US Librarians Turn to Guadalajara, E-books to Meet Demand for Spanish Language Readers

In Growth Markets by Emily Williams

By Emily Williams

In the small boom in Spanish-language publishing over the past decade, even as big publishers and major chain bookstores worked to ramp up their offerings for Spanish readers, libraries have played an irreplaceable role in serving the needs of Spanish-speaking communities around the country and in connecting readers to the right books. As part of our look into the current state of Spanish-language publishing in the US, we checked in with a few of the librarians on the front lines to find out how things look from their perspective. The verdict: the need for quality Spanish-language books is only growing stronger, and the economic downturn is driving readers to libraries in search of free information and entertainment even as it hurts libraries’ ability to help them.

Smaller Budgets, Rising Demand

The economic crisis that hit in late 2008 delivered a fatal blow to some of the new infrastructure that was being built to serve librarians working with Spanish-language collections, including the online and print review Críticas.

Críticas was a wonderful resource and I’m sorry to see that go,” Bob Cronk of San Diego Public Library told us. “But I’m not surprised. In the library we’ve seen tremendous budget cuts and turmoil and I think that the current economic situation hasn’t made any of this any easier for anybody.” Indeed, librarians’ ability to meet their patrons’ needs is at the moment determined more by the state where they happen to be located than by the success or failure of any past efforts. California, a state that is home to a huge Spanish-speaking population, has also been one of the hardest hit as the economic woes spread.

The impact of the downturn is also felt at the individual level, and affects both the kinds of books patrons want and where they look for them. As Olga Alvarez of Palm Beach County Library in South Florida put it, “When you don’t have money, you depend on libraries for resources.” As for the kinds of titles her patrons ask for, Alvarez fields a lot of requests for practical books, as people try to make do with less or make the best of the downturn by learning new skills. “Manuals for fixing cars, manuals for people who want to be nursing assistants, there is a need for more technical manuals on how to do things,” Alvarez says of her Spanish-speaking patrons. “Even though they’re here and they’re learning English, when they sit to study something they like to study it in their own language so they can understand it better.”

Libbhy Romero at the Brooklyn Public Library has noticed the same demand for practical books specific to the US Spanish-speaking community. “We would really want to see more updated materials about ‘life skills’ helping new immigrants to integrate themselves into the US, such as how to open a bank account, how to buy a house, preparing a budget, how to get out of debt, tax preparation, job hunting, etc.”

Such titles are hard to come by, however, and even if they were available many libraries are suffering budget cuts that make it impossible to expand their collection. In Palm Beach, Alvarez says, “What we have we’ve been sending it to the binderies, trying to preserve it because we won’t be able to replace it. We have to work with the times.”

These economic pressures come at a time of growing demand for Spanish-language materials. Milly Lugo manages the Spanish-language collection for California’s Santa Ana Public Library, which sits in one of the regions with a high density of Spanish speakers.

Book Hunting at the Guadalajara Book Fair

“As large as our collection is,” Lugo says, “it barely scratches the surface of the demands from our Spanish speaking community. Our adult Spanish nonfiction collection of 9,540 items was checked out 42,320 times [in the past year]. We also receive many inter-library loans requests.”

Bob Cronk spent the past three years in San Diego trying to satisfy this expanding need, but wasn’t always able to find the kinds of titles his patrons were asking for. “The Spanish speaking population wants the same thing that the English speaking population wants,” Cronk explains, “they want current books on travel, they want current books on self help, they want current books on maternity. I just don’t see as much variety. We’ll go down to the Guadalajara Book Fair because you’ll find things down there that you just can’t get here. I think that some of the big vendors are trying to do a better job but it’s really tough.”

Libbhy Romero from the Brooklyn Public Library has also gone book hunting in Guadalajara, and has traveled to Spain’s LIBER book fair to advocate on behalf of her patrons. “LIBER has given us the chance to meet the publishers and tell them directly our concerns and suggestions about our Spanish-speaking community’s needs,” she says.

Ignacio Domínguez, Cultural Director at the Spanish Trade Commission in Miami, knows the importance of this dialogue with Spanish publishers at LIBER, and the Trade Commission has taken up the task of helping things along. “We invite more than a hundred librarians and book distributors every year,” says Domínguez.

Issues with Quality

Spain remains the center of the Spanish-language publishing world, and the editions produced there are praised as highly professional, though there are sometimes issues with grammatical differences between the Castilian Spanish spoken in Spain and Spanish spoken in the different regions of Latin America that US immigrants once called home. Editions produced outside of Spain, however, while linguistically closer to US Spanish readers, can have their own issues with quality.

“Part of the problem when we buy Spanish language material is it’ll sit on the shelf and the pages will turn yellow,” says San Diego’s Bob Cronk. “The quality of the paper is not the greatest.”

Freda Mosquera, who manages the Spanish-language collection at Broward County Library in South Florida and chairs a team to select and review Spanish-language children’s books for the Library Journal, has encountered a different kind of challenge. “In books published in Spanish here in the United States I’ve seen problems with the Spanish. We saw this boom and many publishers decided to publish bilingual books, but not all of them have good Spanish versions. Some of the Spanish versions reflect the way of speaking in the southwest, which is not standard Spanish. There are other publishers that want to publish bilingual books and they don’t care about the translations and the translations are horrible.”

Mosquera also has a hard time finding kids’ books that reflect the unusual diversity of Broward’s Spanish-speaking community. “Most of the [Spanish-language] books published for children in the US have a Mexican-American background. For example, a child from Argentina, it’s hard to find legends or stories that talk about Argentinian children, or the kids from Colombia, from Peru, from Venezuela. You have to go back to those countries and buy the books from outside the United States. The library is buying a lot of books that are imported. We are able to get them but the prices are higher.”

E-books Could Be the Answer

Ignacio Domínguez at the Spanish Trade Commission hopes that technology might help solve some of these problems. “Imports are diminishing as technology allows a more efficient distribution process in electronic formats. We see a bright future for our publishers and authors in the US if they embrace the new technological challenges and customer needs.”

The ultimate efficiency in exports, of course, would come with the adoption of e-books. Consensus is that there is little demand for Spanish e-books so far in the US, though the first signs of an interest in digital formats and online book forums are beginning to appear.

Olga Alvarez hosts a blog for the Spanish-language book club she runs in Palm Beach, and Freda Mosquera says some of the members of her book club in neighboring Broward County are independently seeking out the titles she selects online: “I have some members who were getting electronic versions of the books and reading them on the internet. One guy attended the meeting with [the book on] his laptop.”

Milly Lugo at Santa Ana Public Library sees immediate promise less in new technology and more in this power libraries have to bring readers together in the flesh. She urges publishers to consider partnering with libraries in promoting their books, noting “Scholastic Books participates in some of our library events and gives one free book for each book purchased. Libraries are an ideal venue for book promotions.”

Lugo sees a continuing demand for Spanish language books well into the future. “The United States is a land of immigrants and the constant political uncertainty in Spanish speaking countries will always provide an influx of Spanish speakers to our country,” she says. “There will always be a market for books in Spanish in the United States.”

Libbhy Romero at Brooklyn Public Library, which serves one of the most linguistically diverse communities in the country, agrees. “I think there will always be a demand. Just looking at our circulation statistics the Spanish Language Adult materials is 5.94% and the Juvenile 46.71% out of the World Language Circulation total. I think parents are interested that their kids keep their own culture and language is part of it. That might explain why our juvenile circulation [in Spanish] is the highest compared to the other World Languages.”

Freda Mosquera has noticed the same trend in Broward County: not only is there a continuing influx of new Spanish speakers, but those first generation immigrants are passing the language on to their children. “Previous generations were afraid of teaching Spanish to their kids, but now Latino kids here like to speak Spanish and English. You find many bilingual kids here. In this new generation I see they feel comfortable speaking both languages.”

DISCUSS: Is Spanish language publishing in the US an untapped market?

About the Author

Emily Williams

Emily Williams as Manager of International Digital Content at Barnes & Before that, she worked as digital content producer for Publishers Marketplace, contributor to Digital Book World and Publishing Perspectives, and also held a senior scout position with Maria B. Campbell & Associates.