Magazine article American Libraries

Computers, Technology, Books - Yes, but Literacy Must Come First

Magazine article American Libraries

Computers, Technology, Books - Yes, but Literacy Must Come First

Article excerpt


Literacy is the ability to read. Computer screen, printed page, or simple road sign. Before home pages or reference sources, online public access catalogs or database searches can be useful, people must know how to read them.

A literate public demands good libraries; good libraries create a literate public. It's a symbiotic relationship, but when the appallingly high rate of illiteracy in the United States threatens to break down the very foundation of democracy, it is clearly time for librarians to claim literacy as our profession's central issue.

The ability to read and write is the key that unlocks the mind, raises the quality of life, and keeps the nation strong. Here are five good reasons why there couldn't be a better time than now to stake our claim on literacy:

1 The "America Reads Challenge" is ours.

Does America read? With total library involvement it's a possibility. On the way to reelection, President Clinton announced the America Reads Challenge (AL, Oct. 1996, p. 13). He is requesting legislation over the next five years to ensure that "by the year 2000, 8-year-olds in America will be able to pick up an appropriate book and say, 'I read this all by myself.'"

The five-part program includes America's Reading Corps of tutors, including college work-study participants, for more than 3 million children a year; Parents as First Teachers challenge grants to fund national and local programs to help parents help their children become successful readers; Head Start expansion and Title I/Even Start expansion to strengthen teaching and learning during the regular school day; and a challenge to the private sector to work with schools and libraries.

ALA's Washington Office is working with Carol Rasco, America Reads director, and the Department of Education to make sure that libraries and librarians have a central role in the America Reads Challenge. ALA is asking: "America Reads...what? America Reads...where?" Librarians have to lead the response to this challenge, if it is to be met.

2 We're experienced and ready.

Literacy has been an ALA focus throughout our 120-year history. At the turn of this century, librarians were focused on the "Americanization" of new immigrants. We provide the same vital welcome today.

In 1981, ALA founded the National Coalition for Literacy, which sponsored the Ad Council literacy campaign. The coalition has brought the problem of adult functional illiteracy to the attention of the American public.

According to a 1996 study of public libraries and adult literacy (Even Anchors Need Lifelines, by Gail Spangenberg for the Library of Congress Center for the Book), "Judging by...the large number of public libraries now involved in the provision of adult literacy service (some 7,000 not counting branches), public libraries also embrace literacy as a central part of their ongoing mission, although with occasional ambivalence. They are a community anchor for literacy - or as one project advisor put it, they could well be seen as the 'irreducible backbone of the literacy movement.'"

Let's do away with that "occasional ambivalence" and carpe diem! Librarians should seize more recognition - and the support that comes with it - for providing realistic solutions to a major national problem.

3 The issue is for all of us.

Yes, we tend to focus on services provided to adult new readers in public libraries, but literacy is an issue for all librarians. …

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