Increasing Literacy to Increase Diversity in Literature

Note from the future because Wordpress backdates entries to their original draft date: Sometimes I go through my saved drafts and cringe because I can’t believe I wrote such garbage, but today I discovered this post and cringed because I can’t believe I never actually published it. What the hell, me? So, I’m publishing it now, because better late than never I guess.

“Increasing Literacy to Increase Literary Diversity, by Emily Grace Le May

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to attend the sixth annual KidLib Camp at Darien Library in Connecticut; as part of this “unconference,” we engaged in several informal break out sessions, and one of my favorites focused on Diversity in Juvenile Literature. The discussion flowed from children’s picture books and presenting folktale-friendly story times to trends in juvenile and young adult fiction and what resources we relied upon to select the best culturally diverse materials for our young patrons.
At some point during the session, a question was thrown out to the group, which was “How can libraries play a part in increasing cultural diversity in literature?” Of course, there are lots of opportunities every day to increase cultural awareness at your library, starting with purposeful collection development strategies and then moving into stellar readers advisory sessions and programming.
However, my biggest take away was how vital it is to make sure that your library is a literacy hub for your community, particularly for those individuals who may be struggling with language barriers and subsequent or stand-alone illiteracy.
ESL Programs
At my library, where we serve a strongly Hispanic community, we offer a toddler-to-preschool story time and craft program all year, and we just completed our first “Ready for K!” kindergarten preparation program this summer. Both programs offer bilingual components (mostly songs and stories) and encourage parents to participate along with their children, which targets two age groups at once and provides almost seamless language learning opportunities for both English and Spanish speakers.ESL Courses
Hosting in-person ESL classes regularly is definitely something to strive for, of course. Maybe this is an obvious point, but you never know. You can and should reach out to local teachers or try to find bilingual individuals willing to volunteer their time.

Beyond that, I’m always working on my Spanish speaking skills (most recently through Mango’s Spanish for Librarians mini-course) to improve my customer service since most of my patrons speak Spanish, but for that patron who comes in and speaks primarily Armenian, don’t forget about Mango Languages’ ESL courses! There’s about a million of them to choose from – well, there’s actually 17 but growing every day. Make sure your patrons know about these (free!) courses as a singular or supplemental way to learn English, and encourage your fellow employees to learn a language that will help them better serve your patrons.

Adult Literacy
The bad news is that illiteracy is a reality for thirty-million adults in the United States, and almost half of those who have the lowest reading levels live in poverty. The good news is that you can make an amazingly positive impact in this area! If you don’t think you have the right training or resources to become a literacy instructor, I strongly encourage you to check out this amazing program put together by librarian Kristy Cooper and the free eBook that teaches you the ins and outs of how to do it yourself.

If after that you still don’t feel you can move forward with an adult literacy program at your library, at least take a few moments to research literacy centers nearby, reach out to them and direct your patrons to them as often as possible. As librarians, some of us may take our literacy for granted, but for our patrons, this simple referral could make all the difference in the world.

The Bigger Picture and Bottom Line
Ultimately, the publishing world is a profit-driven one – if a demand and a subsequent market can be proven to exist for culturally enriched literature, more books will be published for that market. Between language learning software subscriptions and an abundance of ESL and Adult Literacy programs, the library has a unique opportunity to provide amazing resources to anyone who wants to read, speak, and be heard.

Make your library the first stop on the pathway to literary enlightenment for everyone in your community, and these new readers will in turn demand adequate representation in the literary world. This is not a change that will happen overnight, but there are so many things you can start doing today to improve tomorrow.

For further reading about Adult Literacy and how libraries can help in this regard, check out Kristy Cooper’s article “Supporting Adult Literacy” in the May/June 2014 issue of Public Libraries.”

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