DENVER — On a rainy Saturday, Miereya Gomez quietly thumbed through a book titled “Los Colores” as her two young sons carried comic books to their father in the children’s section of the Central Public Library on the outskirts of downtown Denver.
“They really enjoy it here,” Gomez said as her husband read a Spider-man comic to 3-year-old Israel, listening intently as he hugged his father’s knee. “We come here mostly for the kids, for books and movies — educational and entertainment — in Spanish and English.”
Dozens of states have seen soaring growth in Spanish-speaking populations in recent years and hundreds of libraries have tried to keep pace by stocking up on books, magazines and movies.
But the growth has been controversial in some places, with critics saying taxpayer money shouldn’t be spent on a population that can include illegal immigrants or on proposals that promote languages other than English.
In Denver, where the foreign-born population tripled between 1990 and 2000 largely because of Mexican immigrants, the public library system is considering reorganizing some of its branches to emphasize bilingual services and material.
Similar efforts have been taken by libraries across the country, from the Queens Borough library in New York, whose Web site is offered in English, Spanish, Chinese, French, Russian and Korean, to the large Chinese-language collection at the San Francisco library.
Interest in foreign-language material is also expanding inland.
“The interest is in rural areas and cities that aren’t the usual Spanish areas, like New York or Miami, but in North Carolina, Illinois and the Midwest,” said Carmen Ospina, editor of Critica, a magazine for librarians that highlights Spanish-language material.
She said questions about how to start Spanish-language collections have come from librarians in Belton, Mo., Nashville, Ga., and towns she had never heard of.
“It’s definitely a growing trend,” said Carol Brey-Casiano, former president of the American Library Association. “It’s definitely something we’re seeing more and more, because the Hispanic population is growing in our country.”
The plan being considered by the Denver Public Library system — the largest in Colorado — has come under scrutiny.
Rep. Tom Tancredo, R-Colo., sent a public letter to Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper this summer asking whether the library was considering Spanish-only branches or converting to Spanish-language material at the expense of English material. Tancredo, an outspoken critic of U.S. immigration policies, said he had been contacted by concerned librarians and patrons.
“When you have a strong cultural identity and there aren’t set incentives to become American, it creates a lot of tension and divides the community,” said Tancredo’s spokesman, Will Adams.
Those concerns were echoed by Michael Corbin, a radio talk show host who helped organize a protest outside Denver’s central library after sexually graphic content was found in some Spanish-language adult comic books that have since been removed.
“The library issue kind of borders on multiculturalism, and I don’t think we should be catering to any particular group,” Corbin said.
Added Bob Copley Sr., co-founder of the Colorado Minutemen: “Here we’re being asked to bring another culture in, but it’s coming in largely illegally.”
Denver library officials say they’re not considering Spanish-only branches, but are simply looking to accommodate a city where 35 percent of residents are Hispanic, as are more than half of the students attending Denver public schools.
About 40 percent of the material borrowed from Denver libraries is for children and the use of adult books is decreasing. Meanwhile, about 48 percent of Hispanic households in Denver are families with children, while only 15 percent of white households are families with children, according to figures complied by the library.
The Denver library’s plan suggests organizing branches in four “service styles.”
Some would be contemporary libraries resembling book stores with coffee and comfortable seating that emphasize adult material. Family libraries would focus on children’s and adult material, while children’s libraries might include activity stations. Learning and language libraries would have more bilingual material and offer evening classes to learn English or computer programs.
Under the plan, all branches would still offer popular fiction and children’s summer reading events, said Diane Lapierre, director of strategic initiatives for the Denver Public Library.
“This is very specific to Denver and in response to our own community,” Lapierre said. “In 1913, we had a branch library with Dutch and English. If anything, this is just a more coordinated effort — we’re looking at a system as a whole instead of tweaking one branch at a time.”
Libraries elsewhere in Colorado also carry material in Spanish.