Volume 26, Number 4, Winter 2004

Early Literacy: A Role for Libraries in the National Crisis

by Peggy Rudd, ASCLA President and Texas State Librarian

In October, I had the pleasure of hearing PLA President Clara Bohrer speak on emergent literacy. Clara spoke to the members of the South Texas Library System, one of ten regional library systems that support public libraries in Texas. Entitled Creating an Environment That Supports Emergent Literacy, her presentation focused on the transformation of library services and facilities for children and their caregivers at the West Bloomfield Township Public Library, which she directs. With a focus on brain research, Clara defined emergent literacy as "what children learn about reading and writing before they can actually read and write." Her basic message was "it's never too early" to immerse children in a variety of learning experiences and to surround them with a rich learning environment.

The statistics Clara shared were disturbing and described what some have termed a national crisis. Less than one-third of all third graders can read proficiently. One in five school children is reading-impaired by fourth grade. Forty-four percent of fourth graders read below a basic level of proficiency.

What is the role of libraries in addressing this national crisis? It would appear that the public library, as the first library visited by many children, has a significant role to play. The projects included in this month's issue of Interface range from Connecticut to Oregon and Florida to Washington, literally shore to shore. Though project names vary, project partners and funding sources are combined differently, and project components are organized distinctly, each shares a belief in the central role of the library as a natural learning environment for children and a valuable resource for their caregivers.

But as Clara Bohrer suggested last week, it's not as easy as it may look to meet the active learning needs of young children in public library spaces as they are currently designed. It may also require rethinking the placement of spaces in the library so that the noise and activity of learning are encouraged while quiet reading and study needs of other patrons are preserved. Space must be designed to be flexible, interactive, stimulating, and inviting, both for children and their adult caregivers. Though learning opportunities are designed specifically for children, adults must be allowed to join in so that they can learn how to use materials and activities with their children at home.

But how will we know what works? How do we collect evidence of impact? Outcome measurement is the place to start and should be incorporated from the very beginning in planning for early childhood learning experiences in the library. Before we get to the "nitty gritty" of designing the space, purchasing materials, furniture, and equipment, and conducting programs, planners need to be very clear on the short term and longer term outcomes to be achieved. What is the "change" you want to see in the children? What new knowledge and skills do you want them to have? What behavioral changes do you want to see? What attitudinal or behavioral changes do you want to see in the adult caregivers? Starting with the answers to these questions and others will help shape a program that makes a significant, measurable impact on participants and ensures that the library's role in producing these impacts will be carefully documented.