Public libraries are known to be a safe space where everyone has access to knowledge and information, regardless of their ethnic origin. As we already mentioned in a previous blog post, refugees represent a sensitive community group that a library can attract and transform into its most faithful visitors by simply providing them access to information and the opportunity to socialize and integrate into the new community.

Having to move to another country that has a different culture, religion, language and even values might be a great challenge. According to Eurostat, Germany was the European country with the biggest number of refugees recorded, receiving almost 67% of all asylum application in EU. To make the process easier, German libraries have adapted their services and have also implemented new ones to contribute to this culture of welcoming.

To learn more about how German libraries redefine their new role as a facilitator for refugees, we have had a short discussion with Beate Herbst, Head of the VÖBB Service Center in Berlin and Sarah Dudek, the “Sprachraum” coordinator at Cologne Public Library.

Adapting the library services

Libraries already offer a variety of educational materials in other languages for everyone and this is one of the main reasons why refugees and international people visit the library. Even so, Beate Herbst mentions that they still need to add more courses and information points at the library:

“We have increased our offer on language courses and provide information for all people arriving in Berlin. You will also find special information for refugees. Furthermore, all public libraries offer media classes for refugees. They include e.g. games, dictionaries and other material and media for learning languages. “

When asked how they have adapted the library services for the refugees, she adds that a main issue was related to the library card that normally is created only with the residence permit but a solution was easily found:

“To get a regular library card a residence authorization must be presented. For most refugees, this is not possible during the first weeks after arrival. In this case, we offer a library card which is valid for three months and prolongable. As the number of refugees is retrogressive in 2017 and most people that arrived in 2015/2016 have a residence authorisation by now, the number of badge holders of this program is currently 1697. This program aroused huge interest and was very well accepted. Overall, we reached 6808 people with this program.”

Therefore, a library can notice a real change in the number of visitors, by simply adapting some of the library services to the needs of some of the most sensitive community members, in this case; refugees.

There will always be different fears related to the role a library can have in helping refugees and some of the most important are the fear to become a replacement for the local organizations that are responsible for helping refugees in all aspects of their life, the budget fear or as Beate Herbst mentions the fear not to lose track of all the resources the refugees use:

“As most refugees have to relocate rapidly and unprepared, our initial fear was about the return of the media. But there is no difference in the rate of return in comparison to other users. Our fear was baseless.


So, some of these fears are not founded and they can be overcome because the benefits that the library can have for the local community and for the refugees are much greater.

Public libraries for refugees

Library cards at Berlin Public Libraries are also available for refugees without a residence permit

Implementing new programs

To have a bigger impact on their new lives and to actively guide them through their adjustment to the new culture, a library can also implement new programs specifically for the refugees. A famous example of a library offering services for refugees is Cologne Public Library in Germany. The Sprachraum (language space), was created by Dr. Hannelore Vogt, the library’s director, in 2015. It is a large ground-floor room that sits opposite the main library building and serves both as a meeting point and learning hub for the refugees. Together with the volunteers, the library’s staff organizes social and learning activities like; craft sessions, mentoring sessions, conversation clubs or language sessions. This way, the library becomes a meeting space for the community and as Dr. Hannelore Vogt declares in an interview with Deutsche Welle:

“A library is a consumerism-free space. You can be here without having to consume anything. What I mean is, if you go anywhere in the city, to a cafe or if you want to meet anyone, you need to spend money. And people perceive a library as a place where you simply go to and that is what is important for us.”

When we asked Sarah Dudek more details about the project’s evolution she added:

“We have about 60 volunteers working in the ‘sprachraum’ and last year we had 450 events with above 9000 participants”.

She also mentions in an interview with the Guardian that the volunteers consist of everyone from students, university lecturers, and retired teachers, to professionals and even refugees that want to spend more time helping with the program. (You can find the full interview here)

Workshops at Cologne Public Library for refugees Photograph: Sarah Dudek

Workshops at Cologne Public Library for refugees Photograph: Sarah Dudek

To conclude, there are various programs and services that you can offer at the library and facilitate the community integration for refugees. The members of IFLA’s Public Libraries Standing Committee and their colleagues even compiled a list of best practices around the globe from which you can take your inspiration.

We’ll be back next week with another interesting article from the library world! Until then, you can get more interesting bits from libraries around the world by following us on Facebook and Twitter. Thanks for stopping by!

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