A Proposal to Investigate Polish Immigrants' Experiences of Public Libraries in Edmonton

Review of Related Literature

Influence of the government on public libraries in Communist Poland

After the Second World War, Poland "became a satellite state of the Soviet Union" and adopted the Soviet model for its government and economy (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 172; Sroka 2000, 105). The major policies of this type of government included the monopoly of the Communist party, lack of opposition, lack of a free market, uniformity in ideology, and the far-reaching impact of security police (Sroka 2000, 105). Librarians experienced the pressure of upholding the uniform ideology (Sroka 2000, 106). This experience does not match that of Canadian librarians, who believe in fostering knowledge through many ideologies. Therefore Polish people who had experienced a very restrictive library system may be uncertain about an open system. Since many collections were destroyed in the war, librarians had to restore them, as well as rebuild libraries that had been damaged (Sroka 2000, 106). The government passed legislation to rebuild destroyed libraries and to build new ones (Sroka 2000, 107). The goal of the law was to provide access to libraries for each citizen (Sroka 2000, 108). An additional goal was to eliminate illiteracy, so that pre-war intellectuals would be replaced by new ones that were aligned with the ideology, and so the country would have an educated class of workers that would be capable not only of reconstructing Poland, but also of reading propaganda (Maj 1993, 34).

The legislation allowed the central government to dictate procedures for the management and operation of all libraries (Sroka 2000, 109). Since the state government was funding all public libraries, they were dependent on its support in order to have money for building and re-building of libraries, and developing collections (Sroka 2000, 109). The influence of the government did not end at public and academic libraries. The new legislation also allowed the state to decide on matters in any private library, even though these libraries were not funded by it (Sroka 2000, 108-9).

The government imposed strict censorship with the help of Soviet authorities, and controlled collection development and access to library materials (Sroka 2000, 109, 110). Since censorship was the product of a Soviet ideology, Polish citizens could have been resentful of this foreign imposition on their intellectual freedom, and this attitude may have impacted their opinions and uses of public libraries. Censors compiled lists of books that were banned from libraries for being anti-Communist and anti-Soviet (Czarnik 2001, 107; Sroka 2000, 111). Censorship did not allow criticism of Communist philosophy or the Soviet Union (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 174). Newspapers, journals, and periodicals were also subject to censorship (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1993, 174). Censors targeted materials that were deemed to have "'an improper attitude towards Poland'" (Sroka 2000, 110). Academic and cultural freedoms were suppressed (Sroka 2000, 112). Artists, including writers, had to make sure that their works supported the ideology of the state, and self-censorship was a factor (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 174; Sroka 2000, 113-4). Some criteria were so general that any book that did not reflect Communist values could be banned (Sroka 2000, 117). Moreover, there were variations in some criteria based on different regions, as well as whether the time period was more or less repressive (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 174). Upholding censorship guidelines was so important that censors co-operated with political police from the Ministry of Security, who played a major role in controlling culture (Czarnik 2001, 107).

Librarians were forced to uphold the state's ideology and cultural policy, and those who held different opinions were dismissed from their positions and replaced by individuals deemed "more servile and trustworthy" (Kolodziejska 1995b, 54; Maj 1993, 34; Sroka 2000, 112, 114). Sometimes, librarians were required to have the proper political ideology more than they were required to be professionally competent (Sroka 2000, 115). This lack of competence could have been apparent to patrons, and may have affected their opinions and use of public libraries. Perhaps some of the fault for incompetence lay with libraries' outdated technology, including obsolete telecommunications, as well as lack of adequate facilities (Kolodziejska 1995b, 49; Maj 1993, 36; Sojka 1990, 23).

Libraries were considered to be an important tool of the government in ensuring that the ideology was transmitted to citizens (Sroka 2000, 115). They became political, whereas previously they had been apolitical (Sroka 2000, 116). Most senior managers of libraries belonged to the Communist party (Kolodziejska 1995a, 129; Kolodziejska 1995b, 48). In addition to official censors, librarians had to remove books that could have been considered as promoting "'subversive,'" "'imperialist,'" or "'bourgeois'" values, including mysteries and romances (Sroka 2000, 116, 117). Instead, they had to promote works that reflected the desired ideology (Sroka 2000, 116). The only way to obtain banned books was to access them from storage in the National Library or some university libraries, which kept them and allowed access to them "under exceptional circumstances" for research purposes (Sroka 2000, 117). Librarians filled shelves with insignificant literary works and materials about Marxism-Leninism (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 173). Collections were developed not based on users' requests, but through the centrally-controlled supplying of books (Kolodziejska 1995b, 54). Library directors had to watch for librarians that were apolitical (Sroka 2000, 116). The government provided librarians with instructions for organizing exhibits and lectures that would help disseminate the ideology (Sroka 2000, 120). It also regularly examined the reception of printed works to verify whether they promoted the ideology (Czarnik 2001, 105). If people were aware that their reactions to works were being monitored, perhaps they would have been less likely to look for materials that were not approved by the government. Librarians also had to take part in labour competitions, which often involved providing extra services for free, as well as increasing outputs (Sroka 2000, 118-9). These duties may have negatively affected librarians' morale, which could have been reflected in the service they provided to patrons. Some librarians were arrogant and negligent toward patrons, and this attitude resulted from low pay and ideological restrictions (Maj 1993, 36). Rare occurrences of librarians' involvement in their patrons' needs were often suppressed and admonished (Maj 1993, 37).

Most of the issues which Sroka (2000) and Czarnik (2001) present in their articles took place in the first decade of Communist rule, and after 1956 the political system was "less repressive" (Sroka 2000, 122). However, remnants of the changes in institutions such as libraries remained until the late 1980s, shortly before the fall of Communism (Sroka 2000, 122). Specific instances were restrictive access to some materials, prohibition of certain materials from public libraries, censorship, and the organizing of political exhibitions in libraries (Sroka 2000, 122). Additionally, there were time periods of "greater repression" and "thaw" (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 174), which could have had various consequences for libraries. The cooperation of censors with the political police continued until the end of Communism (Czarnik 2001, 107). This researcher speculates that these issues may have had a significant impact on libraries and their patrons throughout the entire rule of Communism. This speculation stems from such indications provided by the other authors examined.

The government controlled the publishing and distribution industries, so it would have been difficult to obtain materials that were not state-sanctioned (Kolodziejska 1995a, 132; Kolodziejska 1995b, 49, 50, 54; Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 173). Writers who wanted to publish works that were contrary to the ideology had to publish them either in the underground press, or smuggle them to the West to be published (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 173-4, 177). Works published in the West were accessible mostly to Poles who had emigrated, especially to cities such as London and Paris (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 177). Materials printed in the Polish underground press were mostly available to "intellectuals and residents of the large cities" (Kolodziejska 1995a, 132-3; Kolodziejska 1995b, 50), leaving the majority of the population unable to obtain them.

Immigrants' perceptions of public libraries in countries of origin and settlement

It is not clear what percentage of the Polish population was aware of the cultural restrictions of the government, however, the frequent demonstrations and protests of writers, intellectuals and students indicate that some individuals were acutely familiar with the situation (Nowacki-Chmielowiec 1998, 173). There are examples of protests regarding library materials by individuals who both showed "open disregard" for propaganda materials, and searched for politically unbiased works that would match their independent opinions (Czarnik 2001, 113). Readers sought alternatives to available library materials by borrowing from friends' personal collections of books published before the war, and reading older works that had survived censorship, but were not propaganda pieces (Czarnik 2001, 113-4). In order to help disseminate these works, some people even copied them out by hand (Czarnik 2001, 114).

Censorship restricted the ability of readers to select their own reading material, and the central control of public libraries separated them from the tastes and needs of local communities (Kolodziejska 1995a, 132, 137; Maj 1993, 36-7). The state created a false preference for ideologically-approved materials, since it "deprived readers of other options" (Kolodziejska 1995a, 132; Kolodziejska 1995b, 50). Librarians were not accountable to upholding the interests of their users, but those of the government, and so blocked the public's reading interests (Kolodziejska 1995a, 137-8, 140). Accordingly, patrons perceived libraries as being closed off from their influence (Maj 1993, 36-7). Perhaps some immigrants used to this system may have been unsure of their influence as patrons of Canadian libraries. Perhaps if people knew that they would only obtain a politically motivated answer to their query, and politically sanctioned materials, they may have chosen not to use libraries.

The situation in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) was similar to that in Poland. Readers' demands were not met due to the lack of variety in library materials, which resulted from the same aim of holding only works that promoted the Communist government's ideology (Dali 2004, 342, 343). Book collections were considered to be unattractive, since they were dictated by the needs of the government instead of patrons (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 30). Some people created secret underground libraries in private homes in order to satisfy the need for materials that violated the ideology (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 22). Other alternatives to public libraries included creating personal collections from black market books, and borrowing books from friends (Dali 2004, 342). Public libraries were perceived as only places to borrow books, and not as sources of information (Dali 2004, 342, 343, 346). In terms of countries of settlement, a study of Russian immigrants in Toronto revealed that they use public libraries extensively, but are dissatisfied with the Russian collection, seeing it as poor, outdated, and offering little choice (Dali 2004, 347, 352, 354). However, they appreciate that public library services are free (Dali 2004, 352). The public library is mostly perceived as a place to borrow materials (Dali 2004, 346). Moreover, the fact that the Russian collection is included as part of the greater public library collection "gives Russian immigrants a feeling of belonging" to the larger Toronto community (Dali 2004, 357).

Recent Polish immigrants to Sheffield, England share in the perception that there are not enough materials in their native language (Listwon and Sen 2009, 293, 294). However, they are generally satisfied with public libraries in Sheffield, especially since they provide computer and Internet access (Listwon and Sen 2009, 293). They are also grateful for the opportunity to read Polish materials (Listwon and Sen 2009, 292, 294). Study participants from the older generation of Polish immigrants are generally satisfied with the library services and the Polish collection (Listwon and Sen 2009, 296, 298).

Elderly Chinese immigrants in a Los Angeles area study are dissatisfied with public libraries. They do not consider libraries as very helpful sources of information, and in fact, perceive them to be the second least helpful source of information (Su and Conaway 1995, 82, 83). Most respondents in this study who tend not to use libraries indicated that they do not even think of going to the library (Su and Conaway 1995, 80, 81). The studies above indicate that all immigrants are not the same, and that perceptions of libraries vary among cultures. Thus, different cultures should be studied, in order to find out their idiosyncrasies.

Immigrants' use of public libraries in countries of origin and settlement

Use of libraries also differs among cultures. Given the restrictive nature of libraries, it is not surprising that use of libraries in Communist Poland was low, having fallen steadily since 1983, and hovering at twenty-one percent in 1989 (Kolodziejska 1995b, 54; Maj 1993, 35). Use in the FSU similarly decreased, with the most dramatic drop in the final years of Communist rule (Dali 2004, 343). In an Israeli study, only around half of the immigrants from the FSU belonged to libraries in their country of origin, but the majority of them belonged to a public library in Israel (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 27). Most of the Ethiopian immigrants in the same study reported a lack of availability of public libraries in their country of origin, but around half of the respondents had memberships in Israel (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 26, 27).

Russian immigrants in Toronto and FSU immigrants in Israel continue their habit from the FSU of using public libraries primarily for borrowing books (Dali 2004, 343, 346, 347; Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 26, 30). The majority of Torontonian respondents borrowed materials in English and less materials in Russian (Dali 2004, 347, 354). Immigrants from the FSU in Israel establish private libraries with Russian books, and this propensity for creating private libraries may stem from the private underground libraries that Russians used during Communist rule (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 22). A private library also exists at the Russian Library & Information Centre in Toronto (Dali 2004, 356).

Ethiopian immigrants prefer to study and to learn Hebrew in libraries (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 26, 30). Recent Polish immigrants in Sheffield borrow books, as well as materials to learn English, but primarily use libraries to access information on the Internet, and thereby to contact their family and friends in Poland, and to access Polish news and events (Listwon and Sen 2009, 292, 293). The older generation participants mainly use the public library to obtain books, but they also indicated that they do not use the library frequently (Listwon and Sen 2009, 296, 297). Elderly Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles use the library infrequently, with many of the study's respondents classifying themselves as occasional users, and around one-third as non-users (Su and Conaway 1995, 80). Most users came to read or borrow books and magazines, primarily in Chinese (Su and Conaway 1995, 81, 82). It is evident that there are differences among different immigrant groups in their use of public libraries, and so use by a particular group should be studied.

Immigrants' public library needs in countries of settlement

Despite differences among immigrant groups, it seems that there is a fairly common need for more library materials in their native languages. Additionally, Polish immigrants requested more interesting Polish books, as well as books by Polish authors instead of translations into Polish (Listwon and Sen 2009, 293, 297). The recent immigrants also need longer time allowances for computer use (Listwon and Sen 2009, 294). Although these respondents appreciate the availability of Polish materials, they would like to be involved in the selection of the Polish collection (Listwon and Sen 2009, 292, 294, 297). Finally, some study participants requested longer opening hours to be able to use libraries after work (Listwon and Sen 2009, 294). Russian immigrants need more modern Russian books, including a large variety of non-fiction, as well as Russian magazines, journals, professional literature, and audio-visual materials, although their language preference for the latter is unclear (Dali 2004, 347, 356). They also requested a larger and more varied collection of English-language instructional books, and books about Canadian history in English, since they perceived both of these categories of materials as being especially suitable for new immigrants (Dali 2004, 356). Elderly Chinese immigrants need information primarily about news events, health, and recreational, cultural, and religious activities (Su and Conaway 1995, 77, 78). However, these are their information needs in general, and not specifically from libraries.

Research Methods

The articles about studies inform the method for this project. Since most of the studies used a multilingual approach, this researcher will conduct interviews either in English or in Polish, in order to allow the participants to express themselves comfortably. Of the studies, only Su and Conaway can claim to have discovered the reasons for their participants' attitudes and behaviour, since they used an open-ended interviewing method for collecting data (Su and Conaway 1995, 74). Most of the other authors can only speculate as to the reasons influencing their participants' responses, since they used questionnaires. Listwon and Sen interviewed their five elderly immigrant participants, however the majority, namely fifty-two, of their respondents, who represented the younger immigrant group, answered questionnaires (Listwon and Sen 2009, 291, 292). Dali obtained some reasons by including open-ended questions in her questionnaire (Dali 2004, 360-3), but the scope of the responses was limited to the space allotted in the questionnaire and there was no possibility of follow-up and clarifying questions. For example, Dali cannot definitively explain why many of her participants borrow materials in English and less participants borrow materials in Russian (Dali 2004, 347, 354). This researcher will use open-ended questions in a semi-structured interview, in order to allow her participants to provide her with as much information as possible, including reasons for their attitudes and behaviour (Ayres 2008, 810).

Most studies did not examine immigrants' backgrounds from their countries of origin. Dali is a notable exception in her extensive information about censorship, libraries, and reading in the FSU (Dali 2004, 342-3). This researcher similarly believes that consideration of immigrants’ experiences in their countries of origin is necessary to be able to situate them in the context in which they live. However, unlike Dali, this researcher will ask questions specifically pertaining to participants' library experiences in Communist Poland, instead of merely assuming that certain attitudes and behaviour are transferred to countries of settlement. This approach will allow her to determine whether or not there is a relationship between Polish immigrants' experiences in and attitudes toward public libraries in Communist Poland, and their subsequent experiences in, attitudes toward, and needs from public libraries in Edmonton. Consequently, this approach will go beyond Shoham and Rabinovich's undetailed examination of immigrants' use of libraries and sources for books in their countries of origin (Shoham and Rabinovich 2008, 26-8), since by using a questionnaire (24) these researchers cannot provide a definitive link between factors in countries of origin and countries of settlement. Instead of speculation regarding a relationship, this project will provide support for its findings through the expressions of participants. A semi-structured interview will allow the researcher to use probing questions to elicit responses that cover certain topics, which will enable her to ask questions regarding the reasons behind participants' thoughts and actions (Ayres 2008, 810).

Importance to this study

The preceding articles inform the design of this project through their emphasis on the study of immigrant communities and their needs, in order for libraries in their countries of settlement to be able to provide collections, programs, and services that meet these needs. They also provide necessary historical background information that presents the context of participants' library experiences in Communist Poland. The continued interest in immigrant needs remains a necessary topic of study, and so this researcher will study the Polish immigrant community in Edmonton. This study will address the lack of research about the influence of Communist libraries in Poland on Polish immigrants’ library experiences in countries of settlement. This project shares many of the above studies' research objectives and purposes, namely identifying immigrant groups' library needs, so that they can be met. However, it will achieve them in a different way. It will use background historical information and examine how the political situation affected its citizens' experiences with libraries. The political situation in Communist Poland was extremely different from that in Canada, and so each country's political system had a different effect on its libraries, and libraries had different purposes to them. There is a possibility that immigrants' library experiences in countries of origin affect their experiences in countries of settlement. The only way to determine whether or not this possibility is a reality is to ask individuals with such experiences for their stories.