Searching in other languages

I’ve seen the way a couple of patrons use the third-language collections of the library (that’s a federal-government term; it means non-English non-French) and I think there’s a structural barrier that prevents people from using those collections. And I say all the following as a longtime defender of minority languages who holds a degree in linguistics and is a well versed in character encoding.

  • One day at Beaches I was in line behind a young mom who had just been issued a new library card. (She had her daughter right there.) I detected an accent. So I chatted her up later and, sure enough, she was Russian. I told her the library had thousands of Russian books, but you have to search the catalogue for them. (There are about 6,300 Russian-language circulating books in stock.) I don’t think I mentioned the other option – schlepping out to one of the few branches with significant Russian collections, like Barbara Frum or Щука. But it did occur to me “This poor lady is never going to see a Russian book at Beaches ever.”

  • The other day I was recombobulating at the TSA-like exit of the Reference Library. The man behind me, a middle-aged Korean, in fact had checked out three Korean books (of about 2,300 domiciled there). I guessed he probably has a hard time searching the catalogue in Korean and basically schleps out to TRL whenever he wants a new book to read.

Problems with third-language materials at TPL

  • You really have to know how to use the catalogue. You need to use advanced search in typical cases.

  • You can’t use your own script unless it’s Latin or Chinese. I did a few tests to verify this, actually. If your language is written in Latin (not “Roman”) script and you can basically type it out, even without diacritics, you can use the catalogue no problem. You can also search in Traditional Chinese. But, my testing suggests, that is it.

  • Hence you have to romanize your non-Latin script. If you want books in Russian or Korean, you have to know how to transliterate Russian or Korean into phonetic English. As this is either an inexact science or simply something people have different preferences for, it’s error-prone.

At some level you have to be functionally bilingual to search for items in non-Latin scripts. But this leaves out the people who basically cannot read anything but their first language. It leaves out the people with the fewest options and capabilities. Stated more extremely, the most vulnerable users of TPL’s third-language collections have the hardest time using them.

There is no solution to this problem. Tens of thousands of materials have already been catalogued via romanization. Of course it’s possible to go back and update the records to include original scripts, but who has the time or money for that? And doing so would introduce its own mistakes.

Every time I see the library promoting its multilanguage collections, I cringe

Because there are serious structural barriers preventing the most needy users from benefitting from those collections.


Also, a postulate: Every circulating Chinese-language item actually circulates if you look back over a reasonably long period (e.g., three years). And every Chinese item added in the previous year circulates in that year. These postulates are easily verifiable, I suppose, but are basically fun little talking points.