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How Many Languages Can You Speak?

Joyce Cooper, Senior Librarian, International Languages Department,
Book Covers for Language Books

Working on the reference desk in the International Languages Department of the Central Library in Los Angeles, one of the most diverse cities in the country is an exciting job! I speak Spanish so I spend a large part of day helping Spanish-speaking patrons find information. I also speak some French but don’t use it as much as my Spanish.  But when I get a patron who speaks a language other than English, Spanish, or French, it’s time to put my thinking cap on!

As I mentioned in a previous blog posting, International Languages actively collects material in 29 languages so this means the variety of questions I get asked on any given day is amazing. 

Some examples of my most recent reference questions are:

-A patron who was looking for definition and usage of a word in Greek that I was able to find for him (trying to read Greek was really hard!). 

-Someone came in looking for a language learning set on CD because he wanted to learn Tagalog

-An older woman called looking for a 4-volume set of fiction in Russian that only we had

- A patron came in looking for a book on how to write poetry, in Japanese

-A professor called looking for a fiction title in French that she wanted to share with her class, she also wanted the English translation of the same title.  I was able to find what she was looking for in French; it was a 1930 edition of the title that had hand-painted drawings included (beautiful!)

-A patron came in looking for math books in Spanish because he was going back to school and needed a refresher in math.

-An older man came in looking for books on happiness and being happy that were written in French, when I was able to help him in French, he was pleasantly surprised.

-A man, who only spoke Spanish, came in looking for information on how to trademark the songs he writes for his church.

These are just a few examples and there are many more I could give.  This is what I like the best about being a librarian that I’m able to help someone find what he or she is looking for!

The patrons in the International Languages Department have the same information needs as everyone else; the challenge lies in the fact that they need it in a language other than English.  Sometimes we have exactly what they’re looking for and sometimes they may be looking for something at a level more advanced than our collection.  Either way, the secret to providing the best service is to always treat the patron with respect and patience, especially if you don’t speak their language! You find a way to understand and communicate with your patrons and “speak” their language to the best of your ability.

If you have any questions that we can help you with, feel free to visit us on the first floor of the Central Library.


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