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Failing to Read Well The Role of Public Libraries in Adult Literacy, Immigrant Community Building, and Free Access to Learning

by Luis Kong on March 19, 2013

There are 104,000 foreigners arriving in the United States every day. Out of those arrivals, the majority of foreigners enter with visas and about 2,000 are unauthorized.1 With the economic downturn resulting in loss of employment and homes, plus an increased pressure on workers to keep or find new jobs, learners’ English proficiency and effective job-seeking skills are a real-life necessity. Public libraries are one of the few democratic institutions left where literacy services, computer access, job seeking and training workshops, and an expanded range of library services are offered free of charge to any adult learner.

This article explores the impact library literacy programs have in the development of immigrant community engagement. Literacy programs are free, learner-centered library services that are essential to the social, cultural, and economic development of rapidly expanding ethnic communities. Through their literacy services, libraries play an important role in reaching and expanding membership of new Americans.

Library-based literacy programs are an integral part of the mission of library services. These services contribute to the building of immigrant community engagement in their cities and neighborhoods where they live. Public libraries are literacy hubs radiating into diverse communities through their literacy programs, enriching a global village and engaging new citizens in the social, economic, and political activities of their communities.

As a government institution with a strong commitment to free access of information, libraries have been able to continue to provide library services, including literacy services to adult learners and their families. Due to extensive budget cuts, these educational gains are being threatened. As in the 1980s, “save our library” has become a recurring call in many communities. How important are libraries in building a community’s knowledge through its collection and through literacy programs? In this article, the importance of library and community partnerships will be explored with descriptions of successful urban literacy program models in the greater San Francisco Bay Area. The importance of library literacy programs will be emphasized. These programs are a key component of the twenty-first century library mission and an element of its survival. The important role of the state library as a partner in stimulating growth and innovation among the regional public library sector is another major component.

Libraries, Literacy, and the New Immigrant

In 1984, the California State Library’s California Literacy Campaign (CLC) under State Librarian Gary Strong provided the initial library literacy grant to twenty seven public libraries. Two years later, five literacy programs formed the Bay Area Literacy Network (BALit). In 1985, the Southern California Library Literacy Network (SCLLN) was organized. Today, there are more than 100 library literacy programs in California serving over 100,000 participants, both adults and children.2 In FY2011–12, this funding was eliminated by California Governor Brown. In 2012, the California legislature reinstated $4.7 million in library funding with the majority of funds provided for library literacy programs. At the urging of the California Library Association (CLA) and the passing of Governor Brown’s Tax Initiative (Proposition 30), the governor released his 2013-14 budget with 4.7 million for continued library funding. According to Mike Dillon, CLA lobbyist, “the budget spares public libraries from any further reduction.”3

In California, nearly a quarter of California’s adult population (23 percent) lacks prose literacy skills. In the counties of Alameda and Santa Clara the low literacy skills reach 19 and 16 percent respectively.4 Bay Area cities are ethnically diverse with the minority becoming the majority. In the city of Fremont in Southern Alameda County, Asians are the majority at 50.3 percent of the city’s population of more than 214,000 residents.5 A decade ago, Asians made up 37 percent while the white population has decreased from 47.7 to 32.8 percent in the last ten years.6

The emerging trend is evident. New immigrants will become a majority in many cities in California, and the library has a role in welcoming new Americans and integrating them into the community.7

In 2008, Neal Peirce of the Washington Post wrote that libraries “can be the fulcrum of renewal in cities and neighborhoods.”8 Libraries continue their historic responsibility to provide free early literacy to young people, conversation classes to immigrants, computer skills to job seekers, access to the Internet and library databases, workforce development, and networking for the unemployed and for entrepreneurs. According to Jonathan Bowles, director for the Center for Urban Future, “many of the needs of the immigrant entrepreneurs also overlap the traditional forms of public library service, namely language and literacy skills, which may not be the stuff of headlines, but are absolutely essential roles in smoothing the path for immigrant entrepreneurs.”9

Libraries create connections to local institutions and build English language skills for immigrants and native speakers. An Urban Library Council report situates libraries as important community centers for connecting adult learners and their families through their collections and classes, including adult English instruction, early and family literacy and school readiness programs.10 Libraries contribute to the future of communities by supporting “successful immigrant transitions and help communities deal effectively with the effects of rapid worldwide change.”11 Libraries and their literacy programs not only can respond to rapid worldwide change, but can also be the agents for the information that stimulates that change. Libraries provide users with free access to information that supports a social constructivist paradigm that builds as much as it promotes critical reflection in learners.

Library literacy programs are constructing ways to reach learners and build civic engagement in a global community. As recipients of a socially constructed set of codes or language, we are constantly embarking on critical reflection of our learning, not just what is learned, but how and for what purpose we learn.12 The vessel for social knowledge is embedded in historical and social forces that emerge over time. Many library literacy programs are building learning communities through small group instruction in non-formal and informal settings that are primarily functional and practical, but also empowering and reciprocal because learners teach each other as much as a teacher teaches them. Mutual learning is encouraged whether in a learning pair or in a small group. Other literacy programs direct their efforts to learning pairs where the act of learning is not always relegated to the students or the library user, but to the tutor or librarian in order to help advance the learner’s educational goals. The role of the learner and teacher is a two-way street. Literacy becomes a vehicle for the creation of shared knowledge.

Creating Learner’s Own History through Dialogue

In a 2009 article on the definition of literacy, Daphne Ntiri provides a functional view of literacy that is more in tune with the expectations of the workplace, but also tied to power relations among those who have and those who do not have wealth. She writes, “Literacy has undergone a shift from the traditional, non-engaging paradigm to an open, dialogic approach that is politically energized and possess transformative qualities to enhance understanding of the demands of a changing world.”13 A dialogic approach is the interaction among participants in a conversation or dialogue whereby all those engaged act as arcs of knowledge that together build a larger knowledge base. This dialogic approach can be traced to the work of Russian philosopher and literary theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. Dialogism describes the relationship that each utterance has with the previous and forthcoming utterances. A book, or a text, is not alone nor does it provide meaning without the intervention of outside dialogues, texts, or voices that intersect it. Martin Nystrand stated, “discourse is dialogic . . .
because it is continually structured by tension, even conflict, between the conversants, between self and other, as one voice “refracts” another.”14

Discourse is aided by each participant’s history, social role, and context. In a library-based conversation group or book club, the participants provide a window to the text, and their discussion is dialogic, and treated as “thinking devices” and not just as a means to transmit facts.15 Each participant’s active involvement enhances the thinking of others and of themselves.

Nystrand refers to this exchange as reciprocal teaching, which is a process that is both dialogical and sustained by its focus on experiences relevant to the learners, and on a deeper reflection of the literature—whether in the form of a book in an English conversation group, an English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) discussion about American idioms, or while preparing for an interview in a job-seeking class.

As opposed to monologism, learning is enhanced by the interaction of those involved, as in a community of practitioners where participant’s thoughts and responses are taken into account and respected. Dialogue is chained by the meanings carried from one voice to another. As learners construct their own views of what they read in conversation groups or ESOL classes, they contribute to each other’s analysis by their dialogic interaction.

Library literacy programs surveyed promoted this web of “interpretative complexity” in their learning activities, in particular, their small group learning.16 In their learner-centered approach, literacy programs are powerful contributors and change agents when learners discover they are thinkers and creators of their own history and of the shared history of their community of learners.

Literacy aims at rectifying the historical and cultural oppression people endure, and at transforming the spirit of learners in order to break through political and social injustice.17 Libraries are no strangers to freedom of information and the ideals of a democratic distribution of knowledge to anyone who walks through the doors.

Building the Global Village through Conversations

The 2008 Urban Libraries Council report, “Welcome Stranger: Public Libraries Build The Global Village,” proposes five strategies for success that can assist in bridging the change experienced by many immigrants adjusting to global migration in the United States. The report places America’s urban libraries at the forefront in building immigrant communities by the library’s accessible information and institutional networks, understanding of local immigrant dynamics, sensitivity to cultural and language differences, building English proficiency, as a bridge to other local institutions, and in the ability to encourage civic engagement.18 According to the Asian American Justice Center 2007 report, “a growing number of immigrants—especially from Mexico, Latin America, and parts of Southeast Asia—are not only [persons with] Limited English Proficiency (LEP) but also have low levels of formal education and limited literacy skills in their primary languages.”19 The Alameda County (Calif.) Library literacy program has learners from Afghanistan with the same low levels of native language skills because of decades of war in their country.

Immigrant community development is enhanced by the librarian’s knowledge of immigrant demographics. The potential for public libraries to organize its services to make the information more accessible to community groups can result in a clearer understanding of the issues affecting immigrants.20

The inclusion of literacy programs as a core library service has a significant effect in the rapid transition of immigrants into their communities. In the next section, a series of interviews with library literacy managers provides a picture of the impact their programs have in their service areas.

Helping Learners Become Active Citizens

The five literacy programs represented in this section provided services from 180 to 350 learners in their respective jurisdiction for a total of about 1,300 learners for all five programs. Two programs have literacy services countywide, while three have services in large urban cities. These programs cover areas with a population ranging from 250,000 to over 500,000 ethnically diverse residents. The number of staff averages from three to seven people with full- and part-time workers, including contract teachers. All programs rely on volunteer tutors and outside library funding to operate their tutoring activities. The California Library Literacy Services funds adult basic education tutoring for all programs, with the majority of expenses paid by their local or county libraries. At each program, literacy services are held in multiple locations.

Learners served by these literacy programs include native English speakers, second-language learners, inmates, reentry learners, homeless, families, children and youth, unemployed, people with learning disabilities, residential recovery clients, apartment residents, older adults, library and non-library users, government workers, private industry, and nonprofit employees. In all programs surveyed, library directors supported literacy program expenses and in some cases proactively advocated for library literacy as part of the mission of their library system. One library director was fully supportive of one of the literacy programs, yet, the library staff viewed literacy as inessential to the core services of the library. In light of severe budget cuts, and the unforeseen staffing costs of a newly built library, literacy was not viewed as a library service even though nearly two hundred learners and library users benefited from the service with reading, writing, and work-related instruction.

Library politics and the actual adult basic education program can be at odds. When asked why the literacy manager liked her job, she responded, “I wanted to be a part of direct service, to develop policy and curriculum, to improve adult education in the United States. This position has allowed me to do that.”

Another literacy program director manages a program in a large urban city with approximately 160,000 adults functioning at the lowest literacy levels. According to this literacy manager, 35 percent of the population in her city can be considered to have limited English proficiency. This literacy manager supervises a program for 350 adult learners in basic literacy, ESL classes, workforce-specific instruction, voting, computer labs, and a partnership with the library’s family learning centers at branch locations. The literacy manager predicts that the future of her program lies in a partnership with the library’s Family Learning Centers. Recently, their local adult school budget was cut by 70 percent from $5 million to $1 million.

Managers are aware that many learners from adult schools are seeking services at the library, as well as laid-off workers from business and factory closures. Learners are seeking all levels of ESOL classes and basic education at libraries. Because of budget limitations, literacy programs cannot increase the number of classes or tutors. The literacy staff is not able to maintain program growth demanded by library customers without additional funding for classes, tutor training and promotion, and without the support of library administration.

Tutor recruitment and training was in every literacy manager’s mind. They made a constant effort to encourage outside and peer volunteers to get involved, to advocate for the program, to speak at public representatives’ meetings, and to commit to staying long enough to meet participants’ learning goals. Managers were inspired by the involvement of learners in leading a conversation group, attending a leadership workshop, in peer tutoring, by their involvement in a learner advisory board, and participating in a voting workshop. These activities are seen as essential in encouraging civic involvement among literacy learners, particularly immigrants. Program services were marketed to local immigrant agencies and community groups.

The level of satisfaction was very high among literacy managers because, in the words of a manager, “I can see a permanent impact on people, literacy provides learners with something they never lose, that cannot be taken away.” Another manager said, “I am able to help people. I am engaged on a daily basis with everyone in my program. I go to the community to show the positive things that we do.” The positive outlook by these library staff members were shadowed by the general feeling that libraries relegated literacy at the margins, and not central to the library’s community service mission.

The federal Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) has funded several innovative projects that have taken the library out of the building and into the community. With LSTA funding, one literacy program has established four free computer labs, and a job-seeking class at three apartment complexes where learners’ interests are combined with reading and writing skills practice. Residents and neighbors can attend any class and learn about how to complete online applications, write a résumé, prepare for an interview, send and receive email, do Internet searches, find online library resources, search the library catalogue and place holds on books, and arrange a delivery through the bookmobile. The same program has expanded its Reading Clubs for second language learners where they read and discuss high-interest literature.

Library literacy programs face a myriad of challenges from budget cuts, to politically charged organizational cultures, to labor union influence, to government procedures and policies, and to programmatic issues such as learner persistence and volunteer recruitment efforts. Nevertheless, several programs have found a balance in program development and service delivery that have increased the learner’s capacity to succeed either in job seeking skills, English proficiency or confidence in everyday life dialogue. Library literacy programs are sites where emerging promising practices can be found in a learner-centered adult education that both inspires and encourages personal advancement and civic participation.

Library literacy programs are able to provide diverse modalities of instruction that work for the learners, at a time that is convenient for learners and with an open-door policy. These literacy programs are integrating ESOL or Adult Basic Education (ABE) instruction with life skills, computer training, job-seeking soft skills, and library usage in a focused contextualized learning environment that is safe and learner-centered.

Libraries are becoming more than just buildings and books. A distributive library is one that encompasses communities without borders, reaching out to learners––including new immigrants. But are public libraries missing the point and avoiding a dialogic process within their institutions by ignoring how important literacy has become as a key element of their strategic planning?

Literacy’s Role in the Future of Public Libraries

Library-based adult literacy programs are major contributors in the education of adult learners in urban, suburban, and rural communities. These programs provide free individual and group instruction during the current economic recession. Many literacy programs are replacing classes offered by adult schools due to budget cuts. The California Library Association lobbied for library funds with literacy as the main banner. The strategy succeeded in releasing funds for California libraries. Library literacy reaches out to an increasing number of immigrants who want to learn English to attain their personal goals.

According to the Asian American Justice Center, there are approximately 4 million LEP adults who are native born. This figure doubled between 2000 and 2005 and “is increasing at a higher rate than is the immigrant population.”21 Immigrant populations are more dispersed, and their English proficiency challenges have encouraged new strategies for effective instruction of learners. Some of these encouraging practices include a focus on life-skills instruction, an integration of English language proficiency with job training or GED classes, class schedules that fit the learner’s availability, well-trained teachers and an increase in collaboration and partnership with other community organizations. The literacy programs in this article use many of these strategies and are successfully attaining learners’ goals.

The public library is a little explored informal educational organization where adult literacy services continue to be provided for free and to everyone. It is one of the few remaining government institutions that have consistently stood by its ideals of free information for the masses and by its commitment against the failure to read well. But for how long? Can libraries fail to read well into their future and eliminate literacy as part of their mission of public service? Or can libraries expand their role in community social and economic development and see the role of literacy and education as essential to library members, to civic engagement, and the public good?


  1. Philip Martin and Elizabeth Midley, Population Bulletin Update: Immigration in America 2010 (Washington, D.C.: Population Reference Bureau, 2010).
  2. California Library Literacy Services, Twenty Years of California Library Literacy Services, 1984–2004: A Retrospective, informational brochure (Sacramento: California State Library, 2006).
  3. Mike Dillon and Christina DiCaro, CLA lobbyists, “Legislative Update: Governor Releases 2013-14 Budget – Library Funding Preserved,” News from the Capitol, email to CLA members, Jan. 10, 2013.
  4. National Center for Educational Statistics, “National Assessment of Adult Literacy: State and County Estimates of Low Literacy,” accessed Jan. 29, 2013.
  5. US Census Bureau, “2010 Demographic Profile,” accessed Feb.11, 2013.
  6. US Census Bureau, “Profile of General Demographic Characteristics: 2000,” accessed Feb. 11, 2013.
  7. Rick J. Ashton and Danielle Patrick Milam, Welcome Stranger: Public Libraries Build The Global Village (Chicago: Urban Libraries Council, 2008).
  8. Neal Peirce, “Libraries and New Americans: The Indispensable Link,” The Washington Post Writer’s Group, Apr. 13, 2008, accessed Jan. 29, 2013.
  9. Jonathan Bowles, A World of Opportunity (New York: Center for Urban Exchange, 2007).
  10. Ashton and Milam, Welcome Stranger.
  11. Ibid., 5.
  12. Luis J. Kong, “Immigration, Racial Profiling, and White Privilege: Community-Based Challenges and Practices for Adult Educators,” New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education 125 (Spring 2010): 65–77.
  13. Daphne W. Ntiri, “Toward a Functional and Culturally Salient Definition of Literacy,” Adult Basic Education and Literacy Journal 3, no. 2 (Summer 2009): 103.
  14. Martin Nystrand et al., Opening Dialogue (New York: Columbia University, 1997): 8.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Ibid., 77.
  17. Paulo Freire, Education for Critical Consciousness (New York: Seabury Press, 1973).
  18. Ashton and Milam, Welcome Stranger.
  19. Asian American Justice Center, Adult Literacy Education In Immigrant Communities: Identifying Policy And Program Priorities For Helping Newcomers Learn English (Washington D.C.: Asian American Justice Center, 2007).
  20. Ashton and Milam, Welcome Stranger.
  21. Asian American Justice Center, Adult Literacy Education In Immigrant Communities, ix.

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