Refining Equal Access to Queen’s Public Library

Meet the Team

An interdisciplinary group of students from Columbia University that harnesses the skill sets from Architecture, Urban Planning, Computer Science, and Journalism in hopes of responding to the possible contributions and detriments technology and digital world has, and will, offer to our society.

Aruna A. Das


Julio Gomez

Computer Science - CC

Scarlet Tong


Xabier Peralta

Computer Science - CC

Jean Kim

Architecture - GSAPP

Our Goal

A progressive web application that is designed to decentralize the prevalence of English as the default language for most website development. Given a large population of the Queen’s Public Library (QPL) patrons do not speak English very well and are often bilingual or multilingual, Multi-log treats all languages equally by curating content based on the user's language preference. The goal is to ensure the user experience for all is maintained regardless of the user’s known language, enabling non-English speakers (especially immigrants) to fully utilize QPL’s services.

What is PIT?

PIT: Public Interest Technology

To us, Public Interest Tech is

  • developed for non-profit or driven by monetary incentives
  • used to serve a non-profit or public organization for the benefit of the populace
  • indiscriminate toward its users throughout its development and implementation
  • aimed to overturn industry standards and assumptions that prioritizes certain users over others

The Process


Borrowing from the Double Diamond Design process, the team has made sure we asked ourselves Public Interest Technology (PIT) questions as a way to be aware of the limitations and assumptions made in each stage. In hopes of ensuring designers and developers alike are conscious and understand the implications of their design decisions on the community and end user.


Queens Borough in New York City has been celebrated as the most linguistically diverse place on Earth. However the high level of diversity also places a problem for the city to fully integrate non-English speakers when English is still the dominant language used both on a legal and governmental level, as well as, throughout society. To understand the context which QPL operates in, the team conducted research in the following areas:

  • spatial analysis on language proficiency distribution in Queens
  • 5 interviews with Second generation immigrant
  • 2 interviews with First generation immigrant
  • 6 interviews with librarians
  • 3 personas ( one for each target user )
  • 3 user journeys
  • compared language and translation programs amongst branches


Through the maps below, the team was able to understand that the QPL network is well situated within the spatial distribution of languages and English fluency of residents in Queens that needs the most help (namely the northern half of the borough).

Digging Deeper

On the bases of QPL and immigrants being most heavily impacted by language barriers, the team began conducting interviews with branch librarians, first and second generation immigrants who live in Queens.

Many of our users are not proficient in English and we are often asked if we are able to translate.

―Gene, QPL Librarian

We do not provide translation/interpretation services on a regular basis but we often use staff members' language skills to communicate with customers.

―Alfredo, QPL Librarian

Talking to branch librarians helped us validate that QPL is a valuable resource for immigrants or new citizens, and there is a need for translation services at the library and librarians are not well equipped or trained to offer translation.

Interviews with first and second generation immigrants helped identify language barriers they faced while entering the country. Joseph, a first generation immigrant, acted as a translator for his parents when they first moved over. Despite not knowing English himself, there is a crucial demand for him to pick up the language in a short period of time. Below is a collection of personas we developed through a summary from speaking to second generation immigrants, coupled with user journeys that illustrate a common pain point for them.

Through literature research, the team also found Local Law 30 and Executive Order 120 that requires city agencies to provide translation services for 10 top spoken languages or 170 languages respectively.

Local Law 30 (LL 30) is the City’s language access law which improves access to City services for all individuals. ‎LL 30 requires covered agencies to appoint language access coordinators, translate commonly distributed documents into 10 designated languages, provide telephonic interpretation in at least 100 languages, and develop and implement language access implementation plans, among other requirements.

―NYC Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs

Executive Order 120 requires that all City agencies that provide services to the public create a language access plan to ensure that those that do not speak English can still access city services.

―NYC Mayor's Office Of Immigrant Affairs

The team wanted to utilize these policies as an opportunity as a critical leverage point to push translation services and more comprehensive language support for the QPL system to address a gap in implementation to fulfill those policies, since we believe that public libraries are key city and civic agency that is meant to serve the general public.


Upon talking to Nick Buron, the Chief Librarian, and Denise Corcoran, Director of Central Library Services, we realize the QPL do not identify themselves as a city agency, but do share close ties with the city departments. In terms of translation services, the library has pioneered the adoption of using Travis translation devices and subscription to the Language Line as main programs to tackle the language barrier to communicate and support their non-English speaking patrons before LL30 or EE120 was issued. With our base assumptions being proven wrong, the team went back to the drafting board to shift our design focus, looking at ways to better promote and improve upon QPL programs and services offered for the immigrant community.


The team categorized findings under each of the three target user groups: first generation immigrant, second generation immigrant and librarians. Personas and user journeys are updated to capture and illustrate the hopes, concerns and frustrations of each of our target groups. Each persona is coupled with quotes from interviews and a curated user journey.

Together they inform our How Might We (HMW) questions.

At this stage, the team had one How Might We for each target group, but we also acknowledge that those HMW questions often overlap and are relevant across multiple user groups.

HWM1: How can we make the library more approachable and welcoming to the older generation?

For 1st generations they don’t see a reason for them to seek help from libraries and libraries are not perceived as destinations for social engagement and knowledge enrichment. This HMW question aims to establish connections with cultural institutions, or other community groups to offer events and programs that will be of interest to the older generation. In response, the team compared existing programs that the library may cater towards the older generation.

HMW2: How can we help libraries better promote their language services to serve a larger population? And collect feedback from the public

We know from interviews with librarians that QPL have a series of language services that are free to the public: Language Line (available for 70+ languages), Travis translation devices in every library, and free English classes. Yet, second generation immigrants do seek libraries for help when they need it most. Can we improve the ways libraries reach to younger patrons? Competitive analysis of existing outreach efforts helped us see what methods are effective.

HMW3: How can we help librarians communicate more effectively with non-English speakers?

QPL librarians are trained to be familiar with library services, but do not use reliable translation services (that are sometimes available in the library) and use what is most convenient and fast. The team produced a list of translation services that is offered by the library and other organizations to understand the options available to librarians when they communicate with patrons.

PIT Question:

Were we able to accurately represent our target groups through our personas and user journeys?


From the three HWM questions, the team brainstormed 30+ ideas for each. Below is an abridged list of the most salient ideas for each:

HMW1: How might we help libraries better promote their language services (or similar services) to serve a larger population?

  • 1) Language Help Desk station that is accessible outside of the library (similar to a takeout booth)
  • 2) An library app, creating and linking library cards, browse for services, passive and active feedback

HMW2: How might we help the library collect feedback from the public?

  • 1) Work with youth and local news stations to create interviews that reflects people’s relationship with the library

HMW3: How might we make the library more approachable and welcoming to the older generation so that they will be comfortable using the library’s services?

  • 1) Oral storytelling and handicraft events where elders are placed at the spotlight to share their memories and knowledge to the community.
  • 2) Have a specific flex space that can facilitate promote indoor activities

PIT Question: Is the value system we choose when selecting the best idea to move forward for prototyping suitable?


Moving forward, the team decided to work on the library app idea, since we noticed a translation limitation and gap in the current QPL website. Although Google translate API is embedded in the website, a simple layer of translation is applied to the English content on the site. This generates discrepancy between the language the user speaks and the content of the website. This gap is most apparent in book recommendation and display of the library catalog online, for example, Spanish speakers should be recommended Spanish books and not English books.

Low-Fi Prototype

As a team, we envisioned the library app not only as an extension of the digital library services and catalog, but also potentially as a mediator between the digital and the physical library space. The integration of maps and geolocated alerts began to layout a series of information that would enable patrons to learn more about what the library has to offer and motivate them to visit. The design of the initial language selection is important as it sets the default language for the whole application once the user is within the app. Specific language contents are included such as "language support" for each library branch on the map, and most popular books are reflective of the user’s language preferences. These key functions will aid both the librarians and patrons alike to better serve and utilize the library resources respectively.

Mid-Fi Prototype

Transcribing the low fidelity prototype into Figma included comments and feedback we gained from user testing. Issues of legibility, wording of titles/subheadings and unclear navigation steps are addressed. Attention to visual hierarchy and graphic clarity reminds the most important aspect in the prototype. Utilizing the different language skills within the team, we are able to develop an English layout first and translate the content to other languages such as Chinese, Korean and Spanish. As seen in the preview above, the prototype is available for both English and Chinese.

The development of the technical prototype includes ensuring device compatibility, a language switch between English and Spanish platform instantly. This initial prototype becomes the base which data received from QPL about their most circulated books by library branch and by language can be integrated into.

PIT Question: Did we test on a wide enough selection of our target user to catch any issue with our prototype? Are the limited language skill range of the team including specific assumptions and overlooked certain features?


User testing is focused on our primary target users: first and second generation immigrants. The goal of each round of testing is to identify usability and navigability of the app. As each prototype is developed in two languages simultaneously, ensuring that we will be testing on both English and non-English speakers.

The first round of testing allowed us to fix any glaring navigational and layout errors which will hurt the usability of the app such as in the cases below:

[...] there are no navigation buttons so I got confused on how to switch screens!

―Second Gen.
Photo of the foundations of a building on a cliff overlooking a lighthouse.

The words are too small to read!

― Ka Tak (Chinese Second Generation Immigrant)

The first round of testing allowed us to fix any glaring navigational and layout errors which will hurt the usability of the app such as in the cases below:

Photo of the foundations of a building on a cliff overlooking a lighthouse.

We have also received pivotal suggestions from our users and have added additional considers into the final product as a result. When deciding on what platform the final product should be, the team initially decided on a native mobile app that will build on top of the existing QPL library app. However, from user testing, we heard back especially from our first generation immigrant users that the ability to have accessibility and consistency across different screen sizes was an important feature.

Can I use this platform on my computer and phone?

― First Generation immigrant
Photo of the foundations of a building on a cliff overlooking a lighthouse.

PIT Question: Did we test on a wide enough selection of our target user to catch any issue with our prototype? Are the limited language skill range of the team including specific assumptions and overlooked certain features?


"I can finally find book recommendations for my native language to learn and practice it."

Alex (2nd gen. immigrant)


"It’s great to get a sense of many books in your language they have at the library."

Ka Tak (1st gen. immigrant)


Although user testing and community engagement are already essential part of the usual Double Diamond design process, the team believes Public Interest Technologies require a more comprehensive research phase. Identifying and talking to the right people helped guide our design process and the scope of our project. When we began, the team focused on language policies and it’s gap in implementation in city agencies. However, after talking to Nick and Denise we soon realized that our assumptions and understanding of how the QPL system situates itself and operates within the larger context.

Communication with QPL representatives and librarians was also crucial not only in the research and design phase. With the help of the QPL IT department, we received a detailed excel data sheet that helped us create a multi-language library catalog that caters to a user's language preference. To begin with, we integrated 24 books across 2 languages, specifically English and Spanish. Moving forward, our aim is to integrate languages that are representative of the larger demographic populations in Queens, i.e. Chinese, Korean.

A challenge the team faced was conducting enough user tests on different types of users since the prototypes are only developed in specific languages (Chinese or Spanish) as a result of the limitation of our team’s language skills.


The development of our project would not be possible without the support and guidance of our faculty Lydia Chilton (School of Engineering, Computer Science). Mark Hansen (School of Journalism). Laura Kurgan (Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation), Celeste Layne, Anne-Laure Razat and Stacy Tao.

We really appreciate the help from Nick Buron, the Chief Librarian of QPL, Denise Corcoran, Director of Central Library Services, Fred J. Gitner, Assistant Director of New Initiatives and Partnership Liaison, and the numerous branch librarians who provided us information and data that we need to develop the project.

Lastly, we would like to express our sincere gratitude to the first and second generation immigrants who opened up to us about their experiences and participated in our user testing.