In the beginning there was the word - or is?
Libraries made an integration virtue out of linguistic necessity
"My parents are illiterate - we didn't have any other books than the Koran at home." That's off to a good start is something you may think when you hear such a sentence. Luckily, you're put right soon afterwards. The sentence comes from Hatice Akyün who is a writer ("Einmal Hans mit scharfer Sosse") and newspaper columnist. A rare career? Yes, of course. Yet a good example for what libraries provide: "When I was little, I waited for the library bus to arrive in our street so that I could borrow books every Thursday", says Akyün about her childhood in Duisburg in the early 1970ies. It was the local library that got her to learn German with the help of Grimm's fairy tales. And this works to the day.
It formed the "centre of its zone of influence" and fulfilled its special role as library in a perfect way because it was the "place to go for all citizens in every age group and of any origin", reads the appreciation of the German Library Association.
There are about 11,000 libraries in Germany that record more than 200 million visits. This means that every citizen visits a library 2.5 times a year - from baby to old man. This number includes students, some of which seem to live in the library, but also the up to four million illiterates that live in Germany. But what are they looking for in a library? They are looking to borrow DVDs and computer games. In the past forty years, the early libraries have developed into media and event houses where people gather and even have coffee. Today, libraries are communication centres that play an important role in man communities. And they see themselves as "learning spaces."
The "Library of the Year" 2011 in Northrhine-Westphalia found a good example for it. Yet not in a metropolis with the supposedly so integrative melting-pot character but quite at the edge of the usual media-based attention: in Bergkamen. The library's director Wolfgang Vogelmann has created an entire network of institutions and people - from children's physicians to midwives to kindergardens and the youth authority - who care for the linguistic and reading abilities of young children under six years of age in the city that counts 50,000 inhabitants.
During his attendance of the various conferences, meetings and workshops for the area of linguistic education, Vogelmann realised that most concepts only started from compulsory school age. When hosting events at "his" library, he realised that many young children of Turkish decent didn't even know easy substantives - neither in Turkish nor in German. With a colleague from the youth welfare office and an expert from the education scene, Vogelmann started developing a concept for early linguistic promotion that wanted to involve many local multipliers. With excellent lobby work, he managed to get it through the city council: an intercultural linguistic education plan for Bergkamen with the will and the support of politics.
A benchmark for good books
The family office of the community plays a role in it: The workers visit the parents of all newborn babies and give them a "BuchStabPäckchen" (letter pack; translators note). This involves a small benchmark that does not only show the physical growth meter of the offspring but also the matching recommendation for great reading material. With the enclosed library voucher, parents can get to books again: using the library reamains free of charge for them until the little ones will be old enough to get their own user ID at the age of six or seven. In the best case scenario, two birds will be killed with one stone: The young parents often come to a library for the first time in their lives. They don't only find something suitable for their children but also for themselves.
"First, I put an emphasis on novels", he says about the beginning in the 1990ies but even then, the few users of the Turkish shelves had entirely different interests: cook books and education guides, books on relationships and sexuality, sex ed, social education, astrology - Turkish nonfictional books are top.
"A major breakthrough"
"The Islam is more open to it", the librarian says laconically - and the works about astrology or Turkish history are mugh sought-after to the day (his colleagues in Turkey all mention the same). 12 years ago, a young Turkish woman came to the team in Bergkamen through a job-creating scheme. She had good contacts in the community of her fellow countrymen and after months of trying she finally succeeded in getting women from the Mosque association to participate in reading courses. It took about one dozen of those courses for it to become natural for Turkish parents in the city to use the public library.
Ever since her job scheme ended, the female "entrance ticket" to this group of people has been working for the team on a fee basis as "cultural networker". After the good experience with her and a small group of German-Turkish reading godfathers, the library hosted an entire week of events around Turkish literature. "It was a major breakthrough", says Vogelmann who is particularly astonished about the fact that during lyricism readings, the place was packed with Turkish teenage boys right from the beginning.
"If you try to introduce German teenagers to lyricism, they run all the way to Dortmund", Vogelmann says with a laugh. He estimates that up to 40 per cent of Berkamen's citizen that are of Turkish decent use the offers of his institution (to compare: Population of Germans - 8 to 10 per cent). Other libraries in the country report similar figures if suitable offers are in place. A study commissioned by the government in 2008 found that almost half of all institutions is active here.
The German Library Association awarded 2nd prize to the story from Bergkamen. The almost 2,000 public libraries in Northrine-Westphalia (headed by the state or church) do excellent work; they represent the cultural offer with the highest user and growth rates. On the one hand, this group of people is struggling with linguistic barriers and on the other hand - and maybe because of that - libraries have tried to cater to this need as the first cultural institution: The library of Duisburg drove through the different districts with its "Foreigner Bus" offering the many immigrants in Marxloh or
Rheinhausen literature in their native language. In doing so, it has been serving as a role model in Northrhine-Westphalia's library landscape up to the day.
This year alone, half of the libraries in Northrhine-Westphalia is affected by the savings; unlike many theatres and museums their budget was cut significantly a while back, with the following consequences. District offers had to be close, less and less new material, declining employee numbers even below the minimum numbers. Yet one day...even the word will come to an end.
Photos: (c) Peter Grabowski (4); Yogeshwar (1)