Homework and information café in the library. An open door

‘An open door’ is a homework and information café for young people and adults with ethnic background other than Danish who have difficulties reading, writing and understanding Danish. The café is placed in the library in the social residential area of Vapnagård in Elsinore municipality, and the librarians cooperate with a large number of local players in trying to attract new users who do not usually visit the library.

-The advantage of placing a local homework and information café in the library in a residential area like ours is that many young and adult immigrants are already familiar with the library and like to come here. Muslim parents are also confidents that nothing bad can happen to their daughters while they are visiting the library, explains head librarian Ditte Lundstrøm.

When entering the library’s café on a Wednesday afternoon, you are invited to have some free coffee, tea, cake and soft drinks offered by the library staff who make time to talk to each individual visitor.

The café has seven computers with Internet access and two with word processing, and you can search, surf, chat and check mail, write essays or just have a good time for as long as you want.

The staff can also give support and instruction in how to navigate in Danish society generally: Looking for a job, the labour market, education, family life, culture and leisure, help to write and understand letters, applications and forms from public authorities. You can also borrow language courses and books in simple Danish, or books, music and videos in your own language.

Homework café and lectures
The homework café operates from 2-5 p.m. Volunteer pensioners from The Danish Refugee Council’s local networking group and a part-time Palestinian high-school student assist with the homework. Sometimes the librarians step in, while the volunteers find information in encyclopaedia and on the net.

Together with local associations and institutions the librarys arrange various activities in the café that appeal to the different ethnic target groups:

For example a talk on Christmas and Ramadan in cooperation with the local integration council and a religious society; library instruction for immigrant women, for pupils from a gipsy project and for pupils from the municipality’s adult education section; information on the labour market and education in cooperation with the job centre, including visits by role models from the Ministry of Integration’s campaign ‘All young people needed’; talks by Turkish and Arab girls and women on health in cooperation with Turkish and Arab female doctors; library introduction to recently arrived refugee children and mothers with small children; handing out of books by Hans Christian Andersen (in two languages) as a Ramadan gift to local immigrant players; help with establishing three new immigrant associations and seminar on ethnic minorities’ living conditions in the municipality in cooperation with the integration council.

New users via local networks
Attracting mature, adult immigrants/ refugees in great numbers has proved to be the biggest challenge of setting up a café – the need is there, but it is a slower process than expected to make the library more visible and part of every-day life for those groups of ethnic minorities who do not know the public library and its many offers.

The library’s strategy has been to give its partners ownership of the café. Right from the very beginning the library has involved immigrant organisations, housing associations, caseworkers from the integration office, school advisory officers, labour market centres and teachers. The librarians have also participated in networking groups in residential areas etc.

This has increased local networking formation – and actually attracted new users from the cooperation partners’ network whom the library could not by itself have established contact with.

-The number of adults looking for help in the café has been increasing steadily, while the users via homework help to themselves or their children find out that the library is really a place with services that are tailor-made to their needs. No longer is the library a rather obscure place in which they find it hard to navigate. This means that in the future they will probably use the library more, say librarians Ditte Lundstrøm, Suzanne Schytt and Inge Jensen who take it in turns to man the Wednesday café.

Great need for more help with homework
While the adults have been a little reticent, the 13-17 year-old experienced library patrons have been using the homework café on their own initiative.

- And every Wednesday the 9-12 yearold immigrant children are pushing their noses against the window and so much want to come in: There is a very great need for homework cafés for immigrant children and youngsters, because very few of them can get any help and support at home – even if the parents would like to help, it is not possible for them, says Suzanne Schytt.

The library has tried to extend the offer to the youngest children, but is has been impossible to find volunteers with sufficient education and personality.

‘An open door’ receives funding from the Danish National Library Authority and the Ministry of Integration and runs from November-December 2005.