High Tech, Transnational Families, and Public Libraries (Sondra Cuban)

Sondra Cuban is Professor of Adult Education at Western Washington University (Bellingham, WA). She was a researcher and teacher at Lancaster University (UK) for seven years. Her most recent book is: Deskilling Migrant Women in the Global Care Industry (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013). She posted a longer version on September 15, 2013 in her blog on Information and Communication Technology (ICT).

 Migrant workers have always used the public library— growing and expanding its base. Mary Antin, an author and immigration rights activist in the late 1800s crowned the library a ‘kingdom in the slum’ just as Simone, a Jamaican domestic worker, a hundred years later, said that her library made her feel like ‘a million dollars’ because of its many resources.

For over a century, public libraries have played important roles in immigrant adaptation to new places of settlement (for example assisting with job searches), celebrating cultural heritage (multicultural exhibits and resources) and language development (bringing immigrants together for ESL or bilingual programs). Indeed, the American public library and immigrants have been for generations reciprocating sponsors—of immigrants’ needs, and of the library’s cultural resources.

My research on migrant workers builds on this tradition but takes a different angle, with the awareness that immigrants are important library technology users.  Walk into any library in the computer section/room and you see a range of immigrant populations typing for the sake of communication. They are often communicating with family across borders, sharing media, links, and trading information that help them care and connect through their ‘absent presence. Yet it is ICTs that are mostly celebrated rather than the accommodating spaces the [technology is] located; for example ICTs have been called the ‘transnational glue’ for migrants….

One good study has discussed the immobility of migrant live-in domestic workers in Singapore (Huang and Yeoh, 2007, 2011) and their reliance on ICTs as a strategy to stay in touch with family abroad, unable to leave the homes where they worked. The ICTs in this case, granted them a type of temporary emotional freedom from their immediate surroundings. The public library offers an alternative space for workers who may not have homes, connectivity, access to the internet, or computers. Although many migrant workers have been shown to have mobile phones, they may be limited by the steep phone prices to stay in touch. Enter the library, where computers and internet use is free.

This is important in an age where labor migration has increased steadily, with cities attracting a diverse mix of migrant workers. With this, more families than ever before are living apart from one another, a term known as ‘global householding.’ This means members have different residences from one another yet still support the other through financial remittances, but also socially and emotionally from a distance. Maria is a good example. Without a computer connection she depended on her local public library to contact her teenage son and her mother who cared for him in Mexico. She checked his homework, talked to his teachers and sent money home to her family for school supplies. When the two chatted they shared TV shows and music links to connect across generations.  All of this communication was done through a combination of messaging, skyping, emailing, and other media in and around the library. Yet Maria’s family and other transnational families who are not physically together (due also to restrictions on family reunfication), are often invisible in policies and practice that focus exclusively on locally-based and household-bound relations.

The library, with its ICT-based resources, programs and services, is strengthening families across borders and fortifying immigrants’ familial connections—acting as a type of ‘holding environment’ (Kegan, 1982; Cuban, 2003) for them through their technologies and ICTs. These families, separated by immigration policies, economics, and aspirations, establish a type of ‘co-presence’ through library-based ICTs. Even the ‘left-behinds (children, elderly parents, siblings in other countries) in a sense, become indirect users and beneficiaries of the public library, although a long way away. It redefines who is a ‘user’ of public libraries.

I will be conducting research with a public library system that focuses on these migrant workers and their connections with their transnational families and relations abroad through ICTs within or around the space and services of public libraries or related services. In a sense, this research expands the library’s remit and breadth for families (for example immigrant ESL and family literacy programs/services that incorporate proximate members) and its users not just within social, local, and mobile cultures (SoLoMo), but also on an international scale, thereby expanding its scope. The research explores the roles of ICTs in transnational families and the use of the library or library services in this process as migrant workers care, connect and exchange important information across borders to improve the quality of their lives. This research will examine close-up migrant workers and their transnational families’ strategies, experiences, voices, and identities as they change. The spaces and places of ICT usage need better representation in research.

Outcomes for the project would be: digital storytelling products; recommendations to library ESL and family literacy and learning type programs as well as technology, and information on transnational families and their importance to migrant workers. Possible benefits for migrant workers and their families would be digital books or photos about their lives for themselves and their families. Other outcomes would be intrinsic such as a greater awareness of the supports of family abroad, and a burgeoning understanding of their situations by speaking with others in similar positions; workshops on digital literacy and learning that could assist in greater communication; information regarding community-based services.


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