Magazine article American Libraries

From among Us: Literacy Programs Offer Tangible Benefits

Magazine article American Libraries

From among Us: Literacy Programs Offer Tangible Benefits

Article excerpt


Literacy is an enormous concept. It encompasses and suggests other words, other noble abstractions: freedom, responsibility, power, compassion, justice. These implicit meanings, as well as the rapidly multiplying information skills that individuals need to function in society, make literacy difficult to define comprehensively, let alone measure.

Nearly half the adults in our country have limited literacy skills, according to the 1992 National Adult Literacy Survey, the most thorough attempt to define and measure literacy in the United States (see sidebar, p. 42-43). The National Institute for Literacy is working to build consensus on standards for adult literacy and lifelong learning.

At the same time, public libraries find themselves in the midst of a revolutionary electronic transformation, allowing patrons to access tremendous amounts of information - if they can read well. The truth is that the new technology is a fast train, but there are legions of people who aren't even at the station and don't know how to get there. How can libraries help, and how can they document the impact of their literacy programs?

In 1992, we addressed this complex situation in our community by establishing the Library Literacy Connection of the Mansfield-Richland County (Ohio) Public Library. The library provided training, support, and materials for the program, and local tutors volunteered their time. Last year we began documenting its impact in a collection of interviews we call "From Among Us."

The only way to have a sense of these experiences and how they change people's lives is to talk with the people involved. The insights of adult learners and volunteer tutors add a needed dimension to the public picture of who does and doesn't read, what goes into helping an adult learn to read, and what the lives of nonreaders are like. There are many ways these interviews can be used to make a positive contribution to the cause of adult literacy:

* interviews can be offered to potential tutors so they can have a better understanding of the complexities of the situation facing adult learners and tutors;

* portions of interviews can be integrated into presentations to potential funding organizations, giving the funders a fuller sense of those affected by their generosity;

* stories can be shared with workers' compensation case managers in order to help them understand the difficulties their clients may be facing; and

* interviews can be shared with legislators, as public debate over the direction and needs of adult education continues.

Public library literacy programs provide valuable alternatives to literacy instruction in schools or human-services agencies, whose funding under the current "school to work" mentality in many cases dictates that these programs be measured by their job-placement rates.

We can ensure a single answer for all of the following questions: Where can people go who are already working (often two jobs) but need help learning to read? Where can people go who want to set their own goals and be in charge of their own learning? Where can people go who want to do meaningful volunteer work? The library.

During the past five years, over 200 adult learners have joined the Library Literacy Connection; achieved their goals or continued working toward them; and benefited themselves, their employers, their families, and the community. Here are some of their own stories, along with those of their tutors.


A picture of comfortable dignity, Emily does not look like a revolutionary. Yet the soft-spoken, unassuming woman has spent much of her adult life fighting for human justice. Her soft Southern gentility conceals the stubborn toughness of a social activist. Her latest venture, becoming a tutor for the Library Literacy Connection, is merely another way Emily continues her fight. …

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