On Multilingual Libraries.

David Crystal says he wanted to call his post “On multilingual libraries,” but he only knew of one, “the one I visited last Thursday in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. There ought to be one in every city where there are multilingual communities — which means all of them.” It astonished me that as far as he knew there was only one in England; as John Cowan points out in the first comment, the Queens Public Library has 12% of its holdings in languages other than English, for a total of about 60 languages, and of course my beloved Donnell Branch of the NYPL was a model in this regard (and cursed be those who moved its bones!). There is much of interest in both article and comments, though (as John points out) there is also some tosh about the alleged cognitive advantages of bilingualism.


  1. Huh? Every place I’ve lived in England had a library with a section devoted to books in other languages (as does our local library in France). Perhaps he means something larger-scale, like a library evenly divided between several different languages.

  2. Yeah, I wondered about that, but I figured he’s David Crystal, he must know whereof he speaks! Maybe this one is just way more impressive than the others he’s seen. Or maybe he doesn’t visit many libraries?

  3. Crystal is a raconteur, and perhaps, like Macaulay, not above sacrificing a fact to an antithesis (or other rhetorical flower). But his comment clarifies things a bit: he’s talking about libraries that are by intention predominantly multilingual, rather than libraries that have some books in other languages. I think some of the Queens branches I mentioned qualify on that score. Also interesting is the comment by David Crosbie: most non-English books in English-language libraries are “recreational” in nature, neither non-fiction nor classic literature.

  4. In public libraries in Sweden, books in English and Swedish are not segregated. Well, maybe in the children’s section they are.

  5. J. W. Brewer says

    One can find anecdotal reports in news stories that specific branch libraries in Queens have 25% or so of their holdings in non-English languages, but quick googling doesn’t reveal any that have majority non-English holdings. And in non-Anglophone-immigrant-heavy neighborhoods one of the more important functions (not the only one) of the public library is making English-language material available to kids whose immigrant LEP-at-best parents are unlikely to have much in the house — including “adult” English-language material for the benefit of kids whose interests and ambitions outstrip the age-segregated offerings that may be available to them in a school library.

  6. The picture in DC’s post shows the sign “Multilingual Library” over the door. I have never seen a dedicated institution such as that before but as others have pointed out most UK libraries have a selection of foreign language books, the size and breadth of which will depend on demand from the local community.

  7. J. W. Brewer says

    I’m wondering how far back in time one would need to go to find a college/university library in the English-speaking world where foreign-language texts (primarily Latin/Greek) outnumbered English-language texts. 18th century? Maybe early 19th? (Let’s exclude e.g. rabbinical schools, pre-Vatican-II RC seminaries and suchlike out-of-the-mainstream specialized places — whatever would have been a library of a mainstream educational institution of the day.)

  8. I’ve posted on the library’s Facebook page to ask them for statistics on how many books they have in what languages. The home page has a list of languages, but no indication of their relative consequence in the holdings.

  9. Let us know what you find out.

  10. J. W. Brewer:
    Counting English vs. non-English is not that easy. What about bilingual facing texts like the Loeb Classical Library and its Mediaeval and Renaissance offshoots? There are also a few Penguins and a lot of Aris & Phillipses in the same category, with Greek or Latin, Spanish or French or whatever on the left-hand pages, English translation on the right. In each case the primary text – what the reader is presumably most interested in – is not in English, but more than 50% of the total is in English, when we count the introduction and footnotes. So, do these count as non-English, or are they prorated as half or 45% of a foreign-language book? How about a Latin text with a detailed English-language commentary? Even counting the lemmas and the parallel passages quoted in the commentary, the whole thing may be only 15-20% Latin, with most of the rest English, though there are often parallels in untranslated Greek as well.
    Not that I’m implying there’s any easy answer: just noting that English vs non-English is not a clear binary distinction.

  11. While that’s a valid point, I suspect the number of such texts is small enough not to affect the totals significantly.

  12. J. W. Brewer says

    I expect such facing-page translations etc also became more of a thing at a more recent point in time when you could be reasonably confident that the collection as a whole was >50% English. I’m thinking back to the long-since-gone point where some level of reading proficiency in Latin (and Greek in some places) was an admissions requirement for schools, such that if you were the target audience of the given library you could be presumed able to function without English notes/annotations/etc.

  13. David Marjanović says

    immigrant LEP-at-best parents

    Lateral exposure of the palatine?

  14. They say they doesn’t know and they doesn’t want to know; they may get round to it someday, but if not, not.

  15. At least “they” internalized singular they to a remarkable degree.

  16. I was parodying Gollum saying “We doesn’t know and we doesn’t want to know”.

  17. “In public libraries in Sweden, books in English and Swedish are not segregated. Well, maybe in the children’s section they are.”

    Not really. General fiction and any sufficiently large section is segregated.

  18. I did eventually hear back from the library: about 1/3 of their books are in English, which is very different from Queens Public Library branches which are, in the most radical case, still 3/4 English. Many of the English-language books are about linguistics or other languages, or the history and culture of non-anglophone countries.

  19. Interesting; thanks for checking and reporting back.


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