Magazine article American Libraries

The Greatest Challenge

Magazine article American Libraries

The Greatest Challenge

Article excerpt

Eminent library historian and educator Wayne Wiegand has pointed out that libraries have three principal and enduring missions--giving access to recorded knowledge and information in all formats, being central and essential presences in the communities they serve (the library as place), and advancing literacy and reading. Those who see technology as an end in itself rather than a tool have sidelined the latter two in theory and teaching, if not in reality.


The latest National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL), issued last December by the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics, makes dismal reading, nowhere more so than in its assessment of the literacy of college graduates. The report reveals that only 31% of college graduates as of 2003 are rated as "proficient." Proficiency is defined as the ability to perform "complex activities" such as "comparing viewpoints in two editorials or interpreting a table about blood pressure and physical activity"--scarcely high hurdles for a college graduate, one would have thought. The dismal NAAL percentages are even drearier when seen for what they are--points on a curve of steady decline over the years.

Who is to blame? Is it the colleges that graduate the 69% who are less than proficient? Is it the schools that send students to college lacking the most necessary tools of an educated person--the ability to read and understand complex texts and to express oneself clearly? Is it television; the internet; parents; the Zeitgeist; people who think that literacy is irrelevant in the digital age; the obsession with testing to the exclusion of understanding; people who say that real literacy is no more important than faux literacies, such as computer literacy, visual literacy, and whatever 21st-century literacies are; or is it all of the above?

In most ways, blame is irrelevant. We are where we are and the important thing is whether we alter course or slide clicking and giggling into a post-literate world. I would prefer the first course and would recommend a number of steps--many of which require robust, properly funded libraries and librarians dedicated to literacy.

First, we must recognize that literacy is not a simple matter of being able or unable to read. Literacy is a lifelong process of gaining increasing skill in interacting with and creating complex texts. This is not a matter of books versus computers. A literate person can interact fruitfully with complex texts, no matter in which format they are presented. …

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