Library display an entry into discussion of immigration

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How has immigration affected our nation’s identity from the start? The Warwick Public Library’s recent historical education display, entitled “Immigration: An American Story,” was introduced to bring light to that question and to start conversations among the library’s patrons about their own personal experiences with finding a new home in the United States. As the exhibit’s time at the library concludes this week, its documentation of the history of America’s immigrant population is something that the library hopes will continue to bring the community together in discussion.

“Many Americans…descend from immigrants who fled religious or ethnic persecution, war, or economic hardship,” the exhibit’s introductory panel reads. “Over time, each wave of immigrants has left its own imprint on the United States. It’s important to remember where we all came from and how public attitudes and policies on immigration have changed throughout the country’s history.”

Loaned by the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, the exhibit is comprised of seven panels featuring detailed maps, images, and personal accounts of immigrants to the United States from across the world, beginning in 1492 with Christopher Columbus’s first accidental contact with America and ending with the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which was discontinued in 2017. In between is a list of events that have impacted the flow of migration: colonization, wars, and the gaining of new territories, which necessitated new people encountering the nation. 

Maps of the American nation begin as plain diagrams of colonies on the East Coast, and soon expand into colorful maps that push westward and flesh out borders with neighboring nations. A black and white photo of a Germany artillery unit in 1861 marks the importance of immigrants to military efforts, while a photo taken in the 1980s shows immigrant Lester Holmes making a new start in America after the death of his grandfather, the president of Liberia, during a military coup. The backgrounds of the immigrants in the display may differ vastly, but they are united by the experience of coming to a new nation to find a place for themselves and their families.

Census results are highlighted in each time period, starting in the 19th century, as the first United States census to collect information on immigrant populations in 1850. By that point, 9.7 percent of the nation’s population had been born in another country, totaling to 2.2 million. The Census Bureau estimates that by 2016, that percentage had risen to 13.5 percent – now approximately a 43.7 million foreign-born population.

“It feels very current to me,” said Jana Stevenson, the library’s Deputy Director, regarding the exhibit. “It’s a good community conversation starter.” She spoke of Rhode Island’s history as a point of entry for many immigrants to America - especially during the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, where textile mills offered employment to those seeking jobs. The cities of Providence and Newport in particular were noteworthy as centers for immigrant populations. Stevenson said that she noticed the impact of the display quickly; by the exhibit’s first few days, she had already heard several patrons reminisce about their families and the journey they took to America.

While displays of this nature are typically rented for a fee, the Gilder Lehrman Institute offered the opportunity for libraries that were members of the institute to host the exhibits for free in the summer. Donated for a four-week period, these displays are hosted inside of the participating libraries free of charge for the public. To learn more about the exhibits offered visit www.gilderlehrman.org. 

In addition to hosting the exhibit, the library also created a book list pertaining to immigrant experiences. The titles, which are all novels, include: Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; Behold the Dreamers by Imbolo Mbue; The Bonesetter’s Daughter by Amy Tan; The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henríquez; Brooklyn by Colm Toibin; Exit West by Mohsin Hamid; Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok; How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez; The Leavers by Lisa Ko; The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri; A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza; and White Teeth by Zadie Smith.

The Rhode Island Ethnic Heritage Pamphlet series is also recommended by the library. All of these titles can be found in the library’s collection, and can be located through the Reference Desk.

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