Literacy in Libraries: Challenges and Opportunities

2011 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture

Robert Wedgeworth

University Librarian and Professor Emeritus, University of Illinois

Former President and CEO, ProLiteracy Worldwide


I recruited and hired Jean Coleman as the first Director of the ALA Office of Library Outreach Services. I had only a vague idea of what the scope of that title meant, but Jean did and she let me know it. She was a sweet, soft-spoken woman with a will of iron. She often teased me as no other staff member dared.

What I would like to do in these remarks is to chronicle what I consider to be some key moments in my relationship to libraries and literacy. I also plan to assert that despite the efforts of many libraries, volunteer literacy organizations, funding agencies, and important members of Congress like the late Senator Paul Simon, these programs have not achieved the traction we expected. In addition, I plan to suggest what may be helpful in addressing this issue more successfully and how to initiate a new agenda for literacy. Since I am an appointee of President Obama to serve on the Board of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, I must declare that the opinions and judgments expressed here are solely my own.

Although I began my career in a public library, I was a cataloger and had little contact with users. My subsequent career was in academic libraries before being appointed Executive Director of the American Library Association (ALA) in 1972. It was at the beginning of my tenure at ALA that I became familiar with library literacy programs. Mostly I asked questions in order to understand what opportunities there were for ALA to be of assistance to literacy programs.

This quest for information and understanding about all library programs was the primary motivation for initiating the ALA YEARBOOK in 1976 and THE ALA ENCYCLOPEDIA in 1980 with the able assistance of Don Stewart, whom I had recruited to head ALA Publishing Services from the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Jean Coleman summarized activities related to literacy in my first edition of the YEARBOOK, noting both the ALA Project and the activities of several individual libraries like the San Jose Public Library and the Free Library of Philadelphia. The ALA Project was a membership group that, among other things, sponsored a survey of 15 public libraries. Out of that survey grew the need to develop a staff-training manual, which ALA published in 1977, written by Helen Lyman of the University of Wisconsin. Training based on the manual encouraged more libraries to develop adult literacy services across the nation.

What became clear to me shortly was that our programs were addressing an issue that was recognized clearly by neither our civic and political leaders nor the general public. In 1979, Peggy Barber, Director of the ALA Public Information Office and ALA’s PR counsel secured an appointment with the executive committee of the Advertising Council of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Our approach was to ask the Ad Council to consider sponsoring a public awareness campaign. To our surprise and disappointment, their initial response was that they were not aware that there was a serious issue of adult illiteracy in the U.S. However, they did recommend that if the ALA were joined by a group of reputable educational organizations attesting to this problem they would consider an appropriate campaign. ALA organized and hosted the Coalition on Literacy beginning in 1981 and the Ad Council developed a public awareness campaign with First Lady Barbara Bush as the lead spokesperson. At this point I anticipated that literacy programs would begin to flourish and begin to make huge inroads in the impact of adult literacy on our society. I was wrong!

By 1978 over 71 library systems in 22 states, the District of Columbia, and the Canadian provinces of Ontario and Saskatchewan reported literacy and learning programs for persons of all ages—from pre-school children and their parents to youths and adults, including the elderly. In that same year the YEARBOOK documented that more libraries were cooperating with the two principal volunteer literacy training organizations, the Laubach National Alliance for Literacy Advancement and the Literacy Volunteers of America, Inc. Training continued to be important with emphasis placed on training staff and volunteers to develop programs and services.

The first White House Conference on Library and Information Services occurred in 1979. During the Governor’s conferences in each state and territory that preceded it, literacy emerged unexpectedly as a major theme of interest to the delegates. This precipitated a special pre-conference that sent recommendations to the main conference. Delegates were clear about the need and demand for literacy services and that libraries can help functionally illiterate adults and youths. They saw libraries as logical centers for literacy programs because they meet the librarians’ obligation to reach out to a neglected constituency thus broadening their clientele.

Recommendation #3 of the White House Conference recognized that a serious literacy problem existed in the United States and that libraries and information centers can be increasingly important to the solution to the problem.

In a related effort, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, Ted Bell, launched an initiative on school reform. Bell was a supporter of the literacy public awareness campaign and was responsible for persuading Barbara Bush to join it. His school reform agenda was to appoint a National Council on Excellence in Education in 1981, chaired by Charles Gardner, President of the University of Utah and President-elect of the University of California. The report caused a sensation and its oft-quoted major assertion resonated for years. It said,

“Our Nation is at risk. Our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world. This report is concerned with only one of the many causes and dimensions of the problem, but it is the one that under girds American prosperity, security, and civility. We report to the American people that while we can take justifiable pride in what our schools and colleges have historically accomplished and contributed to the United States and the well-being of its people, the educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a Nation and a people. What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpassing our educational attainments.” (National Council on Excellence in Education, 1983)

Triumph and Failure

After the initial flurry of interest, the school reform thrust lost momentum and it languished until the second Bush administration. The public awareness campaign for adult literacy and the White House Conference also did not stimulate a public outcry, but did help motivate Senator Simon to develop the National Literacy Act.

Up to this point the major sources of support for literacy programs were state and local government. Supplementary funds from the Library Services and Construction Act of 1964 enabled libraries to direct their services to undereducated or illiterate peoples of all ages, both in urban and rural areas. Similar funding from the U.S. Office and later Department of Education funded adult basic education (ABE) administered by school districts.

The National Literacy Act of 1991 did the following:

  • Increased authorization for literacy programs
  • Established the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL)
  • Authorized state literacy resource centers
  • Created national workforce demonstrated projects
  • Established literacy programs for incarcerated individuals
  • Created “indicators” of program quality
  • Required “Gateway grants” to public housing authorities
  • Strengthened Even Start

Led by Representative Tom Sawyer (R. OH) and Senator Paul Simon (D, IL), the bill was signed into law by President George H. Bush in July 1991.

Despite this grand start for a national effort to combat low literacy among adults and children, NIFL closed within ten years and its programs were transferred to the Office of Vocational and Adult Education in the Department of Education.

As funding languished or declined at the federal level, the recession of 2008 brought about even more precipitous declines in funding for literacy programs at the state and local level.

About a year after my retirement from the University of Illinois as University Librarian in 1999, I agreed to serve on the Board of Trustees of Laubach Literacy, the largest non-governmental literacy organization worldwide. Shortly thereafter I was persuaded to serve an Interim President while the Board conducted a search. A six-month commitment ultimately became six years!

I was aware that Laubach and the Literacy Volunteers of America (LVA) were based across town from each other in Syracuse, yet, strangely, they did not consider themselves competitors. However, it was clear to me that they competed for public attention, grant funds and local affiliates. Laubach had to grow and LVA was an inhibiting factor. Therefore, I obtained permission from the Board of Laubach to open discussions with LVA about a merger. Before I could take action the President of LVA, Marsha Tait, approached me about the same idea. Laubach had a substantial network of affiliates, but LVA was represented in areas where Laubach was not. There was little overlap. LVA had money problems, but Laubach had ample funding even though it was spending more than it was generating. Laubach owned its facilities on ample acreage while LVA was in a rental building. On paper it seemed a perfect fit. As in most cases there was a hidden history of conflict and personality clashes that had caused the failure of previous attempts at merger. Knowing this, we established a fast track process that resulted in a merger agreement within six months. By 2003 a new organization, ProLiteracy Worldwide, now simply ProLiteracy, had emerged with both domestic and international networks and renewed energy to address the needs of the worldwide sub-population that Dr. Frank Laubach had called “the silent billion.”

But little had changed in the status of adult literacy in the years since my visit to the Ad Council, despite the many program efforts to address the issue. Yet, the need for literacy programs had never been greater.

Two adult literacy surveys documented this clearly. The National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) in 1992 and the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) in 2003 gave snapshots of the state of adult literacy in households and prisons in the U.S. As many of you are familiar with the surveys I will discuss them only briefly. However, I will point out that the Secretary of Education noted, in comparing the results of the two surveys taken a decade apart that not much had changed as though life in the U.S. had not changed significantly between 1992 and 2003!

With the 2003 survey showing that about 5% or 11 million adults are non-literate in English and another 43% or 93 million Americans with literacy skills at or below basic levels, we could hardly be complacent.

What have we learned?

  • There is a well-documented problem of adult literacy in the U.S.
  • There have been many efforts to address this issue at the federal, state and local levels.
  • Libraries, volunteer agencies, churches, unions and corporations across the nation have all developed trained staff to support literacy programs.
  • Many different types of adult and family literacy programs have emerged.
  • There is no coordinated system of adult education to maintain any sustained effort.
  • Funding for adult literacy programs is sporadic and greatly inadequate.

Children v. Adults

We continue to try to address adult literacy by “growing ourselves” out of the problem. We continue to shower billions of dollars on literacy for children with little discernible impact at the elementary, middle school or high school levels according to a 2005 report of the National Center for Education Statistics. We know that literacy begins at home, but for those millions of children who leave school every day for homes in which there are few, if any, books or newspapers and caregivers who have less than basic literacy skills, they have about a 50% chance of becoming low literate adults themselves.

Interest in adult literacy today is weak compared to its level when First Lady Barbara Bush championed the cause and the first President Bush signed the National Literacy Act of 1991. Shifting federal policy priorities have reduced the urgency surrounding the issue since then. The National Literacy Act, which created federal funding for adult basic education and literacy state grants, called for an investment in job skills training and adult basic education of $1 billion over several years. Actual federal appropriations in support of adult basic education and literacy efforts have fallen far short of that target.

The existing political climate has its educational emphasis on prevention—solving the problem of adult literacy by improving the education of children through the No Child Left Behind Act. It reflects a popular perception that it is easier to love a puppy than a dog!

Improving the public elementary and secondary education system in the U.S. is commendable, but not nearly enough. This approach ignores research that demonstrates that efforts to improve literacy skills of children can only be partly successful without efforts to improve the literacy skills of those parents and caregivers who need it.

In addition, public school reform will not address the needs of millions of adult immigrants living in the U.S. who do not read, speak or write in English, and who never had the opportunity to attend this country’s schools in the first place. Indeed, According to census figures, immigrants to the U.S. between 1990 and 2000 were younger and less well educated than any previous ten-year cohort of immigrants going back to the 1890 census.

Current policy also has not addressed effectively the fact that one-third of all teens that enter high school do not graduate with a diploma four years later. It ignores the literacy needs of adults trying valiantly to raise families, hold jobs, and pay taxes, with limited literacy skills that prevent them from reaching their full economic and social potential. It ignores the basic principles of democratic citizenship, since the undereducated “lack the tools to represent their own interests in the political arena.” It is a denial of realistic opportunities to pursue the “American Dream.”

The Dream

The Declaration of Independence of the United States implies a promise when it states, …”we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal and that they are endowed with certain inalienable rights…. The promise is not of wealth, but that each citizen will have the opportunity to pursue hers or his dreams.

The Statue of Liberty reaffirmed that dream in the words carved on the pedestal. The last lines of the poem by Emma Lazarus, written to help raise funds for base that would hold the gift from France, are familiar to many of us,

“…Give me your tired, your poor,

Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,

The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”

A little condescending perhaps, but millions of immigrants have been inspired by its promise, not of gold, but of the opportunity to be free from oppression.

In 1944, President Roosevelt reaffirmed again the promise of the American Dream when he signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, commonly known as the G.I. Bill. Over the following seven years 8 million former servicemen took advantage of the educational opportunities the act supported at a cost of 14 billion dollars. Almost half of the G.I’s went to college. Members of racial and ethnic minorities, sons and daughters of immigrants and many others pursued their dreams by gaining training or education. Similar opportunities were given to veterans of subsequent wars, but none changed the educational profile of adult America as much as the G.I. Bill.

In 1963 Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. called us to account for not living up to the promise of the American Dream for the nation’s poor and minorities, in spite of the progress made after World War II. Most can recall the end of that speech in when he talked of his dream. But few can recall or have ever heard these powerful, richly cadenced words that stated the issue. King said,

“In a sense we have come to our nation’s capitol to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. …”

He goes on to say, “It is obvious that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens of color are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation, America has given the Negro people a bad check; a check, which has come back, marked “insufficient funds.” But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. So we have come to cash this check—a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.” …

That speech heralded many changes in the social and political life of Americans, especially for its citizens of color. But it also unleashed frustration and rage at the slowness of change in economic opportunity. The 1960’s and 70’s probably marked the high point of positive focus on the rights of racial and ethnic minorities in the U.S.

Today we face a new and perhaps, more formidable barrier to the American Dream. Unlike earlier periods in the 19th and 20th centuries when less well-educated Americans could still obtain employment in an agricultural or industrial economy that had large numbers of jobs that required limited literacy skills, since the 1970’s the United States has become an information economy, where the preponderance of jobs involve creating, processing, or distributing information. In addition, we are in a global economy where the competition to retain jobs at all levels is being keenly felt. The point being made here is that the vaunted American educational system that brought us such success in the 20th century is failing in its efforts to produce a workforce that can compete effectively in this post-recession global information economy. The “Achilles heel” of American education is the lack of a coordinated adult education system. Clearly, the inspiring words of the Declaration, Lazarus and King will not be enough. What we need is bold Roosevelt-like action.

Reach Higher

In 2008 the National Commission on Adult Literacy, chaired by David Perdue of Dollar General and of which I was a member, released a report entitled, “Reach Higher, America.” It called for bold new action to address the fact that the U.S. is losing its position as a world leader in education.

Its major recommendation was that we ask Congress to develop and pass a new comprehensive Adult Education and Economic Growth Act to overhaul and expand adult education and workforce skills training. It recommended that we aggressively increase our investment in adult education to reach a total of 20 billion dollars annually by the year 2020.

The current effort by Congress to revise the Workforce Investment Act is a major step in the right direction. The House bill, entitled the Adult Education and Economic Growth Act of 2011, targets workplace skills and job preparation as its primary purpose.

There are five titles to the Act:

  • Workforce Investment Systems
  • Adult Education, Literacy and Workplace Skills
  • 21st Century Technology and Skills for Adult Learners
  • Research in Adult Education
  • Employer Incentives

Some of its major features are that it,

  • Gives all stakeholders a voice
  • Integrates education and training
  • Requires a state plan for state and local action
  • Emphasizes 21st century technology and skills
  • Encourages English literacy and civics education
  • Requires accountability and performance systems
  • Establishes demonstration and pilot projects

The primary implementation agent is a new National Center for Adult Education, Literacy and Workplace Skills to exercise leadership, coordinate programs and provide backup resources at the federal level.

While this is very promising, its authorization for funding does not make an impressive start toward meeting what the National Commission recommended.

The prevailing environment in which attempts to reverse the course of adult education and literacy declines remains one in which, according to one major foundation head, the civic, government and business leadership in America lack confidence in the efficacy of adult education and literacy programs. The unfulfilled promise of the American Dream is no longer convincing. Scenes of adults seeking jobs in the recession who lack the skills necessary to obtain those positions available due to limited skills and abilities only inspire frustration.


I grew up in a State where the motto is, Show Me.” Perhaps, that is a preliminary step to where we wish to go. What we may need is a comprehensive, multi-year demonstration project coordinated at the federal, state and local level to show the impact of adult education and literacy on employment, families and communities. We know from the Canadian Bureau of Statistics that even a modest increase in national literacy rates produces a significant rise in GDP. Such a project would have to have strong private sector and government support and participation representative of all levels of government with demonstration projects in many locales. Although there are many current examples of other countries using education as a lever the one that stands out in my mind is Finland. I once asked a Finnish Member of Parliament what they did to bring a country with few natural resources and limited educational opportunities at the end of WWII, to become a leader in the global information economy. She said simply, “we invested in our people.”

Perhaps, the catalyst to more effective action to transform the adult education and literacy system of the U.S. is to demonstrate the effects of investing in our people. When we were in the process of forming ProLiteracy we did some projections of the return on a dollar spent on adult literacy on individuals, families and communities. The results were so astounding our Board refused to allow us to use them saying, “no one would believe it.” It’s time to show how credible those projections were. Perhaps we can under this new Adult Education and Economic Growth Act.