Magazine article American Libraries

Libraries Break Anonymity Barrier

Magazine article American Libraries

Libraries Break Anonymity Barrier

Article excerpt


Efforts to solve the problem of adult illiteracy in recent decades have been extensive, but those who grapple with the problem agree that less than 10% of the estimated 27 million nonreaders in the United States are being reached.

Although volunteers have put in thousands of hours, networks and local radio stations have broadcast public service announcements, celebrities have made appeals, and TV specials have been aired, the major obstacle, as always, is the reticence on the part of adults to admit to anyone that they cannot read.

But now, across the nation, a highly effective approach called "Read USA" is reaching hidden populations of adult nonreaders. The program fosters partnerships primarily between local libraries and American Legion "families" in the community. The family (e.g., the post, the American Legion Auxiliary, and/or Sons of the American Legion) donates an adult learn-to-read video series called I Want To Read to the library. Older children and adults can then borrow the videos for use at home or with a tutor.

A predesigned publicity campaign alerts the community that the videos are available for at-home use. "You'll be getting to all the people we can't reach at this point," said Laura Jaeger, executive director of the Minnesota Literacy Council. "Those people are the nonreaders who won't ask for help, but will check out the videos when they hear about them through a public announcement."

Jaeger's forecast proved accurate in Pine City, Minnesota, a community with a population of only 2,700 whose American Legion Post donated several sets of I Want To Read to the local library. Within three days after announcement of the gift on March 1, 1995, 30 adults had requested the program. Not before well into the summer could Christy Koch, head librarian at Pine City, report that she no longer had a waiting list for the videos.

Assuring anonymity is the key

This high rate of response can be attributed to the desire for anonymity by nonreaders. Instead of having to muster the courage to admit their problem at the local learning center, nonreaders could begin the process of learning by watching the videos privately at home.

To answer this need for anonymity, series producer jack Fenimore enlisted the help of Anabel Newman, then director of the Reading Practicum Center at Indiana University, in developing the series. They agreed that "if they won't come out of the closet, let's give them something to take into the closet with them - a video-cassette."

Because of the auditory and visual capabilities of video, its ability to be structured into short segments so as not to tax the learner's attention span, and its ability to repeat as often as asked, Newman and Fenimore felt that there were ample reasons to use this format to effectively teach reading and writing skills.

The I Want To Read series consists of three videos with a total running time of 5.5 hours and containing 115 lesson segments that learners can work with at their own pace. The programs use a balance of sight-memory, phonics, and reading for context; they also teach writing, use of a dictionary, and how to enjoy what Fenimore calls "this crazy language called English." Cost to the Legion benefactor for one complete set is $149.

Getting off the ground

Following a favorable review in Booklist in March 1989, the series has been widely used; updates and new segments were added in 1994. …

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