A Celebration of Latinx Stories at Bethlehem Area Public Library: from 1976-Today

In 1976, Bethlehem Area Public Library’s (BAPL) South Side Branch became an intellectual haven for Bethlehem’s Latinx residents and a “fiesta para todos” would celebrate the library’s new multi-cultural vision and resources available for the Hispanic community. In 2019, through a Mellon Grant from Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium and in partnership with Lehigh Universitys South Side Initiative, BAPL’s Janine Santoro began conducting an oral history project entitled “Voces de la Comunidad” to shine a light on the Latinx community of Bethlehem, which is still collecting stories today.

Newer residents of Bethlehem, PA might not know that the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library was one of the first places that intentionally sought to transform itself into a place that would “court Spanish speakers.”  In the mid 1970s, the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library received a federal grant for $67,035 to “make the facilities more conducive to increased membership and use among Spanish-speaking residents, and to create an awareness among Spanish-speaking residents of the services libraries offer.” At the time, this would cater to the needs of 10,000 Spanish speaking residents, predominantly those who migrated from Puerto Rico. As the library used grant funding to expand their holdings, residents were able to find items in both English and Spanish, which included 2,000 Spanish books, a collection of magazines and films, “five viewers, seven cassette players, and two record players.” In addition to circulating items and materials to be used in-house, the grant funded renovations included the creation of a children’s room and expansion of the basement, which has since become a space for classes, community discussions, book sales, and storage. The grant also helped with the “hiring of a children’s librarian and two bilingual library aides, all for one year- the duration of the grant.”

Today the South Side Branch continues to be a place where Spanish-speaking patrons can checkout movies, music, books, and ESL materials. DIY programs, gardening workshops, legal workshops, and ESL classes are typically offered bilingually, and one-on-one “Book-a-Librarian” appointments can be requested in Spanish. In 2020, we have many community partners on the South Side that have helped to provide and expand services to our Latinx neighbors of all ages and abilities, which have enhanced our community into becoming a robust, vibrant, diverse, and creative city.

Read the articles below, in English or Spanish, to learn more about BAPL’s dedicated staff, including Doris Snyder, who knew the importance of people being able “to keep some contact with their native tongue” and “not neglect it.”

A Note to the Reader about the Bethlehem Latinx Oral History Project:

We forge forward, with urgency, to unearth and celebrate the stories of our Latinx community members- and you can help! If you know any Latino/Hispanic community leaders that would like to share their stories with us for our oral history project, Voces de la Comunidad, please contact Janine Santoro at: [email protected]. This project is generously supported through a Mellon Grant from Lehigh Valley Engaged Humanities Consortium and is in partnership with Lehigh University’s South Side Initiative. Due to COVID-19, our interviews with community leaders are currently being conducted remotely through Zoom. The project seeks to explore the diversity of the community, the changing nature of work, and the evolving landscape for Latinx members in Bethlehem, which will shine a light on the community’s stories and their contributions over the past 50 years.

About the Author:

Janine Santoro works within Adult Services at the South Side Branch of Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, PA, creating curriculum and workshops that serve those in the community free of cost. Janine received her B.A. in English and Psychology from Rutgers University (NJ) and her M.Div. from Drew Theological School (NJ).


Amigo, A. (1976, November 6). Noticias de Aca y de Alla: Biblioteca Atrae a los Hispanos. The Morning Call, p. 26.

Weil, L. (1976, October 13). Library courts Spanish speakers: Open house on Friday. The Morning Call, p. 11.

Researched by Elizabeth Saraceno.

*This article is republished from BAPL News, originally appearing there on June 23rd, 2020.

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