Exploring Literacy

In 2005, the United Nations issued a report stressing the important role libraries play in literacy throughout the world. Instead of being passive storehouses for books, libraries have become “facilitators of information and lifelong learning opportunities.” This is a unique time for libraries. Growing and evolving new programs and collections is both fun and rewarding, as well as a little intimidating. So it’s vital to understand both what we mean by “literacy” and what types of literacy are out there.

Literacy is a multifaceted concept. At its heart, literacy is making and communicating meaning and knowledge by using  a system of symbols. Being familiar with and effectively using the symbols associated with a body of knowledge makes a person “literate”. But literacy is also far from static. As a body of knowledge evolves and changes, the symbols that represent that body of knowledge also shift. Therefore, the meaning of literacy in a subject changes, and in order to maintain literacy new concepts must be taught. We have to keep learning.


Credit: Pixabay

It could be argued that libraries are most concerned with language literacy – reading and writing and verbal communication. Early literacy is, perhaps, one of the most prominent of these concerns and a topic we would be remiss to neglect. However, language literacy is only one element of the contemporary library’s greater mission. Our blog goes on to explore other forms of literacy, from the scientific literacy promoted by seed libraries to the digital literacy promoted by Minecraft and the New York Public Library’s digitization projects. Improved social literacy and the ability to develop patrons’ professional skills have also become imperative goals for many libraries across the nation.

Most importantly, the topics contained herein focus on the synergy between literacy, community outreach, and the provision of modern information services for all patrons. Throughout a librarian’s career, having a knowledge and understanding of different forms of literacy and outreach – and the services that make such efforts possible –  is vital. As centers of knowledge, libraries are the substrate in which literate minds grow. Therefore, understanding the depth and breadth of literacy in all its forms is instrumental to the evolution of libraries.

We hope these brief glimpses into the different roles libraries play inspires you to explore unique bodies of knowledge that your library can promote.



Credit: Pixabay


Born Again: The New Life of Digitized Collections

Taking digitization projects as a starting point, libraries can bring new life to collections and foster a synergy with the community.  These projects can integrate digital humanities and instructional services, involve the community via crowdsourcing, teach digital literacy skills to users and suggest new levels of interpretation, both giving new meaning to the collections and enriching the users with new knowledge.

Many major institutions have been digitizing their collections (Shaw, 2016), but once a collection has been translated into digital format, what’s next? NYPL Labs, a division of the New York Public Library, is trying to offer some innovative ways to access, re-use and learn from the “goldmine” of data that is the NYPL digital collection. Ben Vershbow, director of the Labs, wants to convey the ideas that “digitization is the beginning of a whole new life cycle” (Enis, 2015) and that the library can become a “data clearinghouse” (Schwartz, 2012).

NYPL Labs has been offering a variety of tools and projects through its website in order to develop the online collection and create public value (Enis, 2015). The range of topics is very diverse: from menus (“What’s on the Menu?”), to maps (“Map Warper”), from phone directories (“Direct Me NYC: 1940”) to old real estate records (“Emigrant City”)…

In this effort, crowdsourcing has been one of the key means (Enis, 2015; Schwartz, 2012). Volunteering is not a new concept for libraries, but here users are engaged on a whole different level (Enis, 2015; Schwartz, 2012). Through dedicated websites and tools (some open source), users are asked not only to merely help transcribing and tagging the digitized materials, but they are also made aware of purposes and potentials of the projects and they are kept involved, share information, create new content and develop new skills thanks to the interactivity of the websites. As Shaw (2016) points out: information consumers become in these cases information producers as well.

Some of these projects have also been used for instructional services, as documented by Pun (2015): as examples of interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary studies, as teachable moments for source checking, and to gain data analysis and data visualization skills.

Data visualization is also a key aspect of one of the “remix” projects promoted by the Labs, created to access the public domain portion of the collections. The “raw material” is out there – what we are going to do with it is entirely up to us.


Early Literacy in Public Libraries



Patrons enjoy Family Story Time at the Oshtemo Branch of the Kalamazoo Public Library

Early Literacy programs are offered in most public libraries and it is clear how necessary it is. Children who are read to are more likely to continue their education after high school, and less likely to drop out of high school. According to the American Library Association, children are twice as likely to recognize all letters, have word-sight recognition and understand words in context if they have been read to at least three times per week.

Contrary to popular belief, reading does not begin in Kindergarten. In fact, 90% of brain growth occurs at age 5 according to Make Way For Books. Literacy development begins at birth; a child who has not been read to will struggle in Kindergarten, and if they cannot catch up by the 4th grade they are four times as likely to drop out of high school. According to a study done by Book Springs, 37% of children enter Kindergarten unprepared and if those 37% cannot catch up by  4th grade they will continue to struggle throughout school.

Poverty plays a  role in literacy development. If a parent is working full time and is too exhausted to read to their child, or if they are unable to get to a public library during story-time, that child is already hindered academically. Achievement gaps are apparent by 18 months between children in poverty and children who aren’t. According to Neary from NPR, this is also known as the 30 million-word gap (2014). Those children in poverty who struggle to read by 4th grade and drop out of high school will remain in poverty because they will be less likely to get a good job. If they have children the vicious cycle will continue to repeat itself.


Image credit: Denver Public Library

Public libraries play an important role in early literacy through programs like story-time and Summer Reading, but they could be doing more for low income families. Story-time programs could be held in the evening, library events flyers should be sent to low income housing areas and be distributed at schools and daycare centers. Some libraries, such as the Kalamazoo Public Library, do not charge for children’s or teen books that are returned late because they believe it’s more important for those kids to be reading than paying fines. It’s important for this free resource to be well advertised for the families and children who need it.



Job Seeking in the Public Library

Public libraries serve community needs

Libraries have always responded to the needs of the community with special programs to assist with the biggest issues of the time. In the 1980’s there were programs for the homeless, homeschooling and others. Now in the midst of a huge recession libraries are seeing a rise of job-seeking using the library computers (Roy, Bolfing, & Brzozowski, 2010).

indeed logo. image credit: Wikipedia

Online job postings are growing and even replacing traditional methods. Employment websites like Monster.com or Indeed.com offer access to thousands of positions. But many people don’t understand how to use the online search pages, or put resumes together on the computer at all. Due to the recession a lot of people who have worked for years are forced to look for jobs online and don’t know where to start.  Many more libraries are creating programs to address this issue (Baumann, 2009).

Your own Personal Staffing Agency

library Computers
Computer Lab. image credit: Pixabay

Libraries have long been an informal career center for job seekers. The difference now is the number of people coming in needing technology training just to start their job searches.  Many computer education classes have sprung up at libraries to help with this issue.  The job seekers come from different backgrounds and have different needs.  The participants in a new career training program in Austin Texas ran in to some unexpected problems when their carefully constructed teaching plans were slowed down by basic computers skills questions. They found that the needs of adult learners were something they had not anticipated when designing their curriculum (Roy et al., 2010). Some programs might cater to recent college graduates, others to those learning to speak English and others to the elderly. Each group requires a different approach. Libraries can have subscription to career search programs like Career Transitions that help people that can help people find where to find jobs and figure out what resources to use (Baumann, 2009).

Changing Role of Librarians

Librarians are spending more and more time helping job seekers.  Many of the librarians have mixed feelings about this and are adjusting to this new paradigm (Baumann, 2009). Using volunteers and college students can help with the workload but it can create other problems related to training and quality of instruction (Roy et al., 2010).

Nation Wide Availability

According to an ALA report from 2012 most states are doing an excellent job of providing some Job-seeking resources in the public library (ALA, 2016).


Job-seeking resources, U.S. Public Libraries 2012. image credit: A.L.A.

Further maps can be found for Technology Training

Detailed breakdowns by state on Library Technology Services



A Right Click Away from Literacy

minecraft photo

Minecraft Club Meeting at Kent District Library Wyoming Branch (2016)

A parent may look at this image and see the eyes of their children glazing over, their fingers clicking mindlessly against the mouse and the monotonous tap tap tap of the keyboard. They can hear their children losing brain cells. Thoughts tumble about their minds, threatening to engulf the librarian:

“Why in the world is the library letting kids play a videogame? Isn’t this a place for books? The world is surely turning to rot.”

Minecraft is not your average shoot ’em up video game. It is a phenomenon with over 23 million users and has the potential to hone communication skills, math and science skills and promote literacy. It is a blank canvas where the gamer can birth pink sheep from eggs in a glass castle by a molten lava sea. There is no end to its creativity and there is no right or wrong way to play. This type of freedom in a game gives players the space they need to problem solve and collaborate with each other. According to Bebbington, “some studies have shown that video games provide opportunities for learning by letting players think, talk and read; all key cognitive competencies that underpin information literacy skills” (2015). Minecraft creates a virtual community of learners and builders – players can create a space in which their story begins to be written. Minecraft fuels analytical thinking and social currency. Players are invited to chat during game play, they are encouraged to join discussion boards and are allowed to make commands – all of which require reading and writing skills.

There is an endless amount of research supporting the educational value that Minecraft offers. Mojang, the creators of Minecraft, have partnered with TeacherGaming to bring about MinecraftEdu to use in the classroom or in this case, the public library. It is intended to give the teacher or facilitator “full control over the experience” (Levin, 2016). Joel Levin, the creator of TeacherGaming and the Tumblr The Minecraft Teacher, a blog dedicated solely to using Minecraft for educational purposes, argues that “with Minecraft you explore historical worlds, set up science experiments, write stories, or learn to program a computer” (2016). The public library is not a classroom, however, it is an affinity space for ideas, information and excitement. I believe that Minecraft programming falls into those three categories. It gives children and teens the space to thrive, connect, read, laugh and learn without the expectations placed upon them at school. Librarians do not need to become expert gamers, but people who are open to a new kind of literacy learning activity and willing to engage children and teens in the language they already speak.

minecraft letter

Letter to Joel Levin, creator of MinecraftEdu and the Minecraft Teacher (2016)

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Growing Literacy With Seed Libraries

Although libraries are traditionally the stewards of books, there are some pretty unique items finding homes in the stacks these days. Telescopes and microscopes, T-rex skulls and Arduino kits have all found a corner in our knowledge centers. A surprising (and surprisingly beautiful) new item in these collections are seeds. As with every new acquisition, a library must ask what knowledge and growth will a seed collection provide for the community.

red beans

Christmas” Lima Beans

To start, seed libraries support actual literacy. Readers to Eaters, a small publishing company specializing in children’s books that focus on food and gardening, run programs in schools and libraries throughout the country, showing how reading can support good eating and vice versa. As with any great collection, there is an opportunity for some fantastic programming; story time in sunflower houses while the kids munch on carrots is not only picturesque, but a very real possibility with a seed library (Senechal, 2015).


The Children’s Garden in Brooklyn, New York in August 1976. National Archives and Records Administration.

Teaching people what and how to eat is at the core of a library garden and seed library. Inspiring people to eat better by producing their own food, seed libraries offer to create health literate patrons, ensuring healthier brains to absorb all the rest of the knowledge a library contains. Seed libraries provide patrons with the opportunity to learn, exercise, and eat right all at the same time (Weak, 2014), creating support groups for citizens seeking a healthier lifestyle.

Seed libraries also have the potential to build involved, community literate citizens who grow beautiful cities with flower gardens, spurring “pride of place” in patrons. Seed libraries can also raise awareness of local plant growing knowledge which may be needed to support food production during a shifting climate (Shand, 1997). In addition, the (sometimes costly) resources needed to start a garden are evenly dispersed throughout the library’s patronage, giving each family an opportunity to grow and eat. This creates stable populations while reducing hunger – a step toward greater national security.

This local body of gardening and seed knowledge fits closely with greater scientific principles. Seed libraries are the catalyst for botanical literacy. Understanding plants and their growing conditions fosters a broader understanding of ecology and botany. By becoming familiar with scientific language, patrons will feel less daunted by other scientific principles and will, again, become better citizens by gaining a more well informed concept of the world around them (Uno, 2009).

From standard literacy to botanical literacy, seed libraries inspire kids and adults alike to explore a wide range of topics. Although seed libraries are not a possibility everywhere they definitely have a place in some libraries. So in addition to your maker’s spaces, investigate seed libraries – they will bring a surprising amount of discovery and fun.

The Fight for Social Equality

Today, one of the key missions of libraries remains the provision of equal access of information to all patrons, regardless of race, ethnicity, religious affiliation, or socioeconomic status (ALA, 2016). In a perfect society, libraries would be able to provide these services to each and every one of their patrons without issue. It seems, perhaps, a little unnecessary to point out that we do not live in a perfect society.

The harsh reality is that many of our patrons are plagued by a number of social ills, ranging from illiteracy to hunger to persistent homelessness (ALA, 2016). As the divide in wealth continues to grow throughout the United States – indeed, throughout the world – libraries have come to serve not only as information centers, but as safe spaces where individuals from all walks of life find themselves both welcome and respected. (Hines, 2015; Luo et al., 2012).

Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.

Tanisha Meredith, a patron of the Sacramento Public Library. Image Credit: Fritz Hoffman/Redux

In our constant fight for the democratization of information, libraries have come, whether purposefully or inadvertently, to represent a force of both justice and stability within an often tumultuous social landscape. Given our mission, it is not surprising that libraries now find themselves in a unique position to address a number of the inequalities that exist within our communities. As Hines (2015) points out, libraries “naturally attract those seeking information and assistance for a variety of needs, including many who are intimidated by formal social service agency settings.” Institutions like the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) and the Denver Public Library (DPL) have wholeheartedly embraced this position – and they are not alone.

File:San Francisco Public Library, Civic Center (2013) - 1.JPG

San Francisco Public Library. Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons

In 2009, SFPL became the first public library in the United States to bring a certified psychiatric social worker – Leah Esguerra – onto their staff (Goldberg, 2016). Since that time, Esguerra has helped over 800 individuals enroll in social and mental health services. As if this weren’t enough, Esguerra has also helped roughly 150 homeless individuals attain permanent housing and has led a vocational rehabilitation program that gives formerly homeless individuals the ability to work within the library itself as Health and Safety Associates (Goldberg, 2016).

DPL, on the other hand, has decided to bring their services to their patrons (and future patrons) themselves. A technology team visits the local day shelter to provide the homeless and socioeconomically disadvantaged with classes that focus on “job interviewing techniques and technology skills” – skills that many of these individuals are in desperate need of (Hines, 2015). Attendees are also given tokens for public transportation so that they can sign up for a library card if needed at no cost to them.

Frank Bunnell reads, "The Everything Guide To Understanding Philosophy" at the San Francisco Public Library.

Frank Bunnell, a patron of the San Francisco Library. Image Credit: Fritz Hoffman/Redux

Public libraries across the nation, including libraries in New York, Arizona, Texas, and Washington, D.C., have been changing lives one patron at a time. With such fantastic examples of leadership in our field laid before us, the real question is: how can the rest of us get involved?

For more information on libraries currently providing social services in the United States, visit the ALA’s website or read more at PBS Newshour and TechSoup for Libraries.

A Bright Future Ahead

Libraries play a variety of roles in modern society. Whether they are improving literacy, teaching their patrons how to live more healthful lives, or helping patrons to better develop professional skills, libraries have expanded far beyond traditional notions regarding their purpose.

In terms of promoting literacy, few institutions are as well-equipped or as motivated as libraries are. Patrons of all ages can benefit from these services, whether the goal is early literacy, digital literacy, or simply improving one’s existing relationship with technology and the written word.

Public libraries play a pivotal role in preparing our children for lifelong literacy, helping them to succeed as students and beyond. Libraries like those in New York offer patrons the ability to not only enjoy the conveniences of digital collections, but become a part of the process that improves these collections. Others creatively utilize tools like Minecraft to educate and inspire their patrons, a concept that flies in the face of stereotypes regarding gaming and embraces the use of technology as a vehicle for both learning and creativity.

Portrayal, Portrait, Baby, Face, Mood, Young, Child

Image Credit: Pixabay

Of course, literacy efforts need not remain indoors. Seed libraries and library gardens give patrons the ability to improve their overall literacy while also empowering these patrons to make healthier and more sustainable dietary decisions. The advocacy of self-sufficiency amongst patrons and the potential for a stronger relationship with scientific principles makes this programming invaluable.

For those without jobs, libraries provide hope for better future. Job seekers enter libraries to find a number of resources at their disposal and staff that is increasingly prepared to meet their needs. With 92% of public libraries providing some form of access to employment resources, libraries have become a hub of personal and professional growth for millions of Americans (Hoffman, Bertot, and Davis, 2012).

For those in needs, libraries have traditionally offered both safety and comfort. Today, many libraries throughout the nation have moved beyond mere passive assistance, providing their less privileged patrons with much more than a secure space. Embracing their ability to connect patrons with vital services, these libraries have created opportunities for health care, housing, and education.

Time and time again, libraries have proven that they are not only desirable additions to our communities, but a necessary component of a stable and prosperous future.

Disclaimer: This blog and its contents are being used solely for academic purposes.


Image credit: Pixabay