How Public Libraries Can Support Community Literacy

Women at READ Center

This article originally appeared at Beyond Access. READ Global and IREX are both collaborators of the Beyond Access initiative.

As the starting point for access to information, opportunity and advancement, literacy is understandably a key priority for governments and organizations across the development spectrum. So, with more than 230,000 public libraries in developing countries around the world — institutions historically devoted to access to reading materials — it’s confounding that libraries are usually left out of systematic literacy efforts. This is a huge missed opportunity.

Public libraries – while no panacea – are ideal institutions to help mitigate larger issues that many countries face: a lack of teachers and equipment, not enough time in class, and large populations that can’t access schools in some of the most difficult-to-reach parts of the country. And as new technologies start to become a realistic supplement to education efforts, there’s even more of a need for a coordinated community learning hub, a role libraries are suited to play.

A library can be an ‘ecology of learning’ — a safe space open to all that isn’t just a warehouse for books.

Children don’t gain fluent literacy skills from school alone. Any literacy effort must foster a convenient place where families can spend time reading and learning together. And libraries can serve this role.

A room full of academic reading desks and locked bookcases is no longer a relevant model. A modern library has soft carpets and beanbag chairs, and short shelves with book covers facing outward, facilitating browsing and discovery.

Tech that supports literacy should encourage sharing and collaborative family interaction.

To foster literacy, technology should encourage interactivity and create a substantially new experience. That doesn’t happen by simply providing PDF copies of books to be viewed on a computer screen. But new technology — such as shared tablets — can be used to bring families together, for example around collaborative educational games. Public libraries are the best place to host these tools and serve as community learning laboratories when new technologies arrive.

Literacy initiatives demand a coordination point for collective impact.

Frequently overburdened with too many students, subjects and levels, teachers can’t be expected to lead the literacy charge on the local level by themselves. But librarians are often perfectly placed to supplement their work. Libraries can create welcoming literacy hubs and conduct outreach to schools — bringing books for lending and sharing, leading group reading activities like story times, and supporting teachers in working effective literacy activities into their lessons.

Training infomediaries is key to achieving results.

In our work on Beyond Access, we notice similar tendencies around the world, in literacy projects as in others. Big investments are made in things — technology, publishing, connectivity — while the skills in how to use these things to improve lives are shortchanged. When equal consideration is not given to proper training, things quickly become obsolete and disused. Our experience has led to a roughly 1:1 ratio as a guideline. For each dollar put into things, we recommend spending one dollar on training. Often, that means fewer things. But of course, it means much more impact from the investment.

Beyond Access is just starting out on efforts to address the gap between libraries and literacy initiatives. We are developing programs that include a focus on community literacy in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and we’re exploring how we can assist with efforts in other regions. We’re also involved in the latest round of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge, supporting projects that integrate libraries. As we learn more about how public libraries can most effectively fit into the literacy picture, we’ll continue to share our reflections on the Beyond Access website.

About the guest author:

Ari Katz

Ari Katz, IREX

Ari Katz heads the team at IREX that manages programs integrating technology into development strategies. Follow @katzistan on Twitter

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