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Literacy Response

Sue Scott, Literacy Consultant at the State Library Library of New South Wales, responds to Stephen Black's article, 'Literacy: An Alternative Reading' (Link-up, September 1996), with a library perspective

I would like to congratulate Link-up on publishing Stephen Black's article Literacy: An Alternative Reading in the September 1996 issue. Although the article does not specifically talk about libraries, it is worthwhile reading for any library looking to provide services to adults with low literacy. The value I see in such a paper is that it encourages the reader to question assumptions and to look at issues from a different perspective.

Rather than 'replying' to Stephen's paper, I would like to use it as a starting point for looking at what libraries are trying to achieve by providing a targeted service to adults with low literacy.
Stephen talks about the fact that literacy is seen as:

"an unquestioned good in society ... it represents common sense to see literacy in such a favourable light. But what is often not realised is that such a view helps to ensure dominant groups in society retain or 'reproduce' their dominance ..." (Link-up, September 1996, p.9).

Libraries can be seen as being part of this dominant society. They ensure that the traditions and culture of the dominant society are reproduced through the written word. Sections of society which are not part of this written-word culture are often excluded.

If libraries want to reach people whose main means of communication is not via the written word they have to shift perspective. There can be a tendency in libraries to take the view that we are here, our structures are set and you must take us as you find us. The traditional solid, imposing, closed library building reeks of the message, 'Don't come in here unless you know your way around'.

An extension of this is the view that providing a service to adults with low literacy consists solely of providing a collection of material to help people learn to read. This is saying, 'We represent reading, literacy and culture. Come to us and we will help you learn to read'. Apart from being patronising, to place a collection of material in a library and not break down or demystify any of the other structures of the library is a waste of time-the customers will stay away in droves.

To me this model of library service fits in with Stephen's ideas about where literacy sits in relation to dominant groups and power structures in society. It is, however, like any model-stereotyped. Libraries are, and have the potential to be, much more than a collection of books.

The social value of libraries has been researched extensively in recent years (Borrowed Time?, 1993; Phibbs, 1996). Borrowed Time? talks about the library as an 'entry point to a wider society for many different groups and [which] has a unique socialising role' (p. 31). The same report talks about the library being a 'safe place', an 'important social and studying place', providing 'free facilities for children' and 'home in a public place' (p. 32).

These two images are strongly contrasting and contradictory, one of an intimidating rule-bound institution and the other of a warm and welcoming home away from home. Which one is right? It depends on where you are coming from. For people who have grown up with libraries and feel comfortable with them, they are warm and welcoming places. For people who were not taken to a library as a child, and who have had negative school experiences, a library represents an inaccessible fortress, a symbol of the dominant culture. The challenge for libraries in dealing with the second group is to entice them into their doors and to make them feel welcome once they are there.

Let me give two examples of how this can be done. Kiama is a small town on the south coast of New South Wales. Several years ago the local literacy teacher approached Kiama Public Library to ask about establishing a literacy drop-in centre at the library. A teacher is based at the library one night per week, and anyone can drop in to receive literacy assistance in a wide range of areas, such as letter writing, help with school projects and basic literacy instruction. The teacher had initial reservations about establishing the centre at the library because she felt that the students would be too intimidated to come. The program has, however, been very successful because the students now feel comfortable using the library, and the teacher and the students take great pleasure in using the wide range of resources the library has to offer. The process has made the library accessible to the students and has brought the collection to life.

The second example does not relate directly to literacy but it is about re-examining library structures to improve accessibility. Newcastle Public Library has introduced a new method of shelving their non-fiction. They have grouped the material into broad subject areas such as health and gardening which were decided after looking at the interest areas of their clients. Much of the material is displayed face out. This rearrangement has resulted in a large increase in circulation. These are fairly simple measures yet many library staff feel threatened by the breaking down of the Dewey System. How will you find the book? How will they all fit on the shelves? This fear of deviating from tightly defined structures reflects a rigidity of thinking which does not bode well for those who cannot access those structures.

These two examples are just a taste of what libraries can do to open their doors to people with low literacy levels. Time and effort are involved, but the potential benefits are great. It is not only people with low literacy who will be enticed into your doors with such a strategy. They are at the extreme end of a large group of people who feel alienated by the images of culture and learning represented by the library. I also think that through the process of re-evaluation and seeing the world through others eyes the library will remain dynamic and responsive to change.

Public libraries have a valuable role to play in the adult literacy equation. Ideally they are non-judgemental places that are part of the local community and provide access to information, education and recreation. Public libraries can step outside the dominant culture but also provide a gateway to it when required.


Black, Stephen, 'Literacy: an alternative reading', Link-up, September 1996, pp. 9-11.
Borrowed Time? The Future of Public Libraries in the UK. Bournes Green. England: Comedia, 1993.
Phibbs, Peter, 'The social value of libraries: a case study of Warringah' in Public Libraries: What are they Worth? National Public Libraries Conference 1995. Adelaide: Auslib, 1996, pp. 122-135.

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