Monday, 30 March 2009

The Role of Public Libraries in Literacy Education

These are notes taken from Maria Elena Zapata's article, " The Role of Public Libraries in Literacy Education" published in Libri 1994, vol 44 no 2. At the time she was Director of Public Library Networks in Caracas, Venezuela. In this paper she makes many points about the delivery of literacy in a global context that can be applied anywhere in the world.

She speaks of literacy as a new concept of social development. She wrote this 15 years ago and now Britain certainly considers that literacy is vital to social development. (Insinc, Framework for the future, Peoples Network). The focus is again on the prevention of illiteracy, defining the problem of illiteracy as "an expression of unequal access to social wealth, information sources and knowledge," and "Illiteracy: and expression of inequality". She also explains that literacy is not simply a matter of someone being able to decode the marks on paper into words, there needs to be meaning an understanding in the mind of the reader. They need to acquire functional literacy, which allows individuals to participate in social development. With this in mind, libraries need to provide information resources to "People Participating in Literacy education". My argument is that a Children's mobile library provides the resources in the places where children are learning to read, or should be learning to read, the question being "Can Children's mobile libraries help prevent illiteracy?" I have just checked the UNESCO website and the figures that they quote as being the most current is 774 million are illiterate globally, and 64% of those are women.

Zapata argues that illiteracy is not only a symptom of poverty, but a cause as well meaning that some levels of society cannot access their human rights. She explains "Knowing how to read and write is the prerequisite for practising the right to learn which is one of the conditions for the effective and universal application of these principles." It becomes a self generating circle. The process of learning to read gives people the skills to "Access and Process information, to create apply new knowledge, to participate in social processes designed to modify the environment and create better living conditions at individual community and national levels." Even in a democratic society citizens need to know how to read and write at a reasonable level to be able to "understand, analyze and reflect on their personal and social situations and to become active participants in promoting changes". To correctly exercise your vote you must be able to understand the policies of the political parties and chose the one that suits your own opinions.

As a logical first step and a way out of an illiteracy circle, is to teach reading and writing at an early age. Then, Zapata continues, pay attention to the young people and adults who have not attained adequate levels of reading. Libraries can help their literacy in two ways, as a partner of educational intuitions and as a service unit for the general public. A children's mobile library can have this dual function with great ease. It can tour around from school to school working in a tailored way to each educational establisment, and it can go out into a variety of communities to provide resources, skills and advise to members of the general public. The ways in working which Zapata suggests for a static library include the training of teachers and of librarians, both working together to assess and discover literacy teaching methodologies and the access to a range of appropriate printed materials. She suggests that static libraries provide travelling boxes of books and materials to day care centres, well, surely a whole library is a better option, if available. She suggests the provision of information about services offered by the library. the Leicester book bus goes one further that that, it provides information about the city's literacy policy, including schools. Finally she considers that staff should be trained as story tellers to continue the oral tradition. This applies particularly to staff on children's mobiles, they are an efficient use of trained staff, who will use their story telling skills multiple times during one day, instead of a few times a week.

Zapata also believes that libraries need to provide books to children to promote reading for pleasure. Because Zapata wrote the article with a global perspective, she suggests the "Artisan production of reading materials which rescue and give new value to the oral traditions and values of indigenous cultures". She is considering the places where the libraries' users are ethnic groups, some with no official language, but it is equally appropriate in any place. Making books for children, with children and by children gains their interest makes them realise the purpose of books. They end up with a product they feel ownership of and interests them which motivates them to read. Making books is a large part of the Peers Literacy intervention. It was also a large part of the reading policy of my eldest child's' school in Bristol over 20 years ago.

In the conclusion of the paper, Zapata stresses that public libraries are a "Vindication of Democracy" because it is in a library than anyone from any social background can find anything that interests them. If that is true of a static library, then it is also true for a mobile library that can go into the communities to allow any child a democratic choice.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Words on Wheels

Today I visited Paul Phillips and WOW (Words on Wheels). Paul is a development librarian at Birmingham City and WOW is his mobile library. The whole show is just him, no library manager, no library assistant, just him going around the schools and playgroups of Birmingham, telling stories, reading stories and encouraging parents to read with their children. He also cleans and maintains the vehicle and obviously drives it as well. The idea of a non-issuing mobile library vehicle was conceived around 20 years ago, and the resulting vehicle went into service about three years later, so it is around 17 years old. the livery is hand painted, designed by a previous Birmingham Artist in residence, and painted by an artist that worked in the coach builders, sadly now closed. Paul himself takes care of maintaining the artwork.

It originally did not have a special title, Paul chose the title Words on Wheels to convey what it was about without mentioning the word "Library". The vehicle was based in the Mobile library depot but the librarian in charge of it was officed in Birmingham central library, at some distance from the vehicle. As she was not qualified to drive the van, each time is was due to go out somewhere she had to organise and agency driver. This did not help the reliability of the service because agency drivers did not look after the vehicle and were not always available to fulfil a booking. It was funded through Urban Aid funding, and had gathered such a poor reputation that when funding had ran out the service was shelved. The vehicle stayed in the council depot for a year or so, until Paul got the post of development librarian and managed to achieve a years funding. It has been going ever since.

The success of the project is due to Paul's efforts, winning various Mobile Library prizes, nationally and internationally, linking with disadvantaged groups, networking and achieving an income for Birmingham city. Schools, pre-school facilities, nurseries, book him in advance and although he is busy each day, does not return to the same venue for many months, perhaps a year. Paul considers that Children's mobile libraries are a tool for delivering literacy, and he is convinced that he does that, but feels he does not have the evidence to prove it, although he has had letters of praise from the children that have experienced his visits. His criterion for measuring success is being asked back.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

This is more comment on "The Social Impact of Public Libraries; a literature review" continued.

This is further comment on "The Social Impact of Public Libraries; a literature review" by Evelyn Kerslake and Margaret Kinnel.

They refer to Tawete (1995) who says that the need to increase literacy and other skills was a primary reason for the establishment of UK public libraries and continues to be one of the main reasons public libraries are established in developing countries. Zapata(1994) suggests that public libraries address illiteracy by preventing future illiteracy among adults by "developing a reading culture amongst today's children" and by reducing illiteracy among adults who never learned to read. The prevention of illiteracy is the point that I am considering. Do Children's mobile libraries help prevent illiteracy. Is this a better phrase that Promote literacy?

For some children, as the teacher I spoke to said, a library is the only place where they may find a book. Kerslake and Kinnel say public libraries are "...the means of making books accessible to children through display, promotion, advice and assistance. They are the one potentially constant source or supply of books...." they also state the importance of literacy to the economic growth of a country, and the early sharing of books with children that provides children with the impetus to carry on reading. Today we have Bookstart and Surestart trying to do that task. They also mention Cynon Valley Borough library's "Readabout" Bookbus that worked with playgroups and schools, delivered books and did storytimes and craft activities. They also mention summer activities linked with mobile libraries that go into rural areas, just for the summer holidays, specially in Norfolk. One called the Village Green Storytime project, and the other the Great Western Booktrail.

More of the social impact of public libraries

This is more comment on "The Social Impact of Public Libraries; a literature review" by Evelyn Kerslake and Margaret Kinnel.

Public Libraries were historically concerned with the improvement of the lower social orders, to "control and civilise them," and to liberate the "working and middle classes with self instructing literature". Later, the ideal of enabling the individual as a good citizen was included into library work, and in the 20th Century this idea prompted Children's services in libraries. Later in the decade, in the 1970's, the community became important, with the library becoming a hub for community knowledge, and community Librarians, trying to direct library services to people who are not currently using them. Libraries then historically have the purpose of making a social impact, of effecting the people in their community.

This people focused, soft approach is very difficult to capture, count and analyse. How can you measure the success a library user getting a better job, or a child loving books? It is difficult to justify that to the accountants. Because of this libraries have stuck to the safe way of justifying their spending of public money, quantitative evaluation. The educational and cultural aspect of Public libraries are however, vital supports when there are changes in society such as : long term employment, flexible labour, unskilled labour forces, increase of older people, migrant workers.

Libraries have an impact on
  • the community in which it operates
  • the impact of skills
  • and an economic impact.

I am interested in the first of these categories, to see what the effect of a library going out to the people has on the community, even though it is targeted at children.

Kerslake and Kinnel state that "There are two particularly significant yet marginalised groups in UK society for whom the public library makes provision where other institutions do not: children from all ethnic groups and people with disabilities". There is a study from the US of librarians going out to homeless shelters to provide activities to encourage literacy, and storytelling to develop social skills and confidence.

Friday, 6 March 2009

One less job to do

I met with a head teacher today, to talk through the idea of getting some teachers together who's schools were visited by the Reading Rocket. I wanted to know;

a) If there was any noticeable increase in literate behaviour by the children who came on board the Reading Rocket.

b) Is there any measurable data about the children's literacy that I can use.

c) What did the class/school/individuals, gain from the Reading Rocket visits.

d) Did she think I could get a focus group together to discuss the noticeable effects of the loss of the Reading Rocket.

Her comments on a) was that at this stage, a year on, it is difficult to judge such things, it is too much in retrospect. She suggested that the literate behaviour could be judged on a functioning children's mobile library, by taking a group of children aside and talking to them about books
(eg, how to handle a book, turn the pages, which way up it goes) at the start of the study, and then again at the end of the school year.

In her opinion, the measurable data (b)), would not show up any increase in literacy. Her school in particular have low reading ages, and there was no apparent increase in the general figures during the time of the Reading Rocket.

On the other hand, in answer to c) the children gained a great deal by the children's mobile library visits. Having a large selection of books from which they could make their own choices, without parental interference, was good. The high quality of the condition of the books was very important. Even the books that belonged to school were tattier. A clean, well looked after book is so much nicer to touch. Many of the households where their children originated would not have had a selection of books, if any at all. Many of the children would not have been taken to libraries so not only did they have the benefit of the stock, they also were developing borrowing skills, which would stand them in good stead for life in the future.

As for d), she did not think that a focus group could usefully contribute at this time, because it is so long since the cessation of the service.

So, that is one less job to do.

Perhaps it is not the children/s mobile library itself that increases literacy, but it is another tool to use in the promotion of literacy.

Thursday, 5 March 2009

the social impact of public libraries

I have found a paper that gives a very good background argument to my research. "The Social Impact of Public Libraries; a Literature review" by Evelyn Kerslake and Margaret Kinnel of the Department of Information And Library studies, Loughborough University, 1997. They analyse the literature that considers social effects of public libraries in a qualitative way. They start by explaining that "...the History of Public Libraries all over the world is packed with examples of their social importance; as developers of adult and childhood literacy... " this statement confirms the validity of my wanting to understand the literacy effect of Children's mobile libraries. They are simply public libraries that go out to people, instead of people going out to them. As a public library they have a responsibility to develop literacy. I need to examine the way that they do this and weigh up the effect against the cost.

They also state that "it does not follow that everybody uses public libraries." This statement gives weight to the argument that mobile libraries need to go into the community, because for many reasons it is the only way that some people would access a library. This needs to be a question that I ask in my research. I need to look again at geographical barriers to information flows, and the document that supports it. The biggest justification for my methodology is their consideration that the quantitative research that is done by public libraries, for instance counting book lending figures and visitor numbers, has been carried out "at the expense of any focus on theoretical work (Usherwood, 1989,p138), which among other things, would examine and develop the contemporary rational and meaning of the public libraries." Therefore, if the rational of a children's mobile library is to promote literacy and the love of books, then that cannot be counted by the footfall, the number of people entering the library, or the number of books that they borrow, because they could come in for a chat, to see other people, because they are with a friend, and the book they may borrow may not be challenging their literacy skills, or may be borrowed and never read. Of course there is an argument that even having books at home, or just flicking through the pages is the start of a literacy process. Taking out a book is not a measure of someones literacy, taking out a series of books over time can be, because you can measure the difference in complexity of books borrowed, have they become more advance in vocabulary and content? Should I do some sort of long term thing like that?

They state that the Dept National Heritage, now Dept culture Media and Sport, now something else, concur with the sentiment and emphasise the significance of public library services to children and those improving their literacy skills. They believe that "social impact is often undervalued or overlooked in assessments of the public library". They reason that the complexity of doing that sort of research is why it is not done.