St. Johann JUKIBU: One Library, Many Languages

by | Jun 21, 2022 | IBBYLink Autumn 2021

Maureen Senn-Carroll

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On a given afternoon at the St. Johann JUKIBU library in Basel, Switzerland, a visitor may hear stories being read to children in any of the 53 languages which make up the intercultural section of the library.

Bibliothek, Lothringerplatz 1, Basel.

During the 1980s, the accepted idea that newcomers should fully integrate into Swiss society began to change and it was thought that for this to be successful immigrants should retain their own language and culture in order to learn a second language and become at home in their adopted country. From this premise, the idea of intercultural libraries began to take form and the first intercultural library was opened in Renens, in Swiss Romand near Lausanne in 1988. Shortly after that, a group of parents from various countries, as well as some interested Swiss citizens, met and decided that Basel would also benefit from such a library. There was a need to provide multicultural families with access to books in the languages spoken within their family and a space where they could share their stories and culture. Thus, in 1991, the JUKIBU opened its doors in St Johann, Basel.

Heidi in various languages.

Stories are part of every culture. They are the carrier of life’s messages and are rich in language. Stories engage the listener’s and reader’s emotions; their images and messages last a lifetime. Each culture has its own set of titles which are important to pass on to the next generation.

Acquiring media in 53 languages is a challenging task. In order to meet this challenge a group of dedicated volunteers from around the globe have taken on the role of a ‘language delegate’. A vital part of the library’s staff, they are instrumental in purchasing and cataloguing new media for the intercultural section of the library.

Books in many languages.

Julie Telford is the library’s language delegate for the English collection for children and young adults. Her story, which follows, is exemplary for many of the language delegates, a personal interest leads to getting involved in a greater cause.

When we came to Basel in 1991 my two-year-old and I were delighted to discover the very new JUKIBU and its (then) small collection of English books for children. The JUKIBU and my daughter grew bigger together and before long I became a volunteer. For over 20 years now, I have been responsible for the English section, the biggest and most popular section after German, with almost 4000 books and a borrowing rate of around 6000 per year. This reflects that Basel is an international city with many organisations functioning in English. It has a large anglophone population, and many others want their children to become proficient in this world language.


My role as the English section representative is to select and buy books, catalogue and display them, and maintaining the best possible collection of English media with the resources available. Occasionally, I read stories aloud at events, and I write reviews for a Basel book-review magazine.

Numbers written out in many languages.

Illustrated books for small children form by far the biggest and most popular subsection. Other subsections include learn-to-read books, fiction for primary school-aged children, fiction for older children and young adults, non-fiction, which covers every subject, and comics.


My selection is guided by requests and reviews of recent publications, always keeping an eye on what our readers like to borrow. But I also like to offer books which might widen their reading experience. One ongoing theme is that of the outsider. Living in a foreign country is hard in many ways. Reading stories that reflect a young person’s own experiences is consoling and validating. It is also heartening to find books in one’s own language and about one’s own culture. We believe that providing a facility which allows immigrants to feel better about themselves helps them to integrate, which, in turn, is better for everybody.

The local government and the city library in Basel also recognised this fact. In 2019 the intercultural library JUKIBU merged with the GGG Stadtbibliothek (the city library network). Under the name, St. Johann JUKIBU library, the newest branch of the GGG Stadtbibliothek opened at a new location. The library now has a German collection for adults and a small collection in English for adults in addition to the collections in 53 languages. This uniquely diverse selection of books and non-books is an asset to Basel’s German-speaking community as well. They can be used at home or in classrooms to provide an awareness of the languages spoken around them, which promotes mutual understanding


There are 25 intercultural libraries in Switzerland. Interbiblio is the association and competency centre that links them together. [In German, French and Italian.]

Link to the St. Johann JUKIBU library: [In German.]

Maureen Senn-Carroll was born and raised in McGregor, Iowa, USA. She taught for 14 years at primary schools in the USA, Germany and Switzerland. In Zürich she co-founded a bilingual primary school, taught at a teachers’ training college and published teaching materials. In Basel she trained as a librarian and has been the head of the JUKIBU library since 2005. She has two sons and lives with her husband in Basel, Switzerland.