Bilingual Preferred?: Library School and Foreign Language Requirements

Last year I wrote a paper about services for non-English-speaking patrons in public libraries. As I studied the history of the library’s relationship with languages, I couldn’t help but feel that something was missing from the library and information science curriculum: a foreign language requirement.

While  my school hadn’t made foreign language proficiency a requirement, perhaps other programs had. I quickly concluded that my program was not the outlier; some cursory searching showed that foreign language requirements are rare for library and information science programs.


This wasn’t always the case, though. Melvil Dewey proposed in 1887 that librarians should prepare for the profession with study in both language and comparative literature (Fisher & Beck 45).  In the 1900s to the 1930s, proficiency in two foreign languages was typically required of graduate degree candidates in any field, and the post-World War II era was considered a “golden age” of foreign language study (Fisher & Beck 41).

So why are there so few library science programs with foreign language requirements today?  As English appeared to become an “international tongue” due to the United States’ leadership in science and technology, educators questioned the necessity of foreign language study (Fisher & Beck 41). As a result, foreign language requirements have been purged  from graduate programs since the mid-twentieth century (Fisher & Beck 42). Fisher and Beck wrote in 1978 that, “most library schools have, in fact, eliminated the language requirement for either admission to, or graduation from, their programs” (45).

What I find interesting, though, is that in the period in which Fisher & Beck wrote about a decrease in foreign language requirements, linguistic diversity in the United States was uncharacteristically low. Between 1970 and 2010, the number of foreign born people in the United States rose 8.2% (Rumbaut & Massey 142). Given this demographic shift, it may be time to consider bringing foreign languages back to library and information science programs.

As more library job listings feature the phrase “bilingual preferred,” it’s not hard to see why many library professionals are taking the initiative to work on their language skills, but a competitive edge in the job market is far from the only reason we should reevaluate library schools’ attitudes toward foreign language study. Aidy So wrote a compelling post on why librarians should make the effort to learn a foreign language, but I’m going to go one step further and propose that we have a professional responsibility to take up language study.

I would like to see this dedication to inclusion and diversity expressed in the form of foreign language proficiency requirements, but until that happens, the onus is on us to make our patrons and colleagues feel more welcomed and to develop better foreign language resources. Even in 1978, Fisher & Beck suggested that librarians had a responsibility to learn a language, regardless of degree requirements (40). Fortunately, there are a number of resources for learning foreign languages independently. This article from U.S. News & World Report covers a number of options for learning a foreign language online, including many free options. Mango, described on their website as a “PhD-created, linguist-approved language-learning software,” offers instruction in over 70 languages and is available in many public libraries. If you prefer to practice your speaking skills face-to-face, language departments in universities often have informal clubs for speakers of different abilities to converse. Although our programs may not require foreign language proficiency to graduate, we shouldn’t consider that an excuse not to take the initiative ourselves.

Does your program require foreign language proficiency for graduation? Do you think it should? Have you used any online language tools? How has knowing or not knowing a foreign language affected your performance as a library professional? Tell us in the comments!


Works Cited

Beck, William J, and Suzanne B Fisher. “Implications Of The Foreign Language Requirement For Library Schools.” Journal Of Education For Librarianship 19.1 (1978): 40-54.Information Science & Technology Abstracts (ISTA). Web. 16 Oct. 2016.

Rumbaut, Rubén G., and Douglas S. Massey. “Immigration & Language Diversity In The United States.” Daedalus 142.3 (2013): 141. Publisher Provided Full Text Searching File. Web. 15 Oct. 2016.

9 replies

  1. Great article and point! I also think this is something that is very racialized…for example there are bilingual French K-12 schools in the U.S., but, from my experience, you don’t see the same with Spanish. This definitely needs to be said! And the contradiction of not requiring foreign language learning and the increase in linguistic diversity is compelling!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Thank you for sharing! I majored in Spanish in undergrad, and although I switched fields to now work in a library, being bilingual in the library has huge benefits! Even in a community that is not very racially or linguistically diverse, being bilingual and being sensitive to non-English needs is important. I have been able to assist Spanish-speaking patrons when no one else can. I’ve helped get articles in Spanish for non-native speakers. I’ve also given (just a little) input on our Spanish-language learning collection, because not only native Spanish speakers will use the Spanish-language materials. We have business people and high school students who are also trying to learn Spanish. I’ve translated library brochures and signs into Spanish (at a different library). This mentality is easily applied to other languages as well. I’d encourage anyone who is thinking of going into the library field to learn at least one other language! There’s a lot of positions that will prefer another language, and you’ll actually be surprised how often it’s needed!


    • I forgot to mention… I’m currently in library school, and I took a class called “Resources for Spanish-speaking patrons.” It was VERY informative, and gave me strategies for reaching patrons who speak another language (not just Spanish!). If your program offers a similar class, I highly recommend a similar course, even if you don’t speak another language!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Thank you for writing this. This topic is something I’m particularly interested in exploring for my future thesis (gulp) and you made excellent points about things I hadn’t considered before. My program doesn’t require a language as far as I know but with multilingual programs on the rise in education along with patron populations who speak other languages, learning an additional language is definitely needed nowadays!

    I’m fortunate enough to be bilingual in Spanish & English and it has helped me immensely in my professional life. Even before I started being a librarian, it’s always been a plus knowing two languages. And as you already mentioned, learning an additional language for the sake of the job isn’t the only reason to consider. It just helps to be more aware of the world and language is one of the best ways to deepen one’s understanding of the world.


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