March 16, 2018

Literate on Literacy | Public Library Think Tank


LITERACY LEADERS (clockwise from top l.) Rivkah Sass, executive director, Sacramento PL, CA, and Kathy Fleming, executive director, Sacramento’s Fairytale Town, lead a breakout session on play; keynoter John Horrigan of the Pew Research Center, with Laura Speer, children’s services coordinator, Springdale PL, AR; John Szabo, city librarian, Los Angeles PL; Christopher Sopher of WhereBy.Us makes the case for emotional dialog; LJ and SLJ reviews director Kiera Parrott (l.) with keynote speaker author Ibi Zoboi (American Street); Kimberly Matthews, assistant director, MDPLS, outlines Miami’s literacy strategy; Oscar Fuentes, library exhibitions and programming specialist, MDPLS, led the breakout on visual literacy; Vonda Bryant (l.), learning services coordinator, Broward County Lib., FL, and Carmen Centeno, library services specialist, MDPLS, who led the breakout on multicultural literacy

Literacy—and how libraries are reimagining services to address it for patrons of all ages—took center stage at the Northeast Dade–Aventura Branch, Miami Dade Public Library System (MDPLS), FL, March 9–10, at LJ and School Library Journal’s 2017 Public Library Think Tank. The event—targeting “Libraries and Literacies: Redefining Our Impact”—looked at multiple literacies, including digital, media/information, civic, reading, visual, multicultural, and health, and focused on strategic thinking through a literacy lens.

Among the gauntlets thrown was a call from Gina Millsap, CEO of the Topeka-Shawnee County PL, KS, for librarians to work on improving their own “literacy literacy.” Jason Kucsma, deputy director, Toledo Lucas County PL, spoke to the importance of creating an intentional culture within the library. John Szabo, City Librarian, Los Angeles PL, noted that one can “replace the word literacy with equity” and still have it be on the library mission.


John B. Horrigan, senior researcher, Pew Research Center, shared thoughts from “The Role of Libraries in Advancing Community Goals,” a recent study of what government officials want from libraries, conducted by the International City/County Management Association in partnership with the Aspen Institute and the Public Library Association, and correlated the findings with Pew’s research into the desires of library users.

Much of what communities value (high-speed Internet, education, civic engagement, digital literacy) are also considered by officials as areas in which libraries can play a major role. The one exception: neighborhood/ community development.

“The striking thing is the role of digital,” Horrigan said. By contrast, he noted, “economic issues were the dog that didn’t bark as loudly as I expected.” Workforce development efforts didn’t make the top 50 percent. The public shares officials’ high priority on digital skills, coordination with schools, and Maker spaces. However, early literacy is the public’s top priority, according to Pew; privacy programming ranks much higher with the public than with officials; and services to entrepreneurs and immigrants also show up near the top.


Christopher Sopher of WhereBy.Us, a start-up focused on “real world literacies and communities” through a local lens, spoke to the problem of fake news, saying that the model of “more information helps people make better decisions” is flawed. Instead, he said, we should focus on connecting to users with content that’s relevant to their day-to-day lives, so that when information on big issues is added into the balance, it doesn’t feel unmanageable. By building “with, not for” users, we can ask, “What’s the emotional thing that can bring people into the conversation?” and layer relevant data on top of that dialog.


In other event highlights, Kimberly Matthews, assistant director, MDPLS, outlined Miami’s literacy programming. Danielle Patrick Milam, director of development and planning, Las Vegas–Clark County Lib. Dist., NV, explained how the library partnered with Civic Technologies on a community needs assessment via market segmentation to map areas of low literacy.

Jill Bourne, city librarian of San José, CA, and LJ’s 2017 Librarian of the Year, spoke to the San José library’s central role in recovery from recent flooding and addressed the library’s position as the lead agency in a new collaboration with the city’s 19 school districts. “Don’t shy away from real goals,” she urged. “Pick what’s important, and then see how to make it happen.”

This article was published in Library Journal. Subscribe today and save up to 35% off the regular subscription rate.

Meredith Schwartz About Meredith Schwartz

Meredith Schwartz ( is Executive Editor of Library Journal.

Facts Matter: Information Literacy for the Real World
Libraries and news organizations are joining forces in a variety of ways to promote news literacy, create innovative community programming, and help patrons/students identify misinformation. This online course will teach you how to partner with local news organizations to promote news literacy through a range of programs—including a citizen journalism hub at your library.
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