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Language Becomes Less of a Barrier as Collections Grow : Libraries Expanding Services to Asians

September 14, 1986|BOB WILLIAMS | Times Staff Writer

Tina Chen began learning English as a seventh grader in her native Taiwan and she has lived in the United States for seven years with her engineer husband, William, and their two children.

But even though she reads and speaks her second language fluently and feels she has been "Americanized," Chen still heads for the Asian-language section of the Henderson Library in west Torrance in her visits there several times a week.

"It helps relieve the feeling of homesickness when I can go to a place where the books and magazines are in Chinese and I can read about what's happening back home," she said.

"I spent the first 30 years of my life in Taiwan, so those roots go pretty deep. My children, of course, prefer to read in English, since they have spent most of their lives in this country."

Henderson's collection of about 1,500 Asian-language books is typical of the effort being made in many South Bay libraries to expand their services to the area's rapidly increasing Asian population.

In Torrance, about 10,000 volumes--mostly paperbacks in Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese--are available at the Civic Center library and five branches, said Lilian Hung, Henderson's senior librarian who oversees the system's Asian-language collection.

"When I started with the library in 1975, there were very few Asian books in any of the branches," said Hung, who speaks Chinese. "We started acquiring books on a $200-a-year budget, but as more Asian people have moved in, our budget has grown to $10,000."

Hung said about 40% of Henderson's patrons are Asians and the proportion often rises to around 90% in the late afternoon when schoolchildren join adults to study there and check out books and other materials.

The high percentage, she said, reflects the large number of Asians who have settled in the neighborhood around Henderson, as well as the enthusiasm that Asians traditionally have for reading and education in general.

"Whenever we get in some new books, the word gets around and suddenly the place is packed," she said.

Hung said donations from Friends of the Torrance Library financed the expansion of the Asian collection until money was provided in the regular city budget two years ago. City Librarian James Buckley noted that the current level of $10,000 is still a small fraction of the system's total book-buying budget of $215,000.

"We would like to do more, but our resources are limited and we do need to maintain our English collections," he said.

Torrance's Asian population was about 11% in 1980, according to the U.S. census in that year, and various unofficial estimates indicate that the percentage may have increased to as much as 16% since then.

The county's Asian population, which doubled between 1970 and 1980, nearly doubled again to 800,000 residents by 1985, or 10% of the total, according to census figures and recent United Way estimates.

Dorothy Uebele, director of the Palos Verdes Library District, also noted a "tremendous growth in the Asian population" in the four Peninsula cities served by the independent library system.

"Asians are still a minority, but the number is growing and we are sensitive to their needs," she said. However, she added, the district's annual budget for new books has been slashed to $150,000--down from $250,000 in previous years--and the library has only about 1,000 Asian-language books in its collection of 250,000 volumes.

She said a loan agreement with the Los Angeles Public Library, which has a large collection of Asian books, helps expand the number of works available to Peninsula readers.

Ruth Venerable, head librarian at the county regional library in Carson, said county libraries in the South Bay also have attempted to keep pace with the growing number of Asian patrons in recent years.

'Real Melting Pots'

"But I'd have to say that we're still down around 2%" in Asian-language volumes, she said. "Carson and some of these other communities, like Gardena, Lawndale and Hawthorne, are real melting pots, so we have a real challenge in adapting to changes in our readership."

Besides budget and space limitations, she said, a shortage of librarians who speak and read Asian languages tends to hinder efforts to expand services to Asian readers.

Much of the growth in Asian-language collections has been attributed to Project ASIA, a collecting and cataloguing service housed at the Huntington Park Library. With 13 staff members and an annual budget of $500,000, the county-administered program buys popular Asian-language books, prepares them for use with library card-catalog and computer systems, and ships them to the libraries that order and pay for them.

The Peninsula district and the county system are among ASIA's customers in the South Bay. The Torrance Library used the service for several years, but dropped it when the acquisition and cataloguing cost rose to $7.50 a book.

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