Monthly Archives: July 2013

Talking with Fred Gitner of the New Americans Program at Queens Library

Talking with Fred Gitner of the New Americans Program at Queens Library

Queens Library activities and programs – in multiple languages

Fred Gitner has a 1990s MTA subway poster hanging up in his office that says “No smoking” in about twenty languages.   The poster’s multilingual message is an apt reflection of his work as a whole.   Fred is Queens Library’s Director for the New Americans Program (NAP) and for International Relations.  The NAP team, currently of six people, is based at the library’s large headquarters in Jamaica.  Between them they speak Bengali, Chinese, English, French, German, Hindi and Spanish.

I recently met with Fred to learn more about the NAP, which aims to meet the needs of immigrants in Queens.  While we spoke, my one-year old Conrad roamed around the place, entertaining himself with the office furniture.

NAP began its work in 1977 with funding from a federal grant.  “The library had a huge German collection, which was fine for earlier immigrants,” explains Gitner in this article by PaxEthnica author Karl Meyer.  But waves of immigration meant the borough was changing.  NAP was originally funded for three years and focused on three languages: Spanish, Greek and Chinese.  Its immigrant services directory (about which more below) now profiles organizations fluent in around 60 languages.

One of NAP’s core activities is to provide books and materials in relevant languages for the communities it serves.  The library usually starts to build up a collection in a particular language when the Queens population that speaks it reaches 3000 or higher.  Sometimes sourcing the material is straight-forward.  Books in Chinese, Spanish and Polish for example are easy to get hold of.  Other languages take more searching.  For example, the library gets its Haitian Creole DVDs from a small store in Queens Village.  The library takes steps to ensure that material it sources is not pirated and does not have inappropriate content.

Handling materials in so many languages poses challenges.  When the library started to create a collection of books from Afghanistan for the Pomonok community library, they purchased books in Dari and Pashto from a local merchant with the assistance of the organization “Women for Afghan Women“.  (Women’s organizations make great partners!” says Fred).  But the books got mixed up in their boxes.  As no-one on the staff at the time spoke those two languages they had to ask for them to be sent with labels.

NAP works closely with community organizations throughout the borough to match its services up to what the community needs.  They find some of the groups through the Queens Borough President’s Immigration Taskforce.  Among them for example are the Adhikaar Nepali organization in Woodside, and an Astoria-based Brazilian organization, Cidadão Global.

NAP also provides lectures and workshops.  From Chinese-language advice on coping with Alzheimer’s to immigration guidance in Urdu,  by making relevant information easily accessible the library can make essential interventions in people’s lives.  It also distributes details of English-language programs throughout the borough.  And its Directory of Immigrant- serving Agencies enables people to search by criteria like language spoken, services offered, target group and location.

Another major part of NAP’s work is organizing cultural programs.  As its Office Associate Madellen García told me, the cultural events are often what bring people to the library and introduce them to one another.  If someone hears a song being performed, it does not matter if it is in a language other than their own, they will be drawn to the music.  Among a pile of colored flyers that I was given while there were details of a Bengali and English story-telling session for children at three different locations, and glass-painting classes in Italian and English in Howard Beach.

Fred Gitner directs the International Relations program as well, which builds links with other libraries to share information, experiences and materials.  Currently Queens Library has cooperation agreements with libraries in Beijing, Shanghai, Cairo, Montréal, Seoul and St. Petersburg.

Fred himself started working with the NAP in 1996.  His career trajectory combined languages and libraries right from the start.  He studied French and German in college.  Soon after finishing graduate school he spotted an ad for a French speaking librarian at the French Institute Alliance Française in Manhattan.  One reason he got the job, he thinks, is that he was the only candidate who submitted his application letter in French.  After many years there, he worked for a while in the multilingual Historical Collections at the Library of the New York Academy of Medicine on Fifth Avenue, before moving to Queens Library.

NAP’s work conveys what it really means to live in an area where people speak over 160 languages.   Any language barriers are far less strong than the efforts to communicate through them.

Fred Gitner, Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at Queens Library

Fred Gitner, Director of the New Americans Program and International Relations at Queens Library

Latest videos – Chinese and Bengali

Latest videos – Chinese and Bengali

Recently I visited the New Americans Program at Queens Library’s headquarters in Jamaica.  The program provides materials and activities to recent immigrants to the borough in the languages they speak – more about it to come shortly.

In the meantime here are two video clips of people who work for Queens Library, saying the equivalent of “I live here” in (Mandarin) Chinese and in Bengali:

Chinese – 我住在这里

Mandarin Chinese is the third most-spoken language in Queens after English and Spanish (and followed by Korean, then Bengali).

and Bengali – আমি এখানে থাকি :

And here are flyers from just a few of the recent programs at the library:


The latest wording for “I live here” added to the page of languages spoken in Queens is Danish: “Jeg bor her”.  If you would like to add words or video for another language, please get in touch!

Latest videos – Korean and Croatian

Latest videos – Korean and Croatian

On a walk around my neighborhood today I recorded Queens residents saying the equivalent of “I live here” in Korean and Croatian.

Korean, “전 여기 살아요”: (this is the formal way to write it.  The informal way is: 난 여기 살아)

And Croatian, “Ja živim ovdje”:

Not as simple as it seems:

Down the road from where I live is Kelly’s Bar, an Irish pub.  I passed by on the same walk when I recorded “I live here” in Croatian and Korean.  Someone had left a comment on this website with the words for “I live here” in Irish Gaellic: “Tá me i mo chonaí anseo”.  I wanted to see if I could find a Queens resident who would do a short video saying the words.  The owner pointed me to a man seated at the bar.  Yes that is the literal translation for “I live here”, the man said.  But with a pause for reflection he said that “Tá me abhaile” – or “I am home” – would sound more natural to him.  He graciously declined to do a video.  In many of the 160+ languages spoken in Queens there will be more than one way to convey “I live here”.  And there won’t necessarily be a “right” way.

Just a few weeks in, the process of this project is already full of surprises.  Gathering the words for “I live here” in all the languages spoken in the borough sounds relatively straightforward.  But of course who is to know which language will be next and who will provide it?  It is reminding me of when in 2011 I conducted one interview a week with people who live or work along Astoria’s 30th Avenue.  You can apply a structure or rules to something, but within the structure there is plenty of scope for unpredictability and surprise.

Videos for Greek and Czech – and “Different but the same”

Videos for Greek and Czech – and “Different but the same”

I live in Astoria, Queens, where there is a big Greek population (as well as people from many other parts of the world).  A few blocks along my street is St Demetrios Greek Orthodox Cathedral, and St Demetrios Astoria School, the biggest Greek-American school in the US.

Here’s the equivalent of “I live here” – “Ζω εδώ” – in Greek.  It was recorded outside Cafe to Go, near Astoria’s 30th Avenue subway station:

And this is “I live here” in Czech – Já žije tady.  This was recorded in another 30th Ave cafe, Bakeway.


A friend who is an elementary school teacher once told me how impressed she was by one of her young student’s poems.  The student called it “Different but the same.”  That’s one way to view languages.

On their “sameness”: The ability to speak language unites us as humans.  It is truly “a trait of the species” that makes humans distinct from other animals, says John McWhorter in his book “The Power of Babel”.  And there is a certain unity in languages. Whatever the language, our mind functions in the same way to learn and speak it.  In each one there are ways to communicate similar things – from something as simple as “I live here” to far more complex ideas.  And every language mutates over time, often borrowing from others.

On their differences: Within each language is a unique way of living in the world and viewing it.  People rarely feel the same communicating in a second or third language than in their mother tongue, however fluent they may be.  The differences between them are as essential as those between individuals.

I’m using the world “translate” or “translation” at times as a shorthand to convey what I’m trying to do – i.e. collect the way in which “I live here” (in English) would be said in all the languages spoken in Queens.  But translation implies the meaning can be shifted directly across from one language to another, while of course it is not as simple as that.  Already I’m coming across languages for which “I live here” is written differently if you are a man or a women, or if you are speaking formally or informally for example.  And others in which “here” sits strangely, as if it does not have so finite a meaning in that language.