North Hill library acts as hub of services for those new to U.S.

By Jenna Bal

The North Hill library has a collection of dual-language children’s books in languages such as Nepali, Farsi and Chinese. Branch Manager Katie Hughes hopes to have a collection of adult books in the languages most often spoken in North Hill in the near future. Photo by Jenna Bal.

When Maurice moved from Mexico to the North Hill area of Akron about one year ago, he felt like he was starting a new life. 

“It’s all different,” Maurice said, “country, language. It’s another life completely.” 

Maurice, referred to only by his first name for privacy, moved to North Hill when his wife started a new job in the area. Originally from California, his wife and her family were able to speak English easily. But as a second language for Maurice, English was more challenging. 

Motivated by his desire to communicate with his wife’s family and make friends in his new home, Maurice started taking English as a second language classes at the North Hill branch of the Akron-Summit County Public Library system. 

“I like coming to English class … because at my work, I don’t have this conversation,” he said. “All the time it’s in Spanish, so when I come here my head is changed.”

But the North Hill library offers more than just ESOL classes; it serves as a hub of resources for refugees and immigrants in the North Hill neighborhood by providing services to help them establish a life in the United States. 

This is a vibrant hub for immigrants and refugees, and we are in this neighborhood, so we need to serve the neighbors.

Katie Hughes, North Hill library Branch Manager

Although the library looks like so many others with spacious ceilings, brick walls and lots of windows to let in the sunshine, the specific way it caters to the community makes it unique to the area.

“Every library looks so different because they are there to work with the community in which they’re situated. Every community has a different population, different needs,” said North Hill Branch Manager Katie Hughes. “This is a vibrant hub for immigrants and refugees, and we are in this neighborhood, so we need to serve the neighbors.”

Hughes received her bachelor’s degree in journalism before earning her master’s degree in library science. She is passionate about everyone having equal access to the information they need.

“A lot of what I liked about journalism is that it helps people stay well informed. Access to information about what is happening in the world is important,” Hughes said. “This is one of the cornerstones of librarianship: providing access to information.”

Access to information is especially important to refugees and immigrants arriving in the United States who are trying to locate basic needs such as food, housing and employment. But because many of these applications are located online, access to this information is limited, Hughes said. This is one reason why the library’s computers are beneficial to those new to the United States. Patrons can use the computers for up to three hours a day to fill out important applications, and librarians are available to help navigate the process. 

“A lot of the work we do out at the desk is tech help, whether people are English speakers or not,” Hughes said. 

Patrons can use the library’s computers for up to three hours a day. Branch Manager Katie Hughes said immigrants they can be used to fill out applications needed to access housing, food or employment. Photo by Jenna Bal.

There is also a translation scanner with 64 language options available to help read patrons’ documents. 

“You can scan from other languages to English and English to other languages,” Hughes said. “It’s not 100% accurate, but it can help out a lot if you’re struggling to understand the English text or a reasonable [translation] to another language.”

Library card applications are available in Karen, Nepali, Burmese and Spanish for patrons who do not read English. Applications in Pashto, Swahili and Arabic are also in the works, Hughes said.

“We used translators from ASIA [Asian Services in Action] to translate the three new applications,” she said. 

This is only one example of the library collaborating with outside organizations. It also extends its space for organizations to host events. Teaming up with nonprofits and government agencies allows the library to have a further reach, Hughes said.

“A lot of it is working with community engagement partners,” she said. “By making each other aware of our services and programs, they help spread the word to their clients, and we can tell our patrons about services they have.”

Hughes started working at the North Hill branch in January 2022 after transferring from the Nordonia Hills branch because she is “an Akronite at heart,” she said. “I also have history in North Hill. My grandma lived here for decades until she passed.”

But Hughes said she is still learning more about the area which is why working with outside partners is so beneficial. 

“They have welcomed me and helped me get to know the neighborhood,” she said. “And our shared goals make collaborating to improve programs and services for our community a rewarding … experience.”

The ESOL class Maurice takes through Project Learn of Summit County is another example of the library teaming up with a community engagement partner. 

“We help the local community, and in turn, they give us the locations so we can help,” said Joshua O’Connor, a Project Learn teacher. 

I am so happy for the different people and the different countries.

ricardo, ESOL Student from the Dominican Republic

An “English for Beginners” class is taught in the library’s conference room Tuesday and Thursday from 5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Several large tables are pushed together to create a larger space where students gather around, sitting across from each other.

“We like to retain as many people as possible, yet we also encourage new people all the time,” O’Connor said. “Some of these classes do build upon each other. We get to watch these people grow in front of our eyes over months and years.”

Ricardo, referred to by his first name for privacy, is one of these students. He said he goes to class almost every week. Originally from the Dominican Republic, Ricardo moved here to be near his wife and her daughter. 

“Here I am so happy,” said Ricardo referring to ESOL classes at the library. “I am so happy for the different people and the different countries.”

The library is also providing a space for the Akron International Institute’s ESOL and citizenship classes while the nonprofit moves locations.

Recently, the Summit County Department of Job and Family Services has started to host open house hours at four ASCPL locations including North Hill. The department is on a rotating schedule offering hours at the North Hill branch every fourth Tuesday from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Hughes said the library is constantly evolving its services. Right now, dual-language children’s books in Nepali, Farsi, Chinese and more are offered on a shelf in the colorful children’s section. Signs indicating language categorize each chunk of stories. In the future, Hughes hopes to have a collection of adult books in the languages most often spoken in North Hill. 

“That might look like working with Cleveland Public Library to get a rotating collection, but that’s still in the planning stages,” Hughes said. 

The staff of the North Hill library will also be going through cultural competency training with Akron International Institute to better understand their patrons’ different situations. 

“It’s to help us understand that each set of arrivals has such a different set of challenges. They may have been in a refugee camp, or maybe they were highly educated and had to leave suddenly,” Hughes said. “Everyone’s situation is so different, so I think in order to serve people better, we need to understand those different challenges in a more comprehensive way.”

She has high hopes for the library and its continued involvement in the immigrant and refugee communities, Hughes said.

“I’m just excited to see how we can expand our services to serve the neighborhood in the best way we can.” 

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