Language Proposal

What language should the Cambridge Public Library add to its collection?


Creating space for a new language reflects the Library's commitment to access, community, and diversity. Cambridge is a wonderfully diverse city and during this analysis over 20 languages emerged for consideration.


In order to narrow down the list of languages I looked at several factors:

Circulation Statistics

The average number of checkouts per year, the average number of last year circs, and the average number of year-to-date circs were all charted. Note that I needed a substantial sample size to accurately gauge the checkouts, so only collections that had 100 or more items were considered. This means that some notable languages, like Amharic, do not appear in the chart.

Hold Statistics

The important thing to note about hold transaction data is that it is only kept in the system for 5 weeks. So while this data would normally be incredibly useful for us, do take it with a grain of salt.

Holds filled.
Books on hold week 1.
Books on hold week 2.
Books on hold week 3.

Speakers of Other Languages

Data for the first graph was taken from the American Community Survey (US Census Bureau), while data for the second graph was taken from the PLINE study.

Foreign populations in Cambridge.

Students who speak another language at home.

Top Languages

Twenty-two languages appeared on these charts: Amharic, Arabic, Armenian, Bengali, German, Greek, Gujarati, Hebrew, Hindi, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Latin, Russian, Persian, Polish, Somali, Tamil, Tigrinya, Turkish, Ukrainian, and Yiddish.

Out of these, four languages stood out for appearing on the most charts and generally performing well: Arabic, German, Japanese, and Korean.

Special mentions: Amharic did very well and almost certainly would have made it into the top two if I thought that we would be able buy those books anywhere. Cambridge has a strong Ethiopian community and outreach should certainly happen, but it is probably just not possible to start an Amharic collection.

The Indian languages as a whole performed strongly as well. This includes Bengali, Hindi, Gujarati, and Tamil. However, no one language really stood above the others. For example, a significant number of students spoke Bengali at home, but Tamil circulates far better.

Hebrew is interesting in that the holds are very active, but there doesn't appear to be a large population that speaks Hebrew as a first language. The US Census Bureau indicates that 98% of people in Middlesex County who speak Hebrew also speak English "very well." I've left it out of the top four for now, but it may be worth watching the hold situation and revisiting that language later.

And what about Russian, the highest circing language? Well, first of all, many Russian immigrants arrived in the U.S. in the 80s--there has not been a large influx recently. And most of these people actually settled to the southwest of Cambridge, in the Brookline/Newton/Needham area. In fact, there is already an impressive collection of over 15,000 Russian books in the network. Most of these are in Newton and Brookline, but there are moderate collections elsewhere. If we're only buying 100-200 books overall, our money is probably better spent not trying to duplicate these efforts.

Speaking of collection size, where do our four language stand in that respect? Well, this is the breakdown for books in the Minuteman Library Network:

My takeaway from this is that, for being the fifth most spoken language in the world, Arabic is sorely underrepresented. Likewise with Japanese. German and Korean have a moderate amount of books available, but certainly don't compare to Russian.

It may also be worth noting how well speakers of each foreign language speak English, and therefore have access to a greater number of library resources already. In the Boston-Cambridge-Newton area, 38% of Koreans spoke English less than "very well," followed by 33% of Japanese, 24% of Arabic-speakers, and 12% of Germans.

Arabic, Total: 949
German, Total: 889
Japanese, Total: 802
Korean, Total: 1387


Although Japanese circulates very well and several German books were put on hold over the past few weeks, neither of the groups are as populous as the others in Cambridge. My recommendation is for either Arabic or Korean to be added to the collection.

Arabic-speakers in Cambridge primarily come from five countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco, and Kuwait. Although many people here speak Arabic and the language is common among students, the network's collection is lacking. It's possible this is due to the high number of Arabic dialects. Not every Arabic speaker can necessarily communicate with another using their own dialect, but many get around this language barrier using Modern Standard Arabic.

There is also a relatively large Korean population in the city and Korean books did fill the most holds here last month. Koreans made up the third largest immigrant group here in 2018 after Indians and Ethiopians. They also had the most trouble speaking English out of the four languages studied, and may therefore benefit the most from having a collection of books in their language.



Although we expected only one language to be added, Library Administration decided to add both Arabic and Korean to the collection.

A thank you note from Syria.

Thanks for reading! If you have any comments or questions, feel free to email me at