A Multilingual Children’s Library for Sheffield

The origins of Sheffield’s Multilingual Book Day, and the multilingual collection that launched last month with 774 books in 37 languages:

By Sabine Little, @sabinelittle

Photo credit: Andy Muscroft.

As a lecturer in Languages Education  at the University of Sheffield, my research focuses on how we experience links between language and our sense of identity, in particular across the generations. Therefore, I work a lot with multilingual families, helping parents and children to explore their language practices, and maintaining heritage languages. I was born in Germany and moved to the UK at the age of 18. I have a son aged eleven, so I’m a bilingual mum, too.

In a recent research project, families told me about their lack of access to resources, but also how much shared book reading formed a part of their family language practice. I wanted to find out more about multilingual children’s reading practices. I always seek to make research accessible to the public, so, as part of the project, with the help of some of the university’s PhD students, we ran a multilingual storytelling event.

It was such a success that I spoke to the Central Library about repeating it in a library setting. The library were immensely supportive, so, in March 2018, we held Sheffield’s Inaugural Multilingual Book Day, with storytelling in 11 languages, and people bringing and selling/giving away books they had at home, to pass on to other families. Many people who brought books did not want to sell them, they just wanted to make sure they went to a good home, and I realised that, if people were able to borrow the books, many more families could profit from this generosity. The library were very happy to donate staff time and space, and I took on the role of hunting down books. With enormous help from authors, illustrators, publishers, and the general public, the library launched with 774 books in 37 languages, in November 2018.

At the moment, many of the books are translated from English into other languages (so, a British author might donate translated copies in several languages), and some are books written by authors in languages other than English. Not many of these books have been translated into English, and I am hoping that we can increase the number of books that have been translated into English in future, to make them accessible both in the original language and in English. Translated (into English) editions are already part of the main children’s library’s stock, which I am hoping can be increased in future. Part of the project is to raise awareness of multilingualism in the city – this is not a “foreign language section”, it is a “multilingual section”, because over 20% of Sheffield’s children are multilingual. The books are grouped by language to make them easier to find, but they are definitely part of the main children’s library.

Photo credit: Andy Muscroft.

Sheffield’s multilingual children’s section is not unique as such – the Kittiwake project, for example, is a community-led multilingual library which includes a children’s section, and Sheffield library already had books for language learning, and bilingual children’s books, as many libraries do. We have extended this by including non-English monolingual books right up to the Young Adult stage, and, with the help from the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s “Other Worlds Research Initiative”, we have funding for a multilingual reading scheme, which awards reading in languages other than English.

Research alongside the reading scheme will explore what the library means to local communities, families, and heritage language schools, how (if at all) it supports families in making linguistic and cultural links, as well as tracking usage patterns. I am hoping that the findings not only help us understand more about the role of multiliteracies and reading in identity development, but also that we can help draw up practical guidelines for similar projects. Already, the events are not just drawing in multilingual families – a monolingual English-speaking father told me at one of the storytelling events that he had never hear Bengali spoken before, and how much he enjoyed the experience for him and his daughter to engage with stories from other languages and cultures.

We are hoping to continue multilingual events in the library, and the project has also seen multilingual families working together – regardless of language – to achieve such a big project, which I think can be very powerful.

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