The "New" Literacy: Do Special Librarians Have a Role?

By St. Clair, Guy | Special Libraries, Spring 1991 | Go to article overview

The "New" Literacy: Do Special Librarians Have a Role?

St. Clair, Guy, Special Libraries

There has been much well-publicized activity as traditional librarianship has embraced literacy as part of its service mandate. Special librarianship offers little room for undertaking such social programs unless they are a direct function of the corporate or organizational mission. Now, however, with the "new" literacy including more than what has been commonly referred to as "functional" literacy, it is possible that special librarians might play a role in an organization's literacy program. Such activity, however, must be undertaken with great caution.

Today's special librarians are faced with a peculiar predicament. While we have all been trained, either formally or informally, in the methods and techniques of librarianship in general, we find that in the workplace we are called upon to practice a unique kind of librarianship, different from that practiced in public, academic, and school libraries. Indeed, for many the characteristics of special librarianship are what brings them into the profession. Others move into special librarianship when they have the opportunity because it provides a specific kind of professional fulfillment not found in other branches of the profession.

The predicament comes about because of these differences. Special librarians are part of the profession of librarianship, and proud to be part of that profession; yet the work we do is so different, and our service goals so specialized, that we frequently find ourselves at odds with other professional librarians and their goals. The current trend toward literacy services is a case in point. Special librarians, with their primary allegiance to organizational goals, do not have the luxury of participating in such social programs, unless such educational activities are part of the organizational mission and are clearly defined as a component of the special library's mission in support of organizational goals.

The history of literacy services in libraries (primarily public libraries) was surveyed in 1988 by Debra Wilcox Johnson in an excellent essay in the ALA Yearbook. [1] This history is recent one, dating primarily from the 1960s and the national war on poverty. Even today, despite all that is written about libraries and their role in the literacy campaign, there is not, according to Johnson, a standard literacy program. She has, however, identified six areas in which libraries, with varying degrees of participation and successes, are active in literacy services: [2]

* acquiring and storing material;

* producing newsletters, directories, or bibliographies;

* providing staff or space for tutoring and/or classes;

* publicizing literacy programs both within and outside the library;

* acting as liaison between persons in need of literacy education and literacy programs; and

* tutoring new readers.

Citing a U.S. Department of Education study conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1987, Johnson noted that public libraries "offered the widest range and largest number of activities," [3] although institutional libraries were also recognized as providing some literacy services. As for participation by other libraries, Johnson concluded, "The remaining types of libraries [in the DOE study]--community colleges, college and university, and secondary school--have a more limited involvement in adult literacy." [4] Special libraries, as special libraries, were not included in the study and, indeed, special libraries have had little to do with the literacy services offered in the library profession since the movement took hold in the sixties.

There are very good reasons why special librarians are not involved in literacy programs. Special librarianship is different from the other branches of librarianship in a number of ways, but primarily the difference is characterized by the special librarian's understanding of his or her responsibilities. …

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