Libraries as Language Hubs
Dewey Decimal Classification — 400-499 Language Library
By Guest Contributor Linda Maxie
If you are interested in language, whether in your native language or those foreign to you, check out this section of the Dewey Decimal Classification system at your local public library. While the Language division, shelved in 400-499, is typically the smallest in most public libraries, its treasures are worth plundering if you care about language.
Dictionaries, grammar books, and style guides abound here. Of course, the reference sources will vary according to the library you visit. For example, if you live in an area with a large population of Vietnamese immigrants, you will find more books on the Vietnamese language. Since funding is limited, libraries spend the most money on items of the highest interest to their patrons.
In addition to the regular books in this section, be sure to explore the 400s reference section. Most libraries still maintain reference departments, which are a natural home for many language materials. It may or may not be possible to check these out, but if you are a language lover, they will keep you happy for hours.
In addition to the writing and speaking aids discussed above, you can find books on linguistics, etymologies, phonetics, and sign languages in your library. Scroll to the last section of this article for a few examples of titles you may find here.
Libraries and Literacy
Libraries and literacy pair together like wine and cheese; each complements the other. While literacy is bandied about for all sorts of things, like digital proficiency, Merriam-Webster defines literacy simply as the ability to read and comprehend short passages.
To aid with this, many public libraries offer free literacy programs to their patrons. Some of these programs involve leveled-reading materials (materials written on a specific grade level), classes, and tutoring.
According to the Public Library Association, roughly 43 million Americans struggle with basic reading skills. Nearly one-third of these were born and raised in the U.S. These figures cut across all races, ethnicities, and geographical locations.
Libraries seek to increase literacy in all sorts of ways. One of these is providing supplemental reading materials for school students. These books help because school libraries often earmark their limited budgets to purchase materials that support the school’s curriculum.
English as Second Language (ESL) students and teachers can find bonus materials to help with their instruction. Even if a local library doesn’t offer classes or tutoring, people seeking to improve their reading skills or learn English can employ Reading While Listening (RWL). Many libraries have both the audio version of a book and the readable version, whether in eBook or print format. So, if you check out the audio and visual versions of any work, you can listen while reading along. Doing so increases comprehension, aids pronunciation, and builds vocabulary.
For more information on libraries and literacy, see Public Libraries, September/October 2022. The magazine is a production of the Public Library Association in the U.S. The issue’s article “Building a Literacy Collection to Support Adult Learners” by Amy Hartman lists the following three websites for ESL students and other adults learning to read:
Reading Skills for Today’s Adults contains leveled stories aimed at adult interests.
The Times in Plain English offers news stories in an accessible format.
Reading Skills for Healthcare Workers has leveled health information.
Libraries frequently welcome volunteers for literacy programs. If you or an organization you belong to would be interested in helping, contact your local library to see if they have a program for you.
Books from the Language Division
The following books were taken from Chapter 5, “400-499 Languages,” in Library Lin’s Curated Collection of Superlative Nonfiction. The complete book has an entire public library’s worth of excellent books on every topic.
Steven Pinker, The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language, 1994.
Cognitive scientist Steven Pinker explains how language works, how children learn it, and how it evolved. The first edition was already considered a classic before the updated edition in 2000 reflected the latest scientific understandings.
James Turner Philology: The Forgotten Origins of the Modern Humanities, 2014.
Philology encompassed the study of today’s humanities, including classical literature, the Bible, languages, other kinds of literature, history, culture, art, and music. James Turner explores the past regard for the humanities and how they became largely irrelevant. He also speculates on what we can gain by exploring them once again.
Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries, 2017.
Lexicographer Kory Stamper worked for Merriam-Webster, the publisher of one of the most highly regarded dictionaries in the English language. In this book, she offers a humorous peek into the world of dictionary production. Of course, it’s not simple. Language is constantly changing, but how do you know which words merit a place in the dictionary because they are here to stay? Stamper explains this along with other language conundrums.
David Crystal, Spell It Out: The Singular Story of English Spelling, 2012.
Spelling in the English language is tricky. And from grade school on, people tend to divide themselves into good and poor spellers. English language expert David Crystal tries to explain the difficulty in 27 concise chapters. He covers the early influence of Roman missionaries and moves on to theories of where the language may be heading.
Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman: A Tale of Murder, Insanity, and the Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, 1998.
Professor James Murray began to compile the Oxford English Dictionary in 1857. After calling for help gathering word citations, Murray was impressed by the research of Dr. W. C. Minor. However, when he traveled to honor Dr. Minor in person, Murray was shocked to discover that his contributor was an inmate in an asylum for the criminally insane. This story offers insight into the nature of 19th-century medicine, its treatment of the insane, and the making of one of the most remarkable reference works in the English language.
John Russell Rickford and Russell John Rickford, Spoken Soul: The Story of Black English, 2000.
Poetic and original, Black English defines a people. Linguist John Russell traces its history and outlines its features.
Bryan A. Garner, The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation, 2016.
Lexicographer Bryan A. Garner helps those who want their written communications to convey intelligence and correctness. He illuminates the history behind why certain forms are perceived as correct, tackles syntax, and explains traditional uses and changes in the usage over time. Garner ends the book with punctuation rules, a glossary, and a further reading list.
Margalit Fox, The Riddle of the Labyrinth: The Quest to Crack an Ancient Code, 2013.
Linguist Margalit Fox has written a page-turning account of Arthur Evans and his discovery of an ancient civilization on Crete that predated Classical Greece by a thousand years. She reported the discoveries of the people who lived in the age of Odysseus. And she exposes the mysterious events, including a suspicious death, surrounding the study of its artifacts in the 20th century.