Grappling with the literacy gap has long been at the heart of library work, and several conversations I had at the American Library Association Midwinter Meeting in Philadelphia got me thinking that we need to be more creative about how we address this persistent problem. Then, the Turn the Page initiative rolling out in New Orleans hit my email inbox, and it struck me as a fresh and much bolder strategy.
Turn the Page aims to make New Orleans “the most literate city in America by its 300th birthday in 2018.” Talk about bold. The challenge is massive: New Orleans has an illiteracy rate of 44 percent, according to the city library foundation. And a mere four years to close the gap seems impossible—but the city certainly won’t get anywhere if it doesn’t attack the problem. I like its bald ambition, though I’m concerned that the aggressive time frame and target will lead to failure even if there are real strides. I hope the project helps to drive new thinking about the level of effort required to address the literacy divide. After all, people doubted we’d get to the moon.
Turn the Page, with an engaging “30 in 30” event series to raise the profile of the project, addresses literacy at all ages, positioning it as a community priority for the city and Southeast Louisiana more generally. At the hub of the action is a coalition of regional libraries, including New Orleans Public Library (NOPL), in collaboration with the humanities council and various media outlets among other entities. The network of public libraries can and should be at the center of the solution, but the work will be much stronger when approached from all sides with a unified vision that aspires to break the standstill in progress toward universal literacy.
Any skeptics in your communities who think we live in a post-literate world enabled by voice-activated programs and multimedia learning should wake up. Just try to accomplish basic tasks without functional literacy skills—reading signs and prompts, keying search terms or answers on application forms, and so much more. And when it comes to digital literacy, the gap yawns as well. As a nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), the United States falls well below par among other countries ranked on several scales measured in the eye-opening report “Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among U.S. Adults: Results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies 2012” (nces.ed.gov/pubs2014/2014008.pdf). Inside our borders some areas face illiteracy rates that should appall everyone working to build an equitable society. Philadelphia, for instance, has a shocking adult illiteracy rate that tops 50 percent, with low literacy plaguing two-thirds of the population. Worse, according to the NCES, we as a society aren’t really gaining any ground on adult literacy over time, which points to a failure we must address in new ways.
Libraries, of course, have taken literacy seriously since the beginning, but, at times, impacting that learning goal is more a by-product than a primary focus. Often the innovative and exciting services that hook to new technology and trends presume literacy as a baseline. Fighting literacy isn’t as sexy as high-end services that can garner attention but ultimately address those who already have basic literacy skills and access to technology. In an ideal world, the sandboxes are connected. Wherever gaps exist, however, literacy might not be a “top” trend, but it is fundamentally relevant.
To help move the needle, though, we need to innovate on how we work on the problem, from early learning on up through adulthood. One area of great progress concerns the evergreen summer reading program almost every public library runs. Libraries nationwide are reinventing summer reading, tying it more explicitly to learning outcomes and student success through deeper collaboration with schools, and measuring what they are doing to keep improving the odds for their patrons, as this month’s “Occupy Summer” feature in sister publication School Library Journal details. All of these initiatives and more, bound together by partnerships that enable effective action, are needed. And so is the willingness to take a risk and set ambitious goals.