ingram, Brodart, and all major library suppliers.
Please note that as a guest post, the views expressed here do not represent the official position of ALA or ALSC.
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