I’ve been thinking a lot about literacy and what it means today. The word literacy is undergoing a transformation, with multiple literacies emergent, including those relating to information, civic engagement, multiculturalism, finance, and health—and, of course, reading readiness at the core. Let’s not forget news literacy, as the fake news crisis has made apparent. Libraries are doing so much exciting work to address illiteracies in their communities, and that work is more important than ever.
One thing was clearly demonstrated at the recent Public Library Think Tank, an event held by LJ and sister publication School Library Journal in partnership with Florida’s Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS): librarians are awesome at dealing with literacy gaps.
Still, they might require skill-building themselves. We need more “literacy literacy,” said Gina Millsap, CEO of the Topeka–Shawnee County Public Library, KS (LJ’s 2016 Library of the Year). “We need to be more literate on literacies as librarians.” As libraries move ahead on literacy work, she urged leaders to “ask good questions: Do we know enough about our community? Do we have expertise and partnerships? Do we know the most effective strategies? Do our staff know the best way to build programs that will work?”
Such self-reflection is essential, as is the recognition that while literacy work might seem like library 101, the impact through measurable outcomes is not thoroughly documented. Also, I’d argue, because addressing literacy is considered a given inside most libraries, it may not be approached as something to be focused on in new ways. Literacy efforts need inventive minds at work (with a nod to San José’s Jill Bourne, LJ 2017 Librarian of the Year, who said that fatigue over the word innovation and its incremental nature spurred her to concentrate instead on developing completely new things, as indicated by the word invention).
While caring about and fostering literacy are central to libraries, they are not always overt about it. Putting literacy goals front and center in strategic planning is one way to spur creative responses to the ongoing rifts. It ensures that the library is prioritizing literacy rather than taking it for granted and is ultimately more likely to get credit when the impact of the work is known.
In Miami, literacy initiatives span all ages, but they are also tuned to the specific needs of the region’s large immigrant population. Newcomers may need introduction to the very concept of a free public library, noted Kimberly Matthews, assistant director at MDPLS. The library strives to guarantee it is a welcoming place and has incorporated inclusive policies, continuous assessment of local needs, physical and virtual accessibility, diverse collections, and staff training. “Not being literate does not equate with not being intelligent,” Matthews said, noting that training reinforces that message. Illiteracy is a disadvantage, she said. It is “just like dealing with someone with an information disadvantage.”
To face that inequity, we must build organizations that can deliver. When Jason Kucsma took the job of deputy director at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library, he discovered a lack of what he referred to as “a culture of intentionality.” There was deep knowledge but also habit. Strategic planning allowed the library “to address that inertia head-on,” he said. Kucsma (a 2017 LJ Mover & Shaker) and his staff went out to their constituents to ask: “What does success look like in [the city and county] and how does the library contribute to that success?”
The resulting strategic plan, a beautifully designed document (ow.ly/z1uw30a0fPc), shares what they found. The number one focus area over the next five years will be supporting fundamental literacies, encompassing a diverse array from reading to visual, digital, health, employment, media, and civic. That puts a stake in the ground. It provides vision for the library, sets clear expectations for the staff, and makes a promise to the community—a promise worth keeping.
Our institutions, said Los Angeles City Librarian John Szabo, are uniquely positioned for success in this area. In any of today’s critical multiple literacies, he said, you could “replace the word literacy with equity” and it would still be on mission for the library. “It’s a core value in our profession, and we should go out and own it.”