We opened an adult literacy program in the basement of the old Carnegie branch I managed, almost four months from the day Merlene, one of our regular patrons, confided that she’d been pretending her eyesight was too poor to read the directions aloud to her truck driver husband when she accompanied him on trips.
Opening the program had been a last resort. After learning that many outlets for adult reading instruction had gradually disappeared in the neighborhoods where need was greatest—and that none were in libraries—my colleagues and I took matters into our own hands. We transformed an underused library space into a modest but thriving literacy center that eventually garnered recognition from the state literacy network.
The truth is that I, then a new branch manager, hadn’t exactly gotten the green light to offer literacy instruction. Rather than explicitly being told “no,” I was told that function was expressly different from the work of librarianship. I have never accepted that argument.
Library services should not be limited to those with the ability to read. There are people who do not have the ability—and others who don’t have the access—to read. Both groups deserve our attention and advocacy.
Formerly enslaved abolitionist and suffragist Frederick Douglass is famously quoted as saying, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” The slave or Black Code laws that prevailed in Douglass’s day not only criminalized reading and writing for enslaved Black people with the threat of jail and corporal punishment but also prohibited their instruction.
From Alabama to Virginia, states levied fines as high as $500 (the equivalent of $11,300 today) for teaching Black people to read. Literacy was considered so direct a threat to slavery that an 1867 Harper’s Weekly editorial asserted, “The alphabet is an abolitionist. If you would keep a people enslaved, refuse to teach them to read.”
That link between literacy and self-determination holds today. In some US cities, as much as 20% of the adult population cannot read at a 5th-grade level. Worse, we as a society have come to accept and even normalize low literacy in some population segments despite its dire consequences. According to the National Institute for Literacy, 43% of adults with very low literacy skills live in poverty, and 70% of adult welfare recipients have lower-level literacy skills.
Adults with limited literacy are more likely to leave school early, face incarceration, and have a higher mortality rate than people with adequate reading skills. A 2007 Northwestern University study proclaims, “Low literacy equals early death sentence.”
The Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies defines literacy as the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, and compute using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts, allowing individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society. And ALA’s Committee on Literacy uses a framework that includes digital literacy, health literacy, financial literacy, information literacy, and media literacy, calling out the distinct literacy needs of adults, teens, young children and their families, English-language learners, and justice-involved and recently released individuals.
Over the next year, ALA will deepen its focus on the connection between adult literacy and socioeconomic mobility. I look forward to discussing that inextricable link in my next column.