The evolution of literacy

File photo.

The evolution of literacy

Story By: PETER WARD
10/1/2015


In the first public libraries, it was assumed that visitors to the library would know how to read. After all, libraries had been established to provide books and guidance in the use of those books. The user of the library would come to learn something, to get something to read, or find a piece of information. Why would someone come to the library if they were unable to read the books they expected to discover? Where libraries provided a chance at self-education through the reading of books, it was understood that schools would first provide a foundation in the ability to read. 

Although the expansion of schools provided public education to many young Americans, the problem of literacy would not be fully addressed. Since schools aimed to educate the young, the adults would have to look elsewhere to learn how to read. Greater immigration of non-English speaking populations in the 19th century had raised questions about the future of the American electorate as well as the continued propagation of American culture. Not only was English the language of America, but reading in English—whether it was the works of history or philosophy underpinning our ideas of democracy, or increasingly popular newspapers covering the political events of the day—was a very necessary part of being an informed voter. Not being able to speak English was a further barrier to literacy not experienced by those who could already speak the language. 

 In response, Melvil Dewey, then on the verge of establishing a school for librarians, gave a speech to prospective students in which he emphasized the importance of helping new Americans to literacy. Over the 20th century, libraries would increasingly become places for learning to read as well as places to read. Today, libraries regularly partner with literacy groups to provide literacy education. For library patrons who speak languages other than English, classes are given on learning English as a prelude to literacy. Worldwide, the role of provider of literacy has inspired librarians to partner with organizations such as UNESCO that helps communities unable to support traditional library services by providing village reading rooms—mobile libraries transported by cart—rucksacks of books, and literacy programs via radio, which have pushed reading into even the most remote areas. 

Over the past few decades, the definition of literacy has continued to expand. Traditional literacy is defined by the ability to express oneself at a basic level with the written word. However, to succeed in the modern world, new forms of literacy are required. Financial literacy and numeracy are increasingly necessary for dealing with everyday economic matters. Technology has entered into all realms of life, while scientific literacy is needed to intelligently understand national issues and questions of public policy. 

Libraries across Suffolk County have been working to address these new forms of literacy as well. Computer and tech classes are available at many libraries. Maker and STEM items, such as 3-D printers, have appeared as well. Westhampton Library has an “Idea Place”—a space in the library where children and families can have fun learning about science, technology, and other important topics. This spring, the Patchogue-Medford Library hosted the successful “Money for Life” program, which answered questions on financial literacy, saving and retirement. The Longwood Public Library’s “Online Stories” webpage provides a variety of valuable links where kids can read online and use new devices. This September, Brentwood Public Library launched a whole family literacy program called “Learning Together,” which covers health, financial, mathematical, and other new forms of literacy on a bi-monthly schedule. 

The definition and extent of what we mean by literacy continues to change. Someone who is literate one day can be found struggling the next because of developments in society and technology. Self-education then becomes increasingly important, as well as organizations supporting self-education, new literacies, and traditional literacy. Across Suffolk County, there are many opportunities to support traditional literacy and explore new subjects through the avenue of the public library.