Libraries, Literacy, Outreach and the Digital Divide

2000 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture
By  Barbara J. Ford


Assistant Commissioner, Chicago Public Library
American Library Association President, 1997-1998

The new millennium finds us with new tools and opportunities for enhancing outreach services to populations traditionally underserved by libraries. Our pride in what we accomplished in the 1900s is the foundation of our hope for enhanced library services in the years ahead. Literacy and equity of access to information are essential in democratic societies, especially in a world where information is increasingly mediated by technology. The power of the new technologies allows us to explore new ways
to expand the reach of libraries and serve the underserved.


The new century demands that librarians reexamine professional roles, responsibilities, and values. Libraries continue to do the things they have always done well: they empower individuals and communities by providing information needed to make informed decisions, by promoting unrestricted access to information, and by serving as community centers for life-long learning. Libraries ensure the free flow of information beyond geographic, language, political and other barriers. Libraries safeguard irreplaceable resources, and, in a world undergoing constant change, libraries provide enduring connections to the past and future. Libraries provide access to important research to support better living conditions and to help people lead longer, more productive and fulfilling lives.

We must continue to work to convince local, national and international leaders of the vital importance of libraries and librarians. We must unite with colleagues around the world to address funding, accessibility, copyright and other issues shaping the global information infrastructure. Libraries provide a forum for dialogue and idea-sharing which can lead to improvements in our government and cultural institutions. To be effective, librarians must work in partnership with other organizations to address local, national and international needs. Education is key to understanding.

The library is an agent in social and individual change which must actively, energetically, and physically seek out and involve the groups it wishes to reach. The librarian in the United States has long held a strong sense of the mission to serve the underserved: witness the work of The Office for Literacy and Outreach Services and Jean Coleman, whom we remember today.


Outreach is a systematic attempt to provide services beyond conventional limits to particular segments of a community. The word outreach has become a label for the process of extending library services and programs to nontraditional library users. The ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach -Services serves the
Association by supporting and promoting literacy and equity of information access initiatives for traditionally underserved populations, including new and nonreaders, people geographically isolated, people with disabilities, rural and urban poor people, and people generally discriminated against because ofrace, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, language and social class. The Office works to ensure that training, information resources, and technical assistance are available to help libraries and librarians develop effective literacy and outreach programs and services. The ALA strategic plan addresses 21st century literacy and equity of access. Initiatives encourage opportunities for maximum intellectual
participation for underserved populations in America's libraries. Priorities include the dissemination of information and training as well as partnerships with other national organizations serving
similar populations.

In 1968 the ALA Council established the Coordinating Committee on Library Service to the Disadvantaged to gather information concerning programs of library service; to propose, coordinate, and evaluate various programs, and to suggest further areas of Association involvement for action and implementation. During 1969-1970,43 articles on library service to the disadvantaged appeared in ALA publications and no fewer than a dozen committees and three round tables were involved with one or more aspects of such service in 1970 ALA voted to set up an Office for Services to the Disadvantaged. In 1973 Jean Coleman was appointed staff liaison. By 1975 the Office had a number of publications, consultation activities, and literacy projects. The Literacy Training Project conducted by the office in 1979 was a major training event. A demonstration book and film collection were created and made available for libraries interested in improving youths and adults.

In 1980 the name ofthe office was changed to Office for Library Outreach Services. The purpose of the Office was to promote the provision of library service to the urban and rural poor of all ages and to people discriminated against because they belong to minority groups; to encourage the deve10pment of user-oriented informational and educational library services to meet the needs of the urban and rural poor, ethnic minority groups, the underemployed, school dropouts, the semiliterate and illiterate and
those isolated by cultural differences; to ensure that librarians and others have information, access to technical assistance, and continuing education opportunities to assist them in developing effective outreach programs. During the 1980s the Minority Concerns and Cultural Diversity Committee was established and OLOS worked with ALA's Subcommittee on American Indian Library Services. Literacy activities continued with a Coalition, a literacy awareness campaign, and training and programs. Jean
Coleman was the leader and spirit of many of these activities from 1973 to 1986.

1989 saw the establishment of the Literacy Assembly, and 1990 saw the OLOS report on the association's activities in promoting library services to African-Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans, and Hispanic-Americans. In 1990 the ALA Minority Fellowship Advisory Board was established and coordinated by OLOS. In 1995 the Office name changed to Office for Literacy and Outreach Services. In 1996 the 25th anniversary of OLOS and its accomplishments in literacy and outreach services were celebrated.

Today, the OLOS Intergenerational subcommittee, founded in 1993, recommends, supports and develops projects which encourage mutually beneficial, mutually enjoyable library programs linking generations and provides a forum for the exchange of information and ideas regarding intergenerational library programs. The Library Service to Poor and Homeless People subcommittee is charged with developing and recommending initiatives and priorities to achieve implementation of the ALA Poor People's Policy, to participate actively in said implementation, and to monitor the profession's effectiveness in achieving that implementation. The Literacy Assembly establishes a focal point within ALA emphasizing the Association's continuing commitment to literacy; it provides an opportunity for broad representation of the membership and affiliated groups to exchange information and share ideas, coordinate programming, and develop and promote strategies for increased literacy activity within the Association. Activities continue to expand with new initiatives such as the Diversity Fair begun in 1998 and held each year at the ALA annual conference.

OLOS supports the idea that it is the librarian's duty to take steps to offer services to an non-users. The outreach librarian is an ambassador and, to succeed, must have maturity and understanding and a very deep concern for outreach. The1ibrarian must care and provide a caring service. The librarian must be able to identify latent needs and to determine how best to serve them. The librarian must also be an enthusiast and a promoter of services. Libraries are places for people of all ages and abilities who want to read and learn. Helping people of all ages to be savvy consumers of information is becoming an increasingly important part of what libraries and librarians do. Today's librarians are taking a leadership role in creating and identifying quality Web sites in much the same way they organize and recommend print materials. In schools, colleges and universities, librarians teach students and faculty how to use information technology for research and other needs. More importantly, these programs teach how to find the best sources of information, using computers and other media.

Many public libraries offer similar training for parents, business people, and other adults who wish to develop the technical skills and knowledge they need to succeed. Continuing education has never been as important as it is today. The ongoing revolution in information technology demands changes not only in what we learn, but also in how we tearn in the classroom and beyond. To succeed in this new environment means not only knowing how to access information, but also how to analyze and use it efficiently and effectively. Keeping up with the explosion in information and technology chal1enges those in the work force to continually renew their skills and expand their knowledge. Education and lifelong learning are equally important for the growing number of older Americans who mayor may not be actively employed. America's libraries are uniquely positioned to serve as community centers to enable people of all ages to keep learning throughout their lives.


Being able to read is a survival skill in an information society, but it is not enough. More than half of new jobs in this century will require computer skills. For both children and adults without computers at home, public and school libraries provide a valuable opportunity to learn these skills and to take advantage of the vast global information resources now available online. Definitions of 21st century literacy encompass the need for information literacy - the ability to obtain, interpret and use information from print sources, computers and other media. This larger definition demands that libraries must be centers where children, their parents and grandparents can develop the skills they need to live, learn, work and govern in a society transformed by technology. As information professionals, librarians have the opportunity and responsibility to educate community leaders and the public about these changes and the expanded role of libraries.

Good libraries help create a literate public, and a literate public demands good libraries. Libraries of all types are leveraging their investments in technology to generate additional support for programs and services which support an information literate population.

Whether information is printed in a book or on a screen, the ability
to read is a basic survival skill. The advent of technology is increasing, not reducing, its importance. Many more young people and adults face severely limited opportunities because of limited literacy skills. This problem will intensify in the 21 st century as more and more jobs require the ability to read and use computers. In February 2000 it was found that among people surveyed 31percent were very wired and used four or more of the following technologies: the Internet, a cellular or wireless phone, a computer, fax, e-mail, online banking or investing, and online shopping. 46 percent were somewhat wired and use one of the targeted technologies - most often the mobile phone. The not wired – 23 percent of respondents - did not identify any single piece of technology as playing an important part in their lives. As might be expected, the very wired are the most highly educated groups and have the highest median household income. This digital divide shows the economic advantage of the affluent who can afford access to all the sources of information they need. This divide separates individuals, communities, cities, and countries. The survey found that the chasm between the information haves and have-nots is first and foremost a function of age. While many Americans are embracing technology, challenges remain. Minorities are seeing a liberating aspect to technology. REFORMA, National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish-Speaking, convened a forum at this ALA conference to build an information technology agenda including demographics of the digital divide,  Latinos and new technologies, technology awareness, creation and access of Latino digital collections, providing access to the community, advancing REFORMA through technology, and building partnerships.

A recent women's conference at the United Nations gives us some idea of the challenges still facing women around the world and in the United States. The United nation's report, The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics, finds that when it comes to literacy, women lag behind men, especially in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. In the United State a report compiled by U.S. Women Connect, a non-profit advocacy group, the United States got very low marks for its attempts to reduce poverty among American women. With reported weakening access for women, children and their families to job training, housing and health care there is much to work on in our country. There are millions of functionally illiterate adults in the U.S. people who cannot read, write, speak or compute well enough to functional effectively in society - and this illiteracy has an impact on families. Nearly one in four children under the age of six currently lives below the poverty line. These children often enter school two or more year behind their more advantaged peers in pre-literacy skills, and many fall further behind each year. Low literacy tends to be passed on from generation to generation, creating an ongoing cycle of educational disadvantage, frustration, poverty and dependence. There is a growing awareness that adult illiteracy can and must be addressed through the family, as well as through the broader community.

The family literacy concept reflects the fact that literacy, the ability to read and to understand, begins at home. For families who need help bridging the reading gap, many libraries now offer family literacy programs. Through these programs, low literate parents build their reading skills through work with literacy tutors, learn how to read to their children, and receive encouragement and guidance in making reading a daily family activity. Many family literacy programs also provide pre-reading activities for young children, multi generational literacy instruction, and other activities to encourage families to read and learn together. Through family literacy programs, the home becomes an environment where young minds can grow to their fullest potential, and where parents can play active roles in the children's intellectual development. Children who get off to a fast start in reading are more likely to read more over the years, and this act of reading can help children compensate for modest levels of cognitive ability by building their vocabulary and general knowledge. Reading will make them smarter. Those who read well are likely to read more, thus assuring growth. Members of the business community provide an effective source of support for family literacy programs. Business people, working cooperatively with librarians to develop family literacy programs, participate as partners in planning decisions, as tutor volunteers, as local ambassadors to help publicize the library's literacy efforts, and as sponsors of the library's programs. Reading skills are transferred to the community and workplace, creating a more literate and productive community.


We have made real progress in adult literacy as a major component of library outreach with the help of external funders and local focus. However, other areas of outreach are not always so popular and as well addressed. Most librarians working in outreach get training on the job. The professional literature and the conference programs on outreach are minimal. Some librarians working in such areas as serving the urban and rural poor or people with disabilities often feel on the periphery of the American Library Association's priorities. Staff development and the sharing of expertise and experience must be available for outreach librarians so that strategies and resources can be shared and strengthened. Library schools, professional associations, and libraries must be sensitive to, and committed to, developing outreach services and training and support for those working in these areas. It will be easier to finder partners to support funding and programs if initiatives are targeted to specific groups such as non-readers, the physically disabled, or the elderly. Partnerships will make it easier to reach out to underserved populations.

In 1968 when OLOS was established, Lowell Martin wrote about changing library perspectives: from a people seeking productivity alone to a people also seeking value and fulfil1ment; from an educational system concerned with numbers to one seeking to develop quality; from a society of workers to a society of specialists; from a readership limited to the elite to a readership extended to the underprivileged; from the first steps of building strong collections to the further step of outreach of resources through the whole society; from the traditional book to communication in new and ingenious forms; from routines that sap our time and energy to machines that free us; from separate libraries to a unit within an area-wide resource; and most important, from an assumption that what we do is automatically socially significant to a professional recommitment to library purposes. Outreach is key to accomplish these objectives. Much has happened since 1968 with activities by OLOS and other groups. ALA is the leading advocate for the value of libraries and librarians in connecting people to recorded knowledge in all formats and the public's right to a free and open information society. ALA continues to work for increased support for libraries and librarians by communicating clearly and strongly why libraries and librarians are unique and valuable.

The draft, Librarianship and Information Service: A Statement on Core Values, is a very recent effort to codify our values and a reminder of what unites us as a profession. The library and information profession is enriched by the skills and knowledge of its individual members. Over time, they have refined their services to meet the unique and ever changing needs of their communities. Despite the multiplicity of these skills and roles, librarians and information specialists hold values in common. We provide connection of people to ideas. We guide the seeker in defining and refining the search; we foster intellectual inquiry; we nurture communication in all forms and formats. We assure free and open access to recorded knowledge, information, and creative works. We recognize that access to ideas across time and across cultures is fundamental to society and to civilization. We have a commitment to literacy and learning. We aid people to become independent lifelong learners by selecting and offering materials that support the differing needs of all learners, and that entertain and delight the human spirit. We support freedom for all people to form, hold, and to express their own beliefs. All people have the right to seek, to know, and to find. We work for preservation of the human record. The cultural memory of humankind and its many families, its stories, its expertise, its history, and its evolved wisdom must be preserved so it may illuminate the present and make the future possible. We strive for excellence in professional service to our communities.

Our commitment requires integrity, competence, personal growth, effective stewardship, and service to our discipline as well as to our public. We work for the formation of partnerships to advance these values. We believe in the interdependence of libraries and librarians and advocate collaboration in all areas and between all types of library, knowing that collections and services evolve successfully through such collaboration. Reviewing these values helps us reconnect with our history and celebrate and appreciate all that has been accomplished by OLOS in literacy and outreach.


What is-the role of library outreach in the fast-emerging knowledge-based civilization? The most urgent issues today are still the same ones - how to get food on the table and find shelter and how to live beyond tomorrow. While some of us are connected in vast networks that bypass national boundaries and exist in cyberspace, most people on earth are not connected to these new worlds. They exist outside the electronic world in a world of poverty, in which physical survival dictates the terms of daily life. The highly industrialized countries accounted for more than 88 percent of Internet users in 1998. The communications gap between the developed nations and the developing nations and between the developed and developing parts of countries is such that the world is fast dividing into the information rich and the information poor. The future is a land of opportunity for those who are affluent and highly educated. It may become a dark age for the poor, the uneducated, the non-connected.

With governments deregulating and selling of their telecommunications and broadcasting infrastructures, the commercial sphere may become the ultimate arbiter of who is connected. Those who can afford access to cyberspace will be connected, and others will remain outside the electronic world. The growing disparity in income and wealth between rich and poor is affecting all countries. Millions of Americans lack the financial resources, educational skills, and time to become active players in the new electronically mediated network worlds. The poor and uneducated also are becoming the disconnected in the digital age. Editors of a special issue of Time magazine dedicated to cyberspace noted that access to electronically mediated worlds will be essential to one's ability to function in a democratic society. Access issues are not new in the communications arena. Questions surrounding access were raised when the telephone was first introduced, and later when radio and television appeared. Today the issue of access has become more significant. The digital revolution is bringing all the major forms of technologically mediated communications - voice, data, video - together in an integrated web. More and more personal and commercial communications take place in electronic networks, making them indispensable to survival in a wired world. Our abilities to connect with our fellow human beings, to engage in commerce, to create communities of shared interest, and to establish meaning in our lives are increasingly mediated by these powerful new forms of electronic communications.

Until now issues of access in cyberspace have been narrowly construed. Concerns have been raised over the affordability of hardware and software, the availability of service, computer literacy, First Amendment rights, privacy, and the control of data flows. The right not to be excluded - the right of access becomes more and more important in a world increasingly made up of electronically mediated commercial and social networks.
Government's role in the new scheme of things is to secure every individual's right of access to the many networks through which humans communicate and ALA and librarians must work to ensure that this happens. The role oflibraries is to make all types of resources available and to reach out to the entire community of potential users to ensure access. As important and exciting as the new global technology is, it is the local touch that sets out libraries apart and will ensure their future as treasured institutions.


Libraries are a symbol of accessibility, combining privacy and absence of fear, shared community, civility and citizenship. Libraries are a place of sanctuary, a secure risk-free social place welcoming to all, a place to discover and delight in diversity. Libraries provide the infrastructure for inclusion through sustainable resources for learning, a wealth of knowledge, an environment in which creativity is fostered, accessible and sustainable learning spaces, and local access to networks with global reach to knowledge.

Libraries provide a reflection of changing communities and a response to individual needs. Libraries contribute to the well being of the individual and the public good. Libraries contribute to these priorities in an incomparab1e way. The culture of libraries provides a unique mix of resources and services. Individuals should make the most of the library: explore it; care for it; promote its value; and influence its future. Communities should recognize the library as a catalyst for community development and respect. Government and policy makers should recognize and optimize the potential of libraries by ensuring that they can make a lifelong sustainable difference

Librarians and library associations must enhance and promote the information infrastructure through policy. If the information society is to be realized, investment in libraries is vital. We must coordinate policy across agencies and support the development of educational strategies and lifelong learning strategic partnerships. We must focus the investment in libraries on what we do best. All libraries and library staff should embrace and enhance outreach. Staff must innovate through sharing, emulating and growing good practice; they must be open to new experiences and knowledge; value workforce diversity; and gather evidence of the impact and demonstrate the benefit of libraries. Library staff must own the values and promote the culture of outreach, including maximizing opportunities for all individuals; avoiding stereotyping; and valuing the individua1ity of library users and potential library users.

Libraries are a democratic value. They offer people of all ages and backgrounds the resources they need to learn and grow and achieve their dreams. As librarians we have a responsibility to provide the collections and services that will help people understand our increasingly diverse society and prosper in the new world economy. The strength of communities is the diversity of the people. Librarians believe that education is key to building communities and a nation based on understanding and respect. If libraries are to be at their best, their service and staff must reflect both the people they serve and the larger global community in which they live.

Diversity is a fundamental value of the librarianship. This is reflected in our commitment to recruiting people of color and people with disabilities to the profession and to developing library collections and services for all peop1e. Programs to support librarians in developing staff, resources, programs and services reflecting the peop1e Who make up our nation are essential. In 1997 the American Library Association launched the Spectrum initiative with the goal of doubling the number of librarians of color. The initiative inspired many library schools and ALA units to contribute matching funds. The project includes leadership training and mentoring for1ibrarians of color. At the same time, a wave of retirements is far exceeding new librarians entering the profession. Other factors at work include the exploding information and Internet economy which has led to more opportunities the image and evolution of the profession, and job recruitment and salary issues. Librarianship must work to convey its benefits to prospective students. Librarians need to adapt, build new areas of expertise, reconfigure what we do, and engage our communities in different ways. Outreach is essential to success in the current environment.

As we enter the new century, the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services needs to build on its strong history, continue leading the association in outreach, and broaden its strategies to collaborate with new partners. Those who are effectively serving traditionally underserved populations must be involved in developing strategies.

Listservs, the web, and new technologies that enhance communication should assist in this endeavor. Collaborating with other partners, including parts ofthe American Library Association also interested in serving the underserved, is essential. Again, technology can be used to disseminate information and resources about services to targeted populations and to build and highlight new partnerships. While OLOS must lead the way, outreach is the responsibility of the entire association and profession and key to our continuing success in the 21st century.

About Barbara J. Ford

Barbara J. Ford is assistant commissioner for the Chicago Public Library's Central Library Services and former ALA President (1997-1998).

Ford's 1997-1998 ALA presidential theme, "Global Reach, Local Touch," stimulated the involvement of previously uninvolved library professionals, who welcomed the opportunity to share their local and international library outreach initiatives. Under her administration, the 1998 annual conference included hundreds of international conferees and facilitated creative global networking opportunities throughout the association.

Interestingly, as the ALA president-elect, Barbara Ford presented an award for outstanding service to Dr. Coleman at the 1996 conference in New York City. The award was presented at the 25th anniversary celebration of OLOS.

Ford is an author and frequent lecturer on library issues. She holds a master's degree in international relations from Tufts University and a master's in library science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

She served as president of the Association of College and Research Libraries from 1990 until 1991. She was a member of the ALA Council during the 1980's and served as both a chapter and at-large councilor. Her first involvement in ALA was as a member of the Social Responsibilities Round Table action council in the 1970's.

Ford has been active in state library associations in Illinois, Texas and Virginia. She currently serves as a member of the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) Section on University and General Research Libraries. She previously served as the secretary for IFLA.