Public Libraries & Adult Education

by Gail Spangenberg
President, National Council for Adult Learning

“Soon after the skill of writing was developed, more than 5,000 years ago, the need to save what had been written led to the phenomenon of the library.  To understand the library’s history and role in society, no resource is more important than Marshall McLuhan’s and Robert K. Logan’s 1997 seminal text, The Future of the Library.”

The above paragraph leads off my recent review(1) for UNESCO of a newly published book by Robert Logan with Marshall McLuhan, titled The future of the library: From electric media to digital media.  That book(2) shows that the role of the public library in American life, and in Adult Education for that matter, is nothing short of astounding in its depth and range and round-the-clock accessibility to everyone, everywhere, in communities across the nation.  Indeed, the role of public libraries as a resource in Adult Education and workforce skills development is recognized in federal WOIA legislation, even if it isn’t as fully funded as it needs to be.  Moreover, it is significant that the Institute of Museum and Library Services, in its statement on the President’s proposed FY 18 Budget(3), is committed to helping the libraries and museums it funds provide and facilitate family learning,  job-related skills and jobs, and education through community colleges.  

In 1996, while heading up the Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy, I did an informal survey of adult literacy programs offered across the country in public libraries.  The report on the survey findings, Even Anchors Need Lifelines(4)drew on the knowledge and experience of hundreds of library literacy leaders in national, state, and local settings.  It showed substantial library involvement in direct service and reflected all kinds of service details and partnership arrangements with adult literacy groups.  The publication, though two decades ago by now, remains a valuable and telling resource.

An up-to-date national survey should be done to fully understand the current role and nature of public library involvement.  NCAL or some other group could do this with only modest funding. But, in the meantime, we hope this blog will help re-energize thinking about the matter.  We invited author Robert Logan and librarians Leslie Gelders of Oklahoma and Greg Lucas of California to share their thoughts about the subject. We appreciate and thank them for the prose they contribute below, especially their call for stronger funding. As always, readers are welcome to offer their own thoughts and experiences.


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by Greg Lucas
State Librarian
California State Library

The most cost-effective use of a taxpayer dollar is to help someone become a stronger reader. No other investment of public funds comes close in terms of the dividends paid and the yield in human capital.

Teach someone to read and they probably won’t go to prison. In California, that saves over $70,000 a year right there, the current annual cost of incarcerating an inmate. Teach someone to read and they can take a written test, which means they’ll get a better paying job.  It will cost the government less to take care of  their family and that individual in the better paying job will pay more in taxes so that more investments can be made to create stronger readers.

Not everyone learns to read the same way. Some thrive in a classroom environment. Others don’t.  Thankfully, a range of options are available to help adults – and kids – who need to improve their reading fitness. 

Library literacy programs are one option that can be a stepping-stone for adults who need to read.  They may seek help for their low skills for job reasons or because they want to read to their children or they may wish to enroll in adult education or a community college course but lack the skills to fully benefit. The vast majority of adults in our library literacy programs read below the fifth grade level.

Even without “graduating” to community college, our library literacy learners are better prepared to be part of the workforce. In 2015-2016, of the 16,091 adults participating in CLLS programs who reported outcomes, 60 percent were able to complete a job application, and 45 percent secured a new job or were promoted at work.

That’s what’s great about groups like the National Council for Adult Learning.  NCAL  helps connect libraries, adult educators, community colleges, and others so that we do a smarter job making that highest and best investment of tax dollars.

by Leslie Gelders
Director, Oklahoma Literacy Resource Office,
Oklahoma Department of Libraries

Public library literacy programs are in a state of transformation in Oklahoma.  Where one-to-one tutoring was once the norm—and it still remains important—literacy programs here  are developing new services and partnerships to address the changing needs of our communities and those seeking literacy services. For example, our public libraries have two new areas of focus: Health Literacy and Citizenship.

Health Literacy became a focus of our effort due to Oklahoma’s low health ranking, the fact that 73% of public library visitors in America seek health information, and the challenge low-level readers face when they try to access and understand health information. Our local Health Literacy activities include building the curriculum for adult learners around health information; identifying, evaluating, and creating plain language materials on health issues; and providing strategies to promote health and wellness. Among the unexpected benefits of our Health Literacy initiative are the increased interest and involvement of local organizations and the participation of individuals beyond the target audience.

Citizenship services are responding to Oklahoma’s changing demographics and they have resulted in increased services for English Language Learners. In fact, a major new goal is to serve ELL students who want to become U.S. citizens.  A Citizenship Corner pilot project has placed immigration and naturalization information in several public libraries around the state. Library staff members are receiving training in assisting with access to credible naturalization information, and library literacy programs are providing instruction to help clients prepare for and pass the Naturalization Test.

Current budget crises at local, state, and federal levels make initiating and expanding services a challenge for libraries. But as libraries struggle for resources, they are finding new opportunities through partnerships and collaborations. Health Literacy efforts have exceeded the original visions due to partnerships with County Health Departments, Career and Technology Centers, Boys and Girls Clubs, Cooperative Extension Services, and many more organizations. Additionally, Oklahoma’s Citizenship Corner pilot project has benefited from national, state, and local partners to serve more than 800 individuals from 35 different countries.

Since the 1800s, America’s public libraries have served an essential role in adult learning. Increases in federal and state funding in the latter half of the 20th century expanded this mission beyond the self-directed learner, allowing libraries to reach out to nontraditional recipients of services, including those who never learned to read. Now that these tax dollars are being cut or are under threat of elimination, libraries must seek out partners to help fulfill their services. Perhaps, more importantly, finding good collaborators and partners can bring new voices to advocate for public funding that will help libraries continue to meet their fundamental role in adult and lifelong learning.

by Robert K. Logan

Prof. Emeritus – Physics – U. of Toronto
Fellow University of St. Michael’s College
Chief Scientist – sLab at OCAD
Author (with Marshall McLuhan) of The Future of Libraries:
From Electric to Digital Media, published 2016

Libraries are the custodians of our historic heritage.  They deserve the proper care and support of the government because an informed public is the bedrock of democracy.  Too often administrators of the public purse become obsessed with balancing their budgets and take actions that do not preserve our heritage, which is the most important thing our society possesses.

One of the reasons wars are fought is to preserve that heritage.  What is the point of defending that heritage if it is not nurtured by properly supporting our libraries. Preservation of our heritage is one of the most important functions of the civil servants that serve our society and therefore they should properly support our libraries.

We live in an age of information where an informed citizenry is the key to success.  Let us not destroy our history to balance our budgets.  Let’s make our libraries great again by increasing their budget, not decreasing it.

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