The Price Is Right at Unite for Literacy

March 4, 2014

How would you like 100 free ebooks for children, ready for immediate MARC upload to your catalog?

Librarians have long known our extraordinary contribution to early literacy. And research from 2010 tells us that one of the most powerful ways to lift children out of poverty through education is strikingly simple: Get 500 books in the home of a child between the ages of 0–5.

Add another wrinkle: The US has some significant immigrant communities who don’t have access to books in their native languages. But in many of our schools, administrators aren’t buying books. They’re buying technology. 

Enter Unite for Literacy. This Colorado-based social enterprise offers free digital picture books, with a twist. Parents can not only sit and read these original English texts from the Unite for Literacy website, but also hear them read in a variety of languages. The intent is to eventually support the 300 languages spoken in American homes.

The deeper goal of Unite for Literacy is breathtakingly simple and powerful. There are “book deserts” in the United States, says Unite for Literacy founder Mike McGuffee. These are homes with fewer than 25 books in them. He showed me a map on which the desert is depicted as reaching all across this great nation. And it may be spreading. Suppose we could turn book deserts into book oases (more than 25 books in the home)? Suppose we could move from book scarcity to book abundance?

In addition to the shortage of books in family homes, there is an even more insidious problem. We have millions of reluctant readers. Many of our schools focus on reading skills—drills that attack specific reading comprehension issues. But that approach makes reading as much fun as an inoculation. It does not make anyone want to read for fun, and if you don’t read for fun, you mostly don’t read. But encouraging recreational reading is something else that libraries do well.

Suppose we could move the needle in our schools from reluctant readers to avid readers?

In recognition of common cause, Unite for Literacy recently teamed up with some other players in the Colorado library community. Douglas County (Colo.) Libraries cataloged the roughly 100 titles available today on the Unite for Literacy website. Then the Colorado Library Consortium (CLiC) volunteered to post the file on its website. (CLiC also has a collection of high-quality MARC records for the 500 most frequently downloaded Project Gutenberg titles. These, too, are free to any library.)

The result? Any library in Colorado, any library in the nation, any library in the world, can immediately—and for free—grab the MARC records from CLiC, and thereby obtain automatic links to the Unite for Literacy content. (The MARC records contain a link to the correct title.) Of course, users can also go directly to the website without going through the catalog. But integration is a virtue.

How is Unite for Literacy able to do this? They write grants and get private sponsorships. There are, it turns out, many community-oriented businesses happy to underwrite the pursuit of book abundance.

There are also, I feel sure, thousands of libraries eager not only to grab 100 free ebooks, but also to use them to reach out to their communities, preach the gospel of more books in the home, and further the important business of fostering avid readers.

Many thanks to Unite for Literacy, Douglas County Libraries, and the Colorado Library Consortium for their timely, efficient, and thoughtful collaboration. 

JAMES LARUE is a writer, speaker, and consultant. He can be reached at jlarue[at]