This article appears in the March 2011 issue of LouisvilleMagazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.
Inside the Iroquois public library branch on a Saturday afternoon, you can hear the chatter rising from the basement, where a variety of patrons sit in pairs at folding card tables. Some speak animatedly, using lots of gestures. Others are more reserved, concentrating hard on what they want to say.
These weekly events, called the English Conversation Club, are part of the Iroquois branch’s efforts to reach out to Louisville’s international community. The immigrant-outreach program, which began eight years ago, has served folks from more than 80 countries. “One thing we’d witnessed was that this was the most international community (in Louisville), and we weren’t seeing a lot of engagement with this community,” says Sophie Maier, who heads the program as an immigrant-services librarian. Several advanced or native English speakers volunteer on Saturdays.
Library visitors can check out books and DVDs in at least 15 languages. The computers provide important means for people to maintain contact with loved ones in their home countries. The library also has groups share music, art or other cultural elements.
Maier, 40, had been a children’s librarian before moving into her current position. Before that, she’d taught English in Spain and Japan. She also worked with teen girls from Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic at Good Shepherd Services in New York. She’s fluent in Spanish and knows a little French and Arabic.
“What’s very sad is when I have somebody who I can tell comes from a very educated background, or has such dignity, and I just see the frustration on their face about wanting to be able to tell me something,” Maier says.
“I know that as soon as they learn to speak English, doors are going to open. Since I’ve been here for eight years, I’ve met people who know no English and then (when they learn the language), I’ve discovered this other universe from within them.”