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THE NATION | DISPATCH FROM FLUSHING, N.Y.

Library is a portal for immigrants

The busiest branch of the nation's busiest system helps new arrivals learn to fathom their adopted language and country.

June 22, 2008|Louise Roug | Times Staff Writer

FLUSHING, N.Y. — The Queens Library branch here sits at the intersection of five avenues, amid an array of Afghan, Indian, Korean and Vietnamese businesses in this busy borough downtown.

It's an appropriate spot for a library whose clientele is overwhelmingly made up of immigrants from Asia and whose purpose is the intersection of conventional book and information services and help for the newly arrived.

To Paul Xinye Qiu, the library's assistant manager, the Queens Library is more than a place to borrow books. "It's a portal," he says.

Every day, more than 5,000 people walk through the doors of this branch in Flushing. The Queens Library system is the busiest in the nation, and the Flushing branch is the busiest in the system.

They come to study English, to get help with health insurance, to learn how to start their own business.

They come, in short, to connect with America.

"It helps people living in a foreign country not to feel so isolated," said Qiu, who hails from Shanghai. The library offers books and movies in English and about 50 other languages.

Last year, borrowers checked out more than 2.3 million items from the Flushing library, including books, tapes and movies. By comparison, the busiest branch in the Los Angeles County system, Valencia, gets about 1,000 visits daily, and a spokeswoman said that last year it circulated 775,000 items.

In Flushing, the number of Latinos has long since been eclipsed by the number of Asians, who now constitute more than 60% of the population. In fact, the borough of Queens is changing so quickly that the Queens Library system keeps a full-time demographer on staff to track population movement.

"You can find any ethnic group here," said Lacey Chan, who compiles the demographic statistics for the library. Chan lived in the neighborhood for 10 years after arriving from Hong Kong in 1995.

"Flushing has everything," she said, then paused, and added with a small laugh: "The thing is, if you want to find an American restaurant, it may not be that easy."

The library building's curved glass front resembles the prow of a ship sailing past the Amerasia Bank across the way. Chiseled into the well-worn stairs outside the library are titles of books in Russian, Arabic, Chinese and English.

In part, the library resembles a bookstore with bestsellers and new fiction displayed prominently. "We have good feng shui," Qiu jokes.

Behind him on the wall is a watercolor of the library on a traditional Chinese scroll, created by a patron. It includes cranes and deer -- Chinese symbols for happiness and prosperity.

Yet though the library has the atmosphere of a vital place, it's not as prosperous as it used to be, Qiu said.

Pressed by the weakening economy, the city has less money for public programs this year and the Queens Library system faces a proposed budget cut of $6.9 million, a reduction that could result in shorter hours and fewer new books on the shelves.

Qiu hopes that a program to raise money in conjunction with private partners will help ease the financial crunch, which arrives at a time when demand at the library continues to rise.

On a recent afternoon, a dozen people, including women in saris and burkas, stood in line in front of the checkout counter, many with their arms full of books. Next to the windows, posters advertised events such as a workshop for immigrants on access to healthcare, an afternoon of Cuban folk music, a discussion of the international implications of Taiwan's presidential election, and a lecture on Yiddish sayings and imagery. In every chair was a reader.

Downstairs, Alla Osokina, a librarian originally from Tajikistan, directed English-language classes with the help of another librarian from Turkey and an army of volunteer mentors. Osokina said that her Persian language skills were useful when dealing with Afghan visitors.

"Many who come here have never even seen a computer before," she said of the 500 or so students currently studying English at the library.

In one class nearby, seven Asian women took turns reading aloud. There was some confusion about the word "proud."

"Is anyone a citizen?" the teacher asked, and several hands went up. "How did you feel when you became a citizen?"

"Proud," the students intoned as one.

Outside the classroom, Zou Hui Ying, 74, was immersed in course work. She read, then wrote down passages and questions. "At the end of the continental shelf, the bottom of the ocean suddenly drops away," she had noted on a piece of paper. Beneath it, she had scribbled, "drops away?"

Ying came from China in 1993 and became a citizen last year. Her son and her daughter preceded her, both taking jobs as engineers. Ying had studied every day at the library for a year. Her goal: to learn English well enough to understand American television shows. "Now, maybe I understand 30%," she said. "If I can understand 90%, I will be very happy."

Jasmin Bano, 41, from Pakistan, wanted to learn English so she could understand her children's teachers.

Coming to the library, she expanded first her vocabulary, then her social circle. Now, she said, "I come to talk to my friends."

She surveyed the mix of people around her: "I like it here."

--

louise.roug@latimes.com

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