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Library Bridges Gap to Latinos : Education: Staff reaches out to immigrants with Spanish-language materials and computer programs that teach English.


ECHO PARK — Alejandro Cervantes had never been to a public library before he came to Los Angeles from Mexico three years ago, speaking almost no English.

But last year, an Echo Park Branch librarian came to Cervantes' English-as-a-Second-Language class at Belmont High School to tell the students about the library's computer center, where Apple Macintosh computers were helping native Spanish speakers improve their English vocabulary.

Cervantes, 18, has been a library regular ever since.

Cervantes is one of the people that Echo Park Branch librarians are talking about with pride as they conclude a three-year campaign to promote library use within Echo Park's Latino community.

The library was one of three branches of the city library system to receive a state grant earmarked for "building bridges to underserved, or never-served communities," branch Manager Sylvia Galan said. Branches in Watts and Koreatown received similar grants.

With $160,000 over three years, the Echo Park library staff mounted an aggressive outreach and built up its collection of Spanish-language books, magazines and videotapes in the hope of drawing the Spanish-speaking immigrants who live around the tiny branch.

In developing the program, the librarians worked closely with Latino community leaders and also conducted a community survey, in which area residents expressed a desire for more English-as-a-Second-Language and Spanish-language materials.

By any measure, the campaign--dubbed "Biblioteca Para Todos"--has been a success. Annual book circulation has increased 79%, Galan said. The number of cardholders has jumped 33%. Between 80% and 90% of the new cardholders are Latino, including many immigrants like Cervantes.

"For too long these people were not served," Galan said. "Many of them did not have any history of public library usage because there were no public libraries in their country of origin."

Blanca Leal, who was hired with grant money as an outreach coordinator, said many Latino immigrants think they can use the library only if they are citizens or legal residents. Others fear that Immigration and Naturalization Service agents will track them down if they register for a library card, Leal said.

But in talks to English classes at eight area adult schools, Leal said she tried to reassure immigrants that they and their families are welcome at the library and that their names and addresses would be kept confidential.

"Anybody can have a library card," Leal said. "They are here, and they are working and if they want to better themselves, they should have that opportunity."

Leal will be leaving the library in the fall, when the money for her salary dries up, but she said other librarians are prepared to continue with her work.

Karen Jaeger, secretary of the Friends of the Echo Park Library, said the support group is pleased by the outreach effort to the Latino community.

"The library can't just preserve and enshrine the Anglo culture," she said. "It has to be a laboratory for the new culture that is emerging in our city, if our city is going to work."

One of the most effective aspects of the recruitment effort was the library's purchase of three Macintosh computers, with software packages designed to teach English as a second language.

"Everybody knows we are in the computer age, and most of these Latino immigrants can't even imagine that they would ever have access to computers," Galan said. "It's definitely something we used as bait."

City Librarian Elizabeth Martinez-Smith said many people struggling to learn English enjoy working with the computer because when they make mistakes, only the computer knows.

"The fact that you can learn on your own, within your own schedule is appealing," Martinez-Smith said, adding that she wished the city library system had the money to buy computers for every branch.

The three computers at Echo Park are only available to the public every night from 5 p.m. until the library closes at 8, because there is no one to supervise the computer center at other hours. Leal said "they are in use constantly."

However, librarians said they are training high school students, including Cervantes, as volunteers to expand the center hours.

The computers are also available to high school students preparing reports or papers, and younger children working on their math skills. But Leal, who supervises the computer center, said patrons who come to work on the English-as-a-Second-Language programs are always given top priority.

Since learning about the library's computers a year ago, Cervantes has been a regular visitor, using them to increase his command of English vocabulary and grammar.

When he started, Cervantes said, he came to the center two or three times a week and worked on the computer for two or three hours at a time. Now, the young man teaches others to use the machines.

The work has paid off.

Leal, who has monitored his progress, said Cervantes has "improved so much in his writing, and in his reading. He's gotten way better grades."

And last semester, Cervantes passed an English proficiency test to switch out of the English-as-a-Second-Language program into regular English classes.

Still, he said, he continues to practice on the computers.

"Here, I feel like I have the future in my hands," he said.

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