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Border Issues Cause More Than Whispers at Libraries

In suburban Atlanta, outcry and applause follow a decision to cut funds for Spanish titles.

June 25, 2006|Jenny Jarvie | Times Staff Writer

NORCROSS, Ga. — Carlos Gonzalez scanned Norcross Public Library's thin shelves of Spanish-language fiction: There were no works by Isabel Allende or Octavio Paz or even Miguel de Cervantes.

The Salvadoran immigrant, 33, who visits the library to check his e-mail and read the online version of El Salvador's daily newspaper, El Diario de Hoy, chuckled as he looked at the translated works of J.K. Rowling and Stephen King.

"For me, I don't have a lot of options here," Gonzalez said last week, after checking out "El Alquimista" by Paul Coelho, which he had read before. "It's just a little collection."

There are 798 Spanish-language adult fiction books and CDs dispersed among the 13 public libraries of Gwinnett County, a suburban Atlanta area with more than 105,000 Latino residents.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday June 27, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Spanish titles in libraries: An article in Sunday's Section A about a suburban Atlanta county library system's decision to stop buying novels written in or translated into Spanish said Paul Coelho wrote "El Alquimista." The author is Paulo Coelho.

Four months after introducing Spanish adult fiction to library shelves, the Gwinnett County Public Library Board recently dropped its $3,000 budget for adding more titles in the coming year.

Amid the ongoing national debate about illegal immigration, some Gwinnett residents question whether their public libraries should provide materials and services to immigrants.

In turn, many librarians across the country fear that Gwinnett County's decision sets a dangerous precedent for the nation's public libraries.

"Shame on them," said UCLA librarian Gary E. Strong, who has worked as state librarian of California and head of Queens Borough Public Library in New York. "The mission of the public library is to serve everyone in the community. It has nothing to do with whether they are legal or illegal, or speak English or not."

Illegal immigration is a thorny issue in Gwinnett, a rapidly developing county that is home to the largest Latino population in Georgia; from 1990 to 2004, Latinos climbed from 2.9% to 15% of the overall population.

When Spanish-language editions of "Harry Potter" books and Harlequin romance novels began to appear on library shelves, some residents were startled.

"I would like to register my discontent with the purchase of pleasure reading materials in any language other than English," a resident wrote to the board in April. "While it is true that Gwinnett County is a melting pot, it is the American way to learn English and to assimilate to our culture, not to make it easy for those who may not be proficient in English.... Hopefully no more purchases of this type will be made using our tax dollars."

Although the Spanish adult fiction is popular -- 40% of the 798 works were checked out last week, compared with 37% of the overall collection of 859,699 books -- Lloyd Breck, chairman of the library board, said the decision to stop buying such books was "very simple." The budget would not accommodate every foreign language, he said, and the board did not want to privilege one language over another.

"We're not trying to be rude to anyone," Breck said. "We just didn't want to start buying pleasure reading materials in Spanish at the exclusion of other languages. We have so many communities of immigrants here: Chinese, Koreans and Cambodians."

But Brett Taylor, a board member who said he did not agree with cutting Spanish-language fiction, said the decision was shaped by broader concerns about the influx of Spanish-speaking immigrants.

"The discussion was that we didn't need to be buying Spanish material for a population that needed to be encouraged to speak English," Taylor said.

And so the quiet libraries of Gwinnett County entered the blaring national debate on illegal immigration. An editorial in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution condemned the board's decision as "a political gesture, a rude one, toward Hispanics," and the board received scores of e-mails from across the country.

One of the first to e-mail was Julie Leto Klapka, a Latina author of Harlequin novels, who said Latino residents worked hard in the U.S. and had every right to escape through fiction.

"There's this assumption that all immigrants are poor people who live 20 to a trailer and don't deserve to read novels for fun in their native languages," she said. "That offends me. Why should Hispanic readers be treated any differently than white readers, or redneck readers, or whatever they are?"

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Assn. of Latino Elected Officials, said Gwinnett County had a large and growing number of Latino residents who paid income, property and sales taxes and who should, in turn, be served by public libraries.

Gwinnett County is not the first place to debate public library services for immigrants.

Last summer, opponents of illegal immigration gathered outside Denver Public Library to call for the resignation of the city librarian, who they said was providing services for illegal immigrants at taxpayers' expense.

In April, Republican Colorado Assemblyman David Schultheis, attempted -- unsuccessfully -- to persuade the state Legislature to prevent public libraries from purchasing any materials, besides textbooks, in a language other than English.

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