To say that Xuan Zhou has come a long way in her young life doesn’t do the journey justice.
She grew up in Qinyang, China, a town so small it didn’t have a library. Kids who were discovering books hung out in bookstores until they were asked to leave, yet one of them kept coming back.
That would be Zhou, who later earned a graduate degree in library sciences and now is the assistant manager of the Eckstrom-Columbus branch of the Pima County Public Library. She is also the team leader of the library’s new “Biblio Lotus” initiative — a program designed to support and give voice to the Asian communities of Tucson.
Formed at least in part as a response to the abuse Asian Americans have received over the last year, Biblio Lotus is the newest of the library’s cultural affinity teams.
There are six teams in all, each charged with connecting a specific group to the library and a community beyond.
“The library is for everyone,” Library Services Manager Amy Rusk explained. “Each of our affinity teams make sure that our staffing, our programming and our collections reflect the people who live in our community.”
The oldest affinity team is “Nuestras Raíces,” which celebrates the culture, heritage and voice of our Spanish-speaking community.
Next came the “LGBTQ+ Services Committee,” which makes sure the library is an active partner in LGBTQ efforts to provide opportunities for everyone.
The “Kindred Team,” established in 2017, connects and gives voice to our Black community.
“Welcome to America” connects services to our immigrant and refugee community, and the “Many Nations Team” works with the county’s tribes and other Native American programs.
“We ask our teams to help us with personnel and programming decisions within the library,” Rusk said. “They also advise our Collection Development Department with the selection of books for our collection. Each team has a page on our website, and each page has list of book recommendations. If you would like to explore the latest in Asian literature, for example, you can find some suggestions on our website and check them out from the library.”
Rusk asked Zhou to help build the Biblio Lotus initiative in August of last year. The program launched this spring. Rusk couldn’t have found a better team leader.
As a girl, Zhou said, she always loved books. She read the Chinese classics such as “Hongloumeng” (“Dream of the Red Chamber”) by Cao Xueqin, but preferred mysteries and romance.
As she became comfortable speaking English — all Chinese children begin taking English classes in third grade — Zhou began reading American authors. One of her favorites was O. Henry. “I still love ‘The Gift of the Magi,’” she admits.
Zhou’s appreciation for books continued to blossom over the years. She graduated from Wuhan University in China, earned a graduate degree from McGill University in Montreal, and joined the staff at Pima County Library in 2019.
“When Amy asked me to work with the Biblio Lotus team I think I said ‘Yes!’ before she finished the sentence,” Zhou said. “I had moved to Montreal before I really knew how to speak French, so I understood how hard that can be. I’m a first-generation immigrant to the U.S., so I appreciate the challenges that come with that.”
Her journey resonates particularly well in the neighborhoods surrounding the Columbus branch library. Thousands of nearby residents are immigrants from Southeast Asia and West Africa.
Zhou hopes Biblio Lotus will be a bridge that connects the Asian community to the Tucson community at large. At the same time, the team works to help Tucson better understand the gifts these neighbors bring. Culture is a big part of that. Literature is a big part of that.
Zhou’s book recommendation this month is “Front Desk,” a children’s book featuring an immigrant family learning to fit in, by Kelly Yang.
Zhou brags on her fellow librarians at the Eckstrom-Columbus library on East 22nd Street.
‘“Together, we have librarians who speak Mandarin, Swahili, French, Spanish and Maay Maay – a language spoken in Somalia and Kenya,” she said. “If there is anyone in Tucson who would like to reach these communities, please let us know.”
To learn more about the library’s cultural affinity efforts and see their book recommendations, go to library.pima.gov and click on the “Browse” button. There is a link for each affinity team under “Discover Community.”