Tag Archives: multicultural

Multilingual Libraries: Approaching Language as Identity and Inclusion

Multilingual learning, including mother tongue instruction, is a vital element of equitable access to education and opportunity (see UNESCO Languages in Education). The IFLA/UNESCO Multicultural Library Manifesto encourages “linguistic diversity and respect for the mother tongue” as part of the mission of multicultural library services.

But are we truly fostering inclusive, multilingual environments through our practices?

For this year’s International Mother Language Day (21 February) on the theme: “Fostering multilingualism for inclusion in education and society”, we encourage readers to take a careful look at their library’s collections and services through the lens of language as identity and language as inclusion.

Beyond Utility: Language as Identity

Language is more than a way to share ideas, thoughts, and knowledge (although these are important aspects). It is the culmination of a shared past – an indicator of community and a means of experiencing cultural identity.

In a globalised world, this results in a balancing act between the values of a lingua franca and of preserving the nuances of localised, Indigenous, dialectal, and otherwise marginalised languages. While there is great utility in having a shared language for cultural exchange, knowledge transfer, and international relations, language is about more than just utility.

Preserving a language means preserving and passing on the cultural memory of those who speak it. Losing a language is a loss to cultural identity, and therefore preserving language is a necessary element of cultural preservation.

This theme was explored in depth through the case of Indigenous languages during 2019’s International Year of Indigenous Languages. For more, take a look back at our series on how libraries preserve and promote Indigenous languages, which examines the impact libraries can have for endangered Indigenous languages.

Accessing mother tongue languages

Beyond endangered languages, global migration caused by lack of economic opportunity, climate change, conflict, and other factors leads to groups finding they must speak a language other than their mother tongue to navigate daily life. IFLA’s Library Map of the World collects multiple cases of libraries helping migrant and refugee communities acquire necessary language skills to adapt and integrate into their new homes. See SDG stories from Germany and Canada for some examples.

However, as highlighted above, language is about more than utility. Having the ability to access one’s mother tongue can greatly impact one’s experience of identity. This requires language support to go beyond helping users acquire necessary new language skills; it should also enable people to use their own language.

In their paper presented at the World Library and Information Congress 2019, Keira Dignan, Hannah-Lily Lanyon and Rebecca Wolfe of ECHO for Refugees shared their experience providing mobile library services to refugee camps and marginalised communities in and around the Athens area. Click here to read the paper in full.

While providing support for learning English and Greek, the authors expressed the importance of also offering users access to resources in their mother tongue.  They stress that this is vital for providing “a piece of home, for community building, and for survival” and well as for ensuring children who may have missed formative school years gain language ability in the native tongue.

To treat language truly as identity, rather than as utility, consider which groups in your community of users could benefit the most from accessing mother tongue resources.

A Benefit for all Learners

Fostering an environment where all languages are valued and valid has a benefit for all learners – those that are bi- or multilingual as well as those that are not.

The pedagogical strategy known as translanguaging encourages educators to refrain from placing value on one language over others – especially in multicultural and multilingual learning environments. It refers to the way multilingual speakers blend languages and allow their mother tongue to inform the way they learn new languages and express themselves.

In practice, this means that everyone in a learning environment is empowered to express themselves in whatever language – or blend of languages – they feel comfortable. It can also mean that all participants strive to incorporate words from other languages into their daily use and are made welcome to share aspects of their native language with others.

The EAL Journal describes this process as being concerned with communication rather than with only learning the utility of the language.  To do this effectively, it requires everyone in the learning environment to become co-learners – growing multilingual respect organically.

Librarians, especially those working with multicultural communities, may be interested in exploring this approach in their practice. For more of an introduction to this concept, refer to this article from the EAL Journal: What is Translanguaging?

Language and Power

In all the previous examples, it is critical to examine the power structure behind multicultural environments that is expressed through the languages we speak. Language has social implications that intersect with systemic inequalities relating to class, national origin, race, and privilege.

In their article, the team from ECHO for Refugees stress that practicing multiculturalism leads to examining inequalities on the global and local scale, especially in terms of power and access. They report experiences working with refugees who themselves place a higher value on English language than their mother tongue, as English is perceived to have higher marketability.

This topic is explored in depth in the article Multilingualism, Neoliberalism, and Language Ideologies in Libraries from the online journal In the Library with the Lead Pipe. Author Ean Henninger explores the intersection of power and value dynamics with the languages of available library collections and services. The following passage is especially interesting:

In supporting specific languages and giving them power, libraries set conditions for who can engage with the library: who can access resources, who feels included, and who sees themselves in collections and services… If a library treats a given language only as an object of study, something that resides in individual books, or something that must be supplied to meet demand, not as something that is intertwined with culture, race, gender, and access to power, then the picture is incomplete. (Source)

The article advises against the commodification of library users and information services. This can be expressed in such seemingly innocuous ways as policies determining which resources are eligible for collection and a focus on customer service which avoids examining social responsibility.

It is vital to consider multicultural and multilingual library services not only through their potential benefit for users, but also as actions taken in direct response to, and under the influence of, inequalities in power and access.

Although individual action cannot solve large-scale, systemic inequalities, acknowledgement of these structures and creating inclusive space to address them is a step in the right direction.

Taking Action Towards Inclusion

How can libraries truly address the language needs of their communities? Perhaps start by examining the current multilingual resources and programmes you have available. Here is a short checklist that may be helpful to get you started:

  • Do your resources and programmes accurately reflect the language needs of your community? How do you know for sure?
  • Have you made assumptions on the language(s) your users speak? Could some communities not feel comfortable or empowered enough to make their needs known?
  • Have you approached multilingual collecting and services in a participatory manner? Could there be more avenues for user input?
  • Do users feel empowered to speak in their mother tongue (or other languages) in your spaces and during your programmes? Could you increase their comfort through practices, such as multilingual signage?
  • Have you considered the different dialects or variations used by local communities in collection development?
  • Is providing language support or translation an extra task for employees who are multilingual? Are they compensated for this additional labour?

This is only a start – we are interested to hear how you provide multilingual services that meet the needs of your community! Share feedback in the comments below.


The 10-Minute International Librarian #39: Seek diverse viewpoints

IFLA works to build a strong and united global library field.

But this doesn’t mean that it should be uniform. We benefit hugely from our diversity, and all the different experiences and perspectives this brings.

It allows us not only to find new solutions to existing problems, but also to identify areas for action that we might not have been aware of previously.

By doing this, we can improve our ability to power literate, informed and participatory societies.

There is some great work already taking place both at the national level, and within IFLA, notably in the Section on Libraries Serving Multicultural Populations.

This helps us both to think about how libraries themselves can serve diverse user groups, and how we can build diversity within our own profession.

So for our 39th 10-Minute International Librarian Exercise, seek diverse viewpoints.

Identify a key processes or decision points, and think about how you could ensure you are open to this.

Who could offer you new ideas, but is not currently being heard? What is holding them back? What can you do about it?

Think about the way you are seeking ideas, and how you can make additional steps where needed.

Of course, putting your ideas into action will take more than 10 minutes. It will be a learning process. But it is important to start!

There are lots of resources out there on how to do this better – share your suggestions below.

Good luck!


This idea relates to the IFLA Strategy! 4.3 Increase, diversify and engage our membership.

As we publish more ideas, you will be able to view these using the #10MinuteInternationalLibrarian tag on this blog, and of course on IFLA’s Ideas Store! Do also share your ideas in the comments box.

Inclusion is an Action: the Relevance of the IFLA Multicultural Libraries Manifesto

After months where the need for immediate action to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic had been dominating news schedules, the ongoing events in the United States have sharply refocussed attention onto other, more long-term challenges societies face.

For many, especially those in groups subject to marginalisation or discrimination, the death of George Floyd is just the latest incident in a long series, and the protests that have followed are the natural result of years of unequal treatment. For others, it has forced a confrontation with issues that they were aware of, but perhaps felt hard-placed to act on, or even believed were someone else’s problem.

An emerging point is the understanding of the need for action – of the unacceptability of simply leaving things as they are. The fact of things having been done in a certain way in the past cannot provide a justification when the result of this is exclusion and inequality.

This applies to individuals and societies as a whole, including of course libraries. There needs to be a readiness to seek out, hear, reflect and include all experiences, rather than just proceed on the basis of a single point of view, however well-meaning.

This also applies globally – it is clearly not the case that the United States has a monopoly on discrimination and inequality. Indeed any situation where particular groups have faced persistent inequalities in so many areas of life – education, employment, housing, or treatment by courts – libraries can, and must, be ready to show the way in terms of how a key service can be provided.

Indeed, the specific role of libraries in providing access to information – a foundational condition for so much else – as well as in offering a place for the safeguarding and remembering of heritage, and for building social cohesion, makes them particularly important.

This is a key message of the IFLA-UNESCO Multicultural Libraries Manifesto, approved by the IFLA Governing Board in 2006, and by the UNESCO General Conference in 2009.

Building on the instruction to provide services to all, regardless of characteristics (including race) in the Public Library Manifesto, as well as IFLA’s Statement on Intellectual Freedom, and own Core Values, the Multicultural Library Manifesto goes further in underlining both the reality, and the value of diversity of all forms in our societies and cultures. In doing so, it rejects racism and other forms of discrimination, however they are manifested.

In terms of principles to be applied in the day-to-day work of libraries, the Manifesto stresses the need in particular providing information in appropriate languages and scripts, giving access to collections that reflect all communities and needs, and ensuring that staffing reflects the diversity of communities served with proper training to respond to the information need of all.

This clearly already requires work in many cases, with historical acquisitions policies and cataloguing practices often reflecting outdated views of the world, making it more difficult for marginalised groups to find themselves in the library.

Crucially, the Manifesto also sets out a proactive role for libraries. First of all, it makes it clear that it is not enough to offer the same services to all and expect everyone to benefit in the same ways – such an approach can risk deepening existing inequalities.

Instead, there needs to be a concerted effort to understand what may be needed (indeed, the Manifesto Toolkit offers steps for doing this), in particular through ensuring that library and information workers who are also members of groups subject to discrimination are fully part of decision-making.

It also gives libraries a mission – to promote awareness of the value of diversity in communities, and to provide tools and services that support this, online and offline (including through decisions about what to collect and preserve).

Furthermore, through skills provision – in particular information literacy and digital skills – libraries can also not only help give everyone the chance to make the most of the internet, but also help everyone identify prejudice in what they read, and combat it.

Finally, such efforts – the Manifesto underlines – need to be central to the work of libraries, integrated into core planning rather than included as an optional extra.


With societies around the world forced to confront the reality of inequality and discrimination in order to build something better, libraries have the rare power of being able to help societies level-up, providing opportunities for progress and spaces for building cohesion.

This is not to say that this will happen automatically. As highlighted in the title, inclusion is an action, and action takes effort and commitment. The Multicultural Library Manifesto offers a great starting point for this.


See how the American Library Association is responding here. Find out more about the work of our Section on Library Services for  Multicultural Populations, and read our blog for the International Day of Cultural Diversity.