By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS
As librarians, literacy is something close to our hearts. We are readers, searchers, and devourers of facts. As information becomes easier to access but more complicated to manage, there are now many different kinds of literacy we can help our patrons navigate.
Early Literacy is a topic we know a lot about. Library storytimes, summer reading programs, and board book collections for babies all support early literacy. As a nation, we have recognized the importance of getting children ready to read and love books by 3rd grade. Some libraries deliver books to new mothers in hospital. Most libraries develop programming to model early literacy support skills to parents, using the Every Child Ready to Read practices of Read, Write, Talk, Sing, and Play. Many librarians travel to rural areas on bookmobiles, read to children in community centers and laundromats, and even bring library card sign-ups to the entire school district. (Remember: September is Library Card Sign-Up Month too, hooray!)
This month, encourage parents to check out extra books and take extra time to read with their children. Modeling reading and having conversations about what we’ve read together is the very best way to build a foundation for lifelong literacy.
While librarians spend a lot time and resources developing programs for children, literacy is also about struggling adult readers whom we help at the reference desk with reading maps and forms, and filling out resumes and government applications. One in five adult Americans have low literacy skills, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. This includes adults who are unable to compare and contrast information, paraphrase, or make low-level inferences from reading, in addition to those who are completely or functionally illiterate. Low literacy affects the ability to read medical instructions and prescriptions, help children with homework, evaluate news sources, and especially navigate the internet. Does your library have a collection for low-level adult readers?
Did you know that since 1967, UNESCO has honored September 8 as International Literacy Day? The goal is to remind world leaders and influencers that literacy is an integral element in eradicating injustice and poverty.
While learning the basics of reading is the foundation of literacy, librarians and the community have increasingly been talking about other kinds of literacy, as well.
Food Literacy is all about understanding the impact of your food choices on your health, your environment, and the economy. With wider conversations about organics, GMOs, and sustainable farming practices, people are becoming more engaged with learning about where their food comes from. It was all over the news last month that United Nations scientists recommend switching to a plant-based diet to fight climate change, but how can we do that? Fad diets and news about the “microbiome” spur research to compare and contrast different ways of eating. Families getting by on small budgets and government assistance need help finding the best ways to eat healthfully on a budget. All of these issues, plus the bare basics of how to cook, are parts of food literacy that our library collections and programs can address. (September is Food Literacy Month, too!)
The Free Library of Philadelphia supports an amazing Culinary Literacy Center, offering collections and classes to share food literacy with its patrons, young and old. Many public libraries are offering programs on square-foot gardening, cooking with the Instapot, international foods, and even cookbook reading groups. Cooking and eating crosses divides and has been a way to bring diverse communities together, even in the library. For more information about food literacy, and to access a Food Literacy Month toolkit, check out the Food Literacy Center, supported by UC Davis, California.
Health Literacy is the degree to which individuals have the capacity to obtain, process, and understand basic health information and services needed to make appropriate health decisions. Health literacy is much more difficult to attain, including complex words and concepts, in addition to numerical data and manipulation. Only 12% of American adults have proficient health literacy, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. While it is mainly up to health professionals and organizations to utilize plain language in their materials and translations, libraries can help in some ways. In addition to promoting books and pamphlets about health topics, librarians can keep web bookmarks handy and create links on the library website. Many public libraries offer health programs and speakers. (October is Health Literacy Month.)
The Public Library Association has launched an initiative with the website “Healthy Community Tools for Public Libraries,” with a lot of helpful information for libraries to implement. There is also free, archived access to the recent excellent webinar, “Health Literacy Begins at Your Library,” from Web Junction, which showcases experiences from Oklahoma libraries.
What other literacy competencies are you talking about and implementing in your library collections and programs? Digital literacy? Media literacy? Tell us about it!
When a Laundromat Becomes a Library, PBS News Hour, April 2, 2019.
Every Child Ready to Read, a joint project by the Public Library Association and the Association of Library Service to Children
“Plant-Based Diet Can Fight Climate Change – UN,” BBC News, August 8, 2019.
After spending many years as a children’s librarian and collection development specialist at Denver Public Library, Gwen joined Brodart to share her passion for children’s literature with as many different libraries as possible. Click here for more.