12 Apr 2021

Libraries of Sanctuary: Supporting Migrant Communities

Guest post by Louise Cooke-Escapil  Louise works as a Library Assistant at Maynooth University Library. She is interested in the social impact of libraries.


Introduction 

The City of Sanctuary is a collection of groups across the UK and Ireland - including theatres, schools, colleges, universities, churches, and gardens - that aim to build a culture of inclusiveness for incoming migrants. Specific organizations involved include Places of Sanctuary Ireland and, as of June 2020, Libraries of Sanctuary. The Library of Sanctuary title is awarded to libraries working to fill gaps in provision of information and resources to refugees and asylum seekers. Libraries playing this role is not novel, however the introduction of this title is a welcome step towards further developing public library services for those who may otherwise be left unseen.


Proto-Library of Sanctuary

It was this aspect of libraries working as powerful regenerative educational institutions that first drew me into librarianship as a profession in 2015. My first paid library job was in the Public Information Library in the Pompidou Centre in Paris. This experience shaped how I think about libraries and showed me the important social role they can play in people’s lives. In 2015, a new wave of migration into Europe had reached an all-time high. I worked in the autodidactic section of the library, where patrons came to borrow materials to help them learn new skills, such as driving, study skills for secondary school exams, or, most frequently, learning a language. I found myself working in a library in France that had more resources on learning Irish than my local library had back home in Ireland. If people chose to, they could borrow materials on learning up to 250 languages, including Sámi, Zulu, and Navajo to name a few. This section of the library also had a huge variety of materials, from books to CDs, DVDs, computer programmes, newspapers, magazines, and TV channels from 11 different countries.


Photograph: Pixabay


During the year I worked in the library, I realised how necessary this service was to many of the patrons. Before taking up this post, I had experienced language learning in a very different context. Learning a language was something people did out of love of the language or to be able to travel with greater ease. Now, many of the patrons who regularly came to my desk came to learn French out of necessity. Often, patrons could not speak French or English and did not have the means to ask for what they were looking for in the library. Word must have travelled and as more patrons would come up to our desk we quickly learnt to adapt. Myself and my desk colleagues started to keep a list of languages at the desk, each language written in its own script. We would ask the patron to go through the list until they identified a language, be it Arabic, Pashtu, Urdu, Farsi, or any of the other dozen languages we had listed. Once we had determined the patron’s mother tongue, we would find language-learning materials for them and set them up at a work desk. Eventually, those who kept returning would be able to ask for the materials they wanted in French. It was so rewarding to see patrons’ progress month by month as they moved on to more difficult materials, grew more confident in their abilities, and became more fluent in French.


Home to Ireland

After my time in France, I worked for a short spell at King’s College London. That was cut short by COVID-19. In January of this year, I took up a post in Engagement and Information Services (EIS) at Maynooth University. Returning to Ireland, I was delighted to see similar work to that I had encountered in Paris. Last year, Maynooth University became a University of Sanctuary and we currently have three students who live in Direct Provision undertaking degrees.


Libraries of Sanctuary

New initiatives such as Libraries of Sanctuary are encouraging libraries across the UK and Ireland to strengthen their services to refugees and asylum seekers. Like the Public Information Library in Paris, Libraries of Sanctuary have identified a new need, particularly pronounced over the last few decades, to pay particular attention to emerging communities in their locale, as well as existing ones. A resource pack, created by John Vincent, was released in June 2020 which gives libraries interested in this initiative a roadmap towards being recognised as a Library of Sanctuary.


The first Irish library to qualify for this title was Portlaoise Library on the 10th of March 2020. Librarians worked with communities from the local Direct Provision Centre to foster a space where everyone in the community could find tools and resources which were tailored to them (City of Sanctuary, 2021). At the award ceremony, County Librarian Bernie Folan said on the day;


“Places of Sanctuary is a movement that seeks to promote a culture of welcome in every sphere of society, a network of places of sanctuary where refugees and migrants are welcomed and included. We know that newcomers have a lot to offer, and we believe that as barriers come down and connections are made, the whole of society benefits” (Kiernan, 2020)


Photograph: cityofsanctuary.org


Going Forward

Libraries are in a unique position in that they are situated in almost every village and town in Ireland. Library staff are reaching out to migrant communities in their area and provide much needed services. They are a bridge for new communities, providing services to all. The first library to be awarded this the title of Library of Sanctuary, Thimblemill Library in the West Midlands in England, offered a number of services to emerging communities in their area such as ESOL classes for those who wanted to improve their English, welfare and asylum sessions to help with the mental and physical impacts seeking asylum can cause, and “Welcome to Your Area” events that aim to introduce locals to each other and allow newcomers to feel welcome (Vincent & Clark, 2020). It’s exciting to see this work being recognised and encouraged in libraries. Over the next few years, I hope many more libraries all over Ireland will continue to develop their services for refugees and asylum seekers. Public libraries have a key role in creating an inclusive and welcoming society.


More information on moving forward with qualifying for the title of Library of Sanctuary can be found at the Irish City of Sanctuary group’s contact us page. The Library Association of Ireland’s Career Development Group will also be holding an information evening later this year where John Vincent, the creator of the Libraries of Sanctuary resource pack, along with other speakers, will discuss the process of qualifying for the Library of Sanctuary title. In order to be the first to hear about booking information for this event, be sure to sign up to the LAI’s Career Development Group’s mailing list, or follow them on Twitter and Facebook.


References

Kiernan, L., 2020. Launch: Multicultural Portlaoise to receive Library of Sanctuary award. [online] Leinsterexpress.ie. [Accessed 9 March 2021].


Places of Sanctuary Ireland. 2021. Portlaoise Celebrates Ireland’s First Library of Sanctuary. [online] [Accessed 9 March 2021].


Sinnott Solicitors. 2015. Direct Provision 'A Severe Violation of Human Rights' - Sinnott Solicitors. [online]  [Accessed 9 March 2021].


Vincent, J., 2020. Libraries of Sanctuary Resource Pack. [ebook] City of Sanctuary. Available at: [Accessed 9 March 2021].


Vincent, J. and Clark, B., 2020. Libraries of Sanctuary. Alexandria: The Journal of National and International Library and Information Issues, 30(1), pp.6-7.


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