Reading … Still Cool? Libraries, Literacy and Leadership

2001 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture
By Gary E. Strong


 I am honored to deliver the Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture this morning.  I can think of no group I feel more comfortable with than those who believe so deeply in reaching out into our communities to help those who cannot read, who do not use our libraries every day.  I hope that everyone here today is a reader.  No, I don’t mean all of those reports on your desk.  A real reader.  You know, those books one checks out from the Library. 

I was curled up with Sue Grafton’s new book, P is for Peril over this last weekend and she hit it on the head.  Kinsey Millhone says,  [I] “flipped off my shoes, and settled on the sofa, where I covered myself in a big puffy comforter and started reading a book.  Within minutes, I’d been sucked through a wormhole into a fictional world, traveling faster than the speed of words into a realm without sound and without gravity.” (p.86)  She gets it!

When I finished graduate school, I never thought that 35 years later I would be talking about the importance of reading.  And certainly not with all of the technology that floods our lives today.  At Queens Library we still believe in Books and Reading.  These are part of our major strategic directions for success.  But, more and more, I feel among a dwindling number who do believe.

A little more than a year ago, the Queens Library came up with a reading initiative that we dubbed, 2000 Reasons to Read. Our quest was to encourage children throughout New York City to give us one reason why they believed reading was important.  Our goal was to reach 2000 reasons.  Our theme was, "reading will still be important in the next millennium and the children know the reasons why." 

 The campaign sparked an outpouring of submissions ranging from: "a reason to read is to learn intelligent words so you can confuse your parents," “I read because I want to be smart." “'I read because I get information about people at the library and read books about people," "I like to read in bed with gummy bears in a bowl," "I like to read because my mom likes to read to me." “I like to read because I like to learn new things," to "I like to read because my mom and dad make me everyday" and every combination in between.

In an age of music videos, and ever changing technology, we are rapidly approaching a world where computer literacy is equally as important as an understanding of the written word. But the innate thirst for the written word, the sense of wonder and discovery, the feeling of holding a book in your hand, reading a newspaper or a traffic sign, is still there.  In our small corner of the world, thousands of children proved that. And by proving that it reaffirmed what I have always believed; that public libraries are "the people's university."

The public library with its non- judgmental mission is a tremendous source of support and encouragement. Public libraries are guardians, not only of collections of books, but of the right to read. What better place than the public library to support, and champion literacy initiatives across the country?

I can't remember a time when I could not read.  It is hard to imagine someone whose life is devoid of something that is second nature to most of' us. But there are many, and more than 3,000 come to Queens Library's six adult learning centers yearly to do just that - learn to read. Queens Library's Adult Learning Centers are within or adjacent to a regular library locations and offer basic literacy, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), and informal English conversation groups.

Professional staffs rely heavily on volunteer tutors to work with students one on one or in small groups.  Teaching materials are geared toward adult interests and sometimes concentrate on specialized vocabulary, such as that needed to pass the test to get a driver's license, to negotiate public transportation, or for more advanced students, to obtain a high school equivalency diploma. One student at our annual luncheon spoke proudly and tearfully about having just purchased her own home. While she had previously been able to afford it financially, she had never been able to negotiate the paperwork necessary to obtain the mortgage until she came to the Adult Learning Center in her neighborhood. On another occasion, I watched while a volunteer tutor worked patiently with a young man who had come to the Adult Learning Center because he wanted to get a job as a long distance truck driver, but he couldn't read a map. Working with two sets of road atlases, the tutor proposed trips and the student worked out and verbalized the directions.

Because Queens is one of the most ethnically diverse counties in the United States, our two million three hundred thousand customers comprise almost every cultural and social background on the globe.  Almost half speak languages other than English at home. Some have never attended school as children.  Still others for any number of reasons just never learned.  The demand for literacy programs surpasses our ability to meet that demand. We turn away as many applicants as we can register. A lottery is held to select learners for our ESOL classes fairly.

But we have made a significant commitment to adult learning at the Queens Library, as many other public libraries have done. At Queens Library, we believe that reading and writing are essential to maintaining a free and democratic society. Adult's in Queens and elsewhere, regardless of native language, should have access to literacy instruction at the library in whatever form that takes; be it on site, or referral to an outside resource.

Reaching out as we do in public library literacy programs, we want to draw people into public libraries for the rest of their lives. Public libraries are uniquely qualified to provide literacy instruction because while the focus of other institutions may change over time, libraries are all about literacy. They always will be, whether that literacy is applied to paper, to electronic formats or to some other medium we haven't dreamed of.  And we'll be here to provide it in English, or any other language that our customers need.

Queens Library offers several options for learners to obtain basic literacy skills. Formal classes in English for Speakers of Other Languages are offered in the spring and fall terms. Each term consists of 100 instructional hours and is taught by a certified ESOL teacher.  Our student enrollment represents more than 85 countries speaking more than 45 different languages.

 Classes are held at the basic and intermediate levels. They may be held at library branches or in our Adult Learning Centers. There are even classes for ESOL students who are illiterate in their own language. It may all sound like an impossible task, and insurmountable hurdle, but the thirst for learning, for reading can surmount language barriers and pride. The drive to learn is so great, that more than half of these students will go from not even knowing how to hold a pencil to basic English literacy classes in less than a year.  As one adult literacy student put it in her student journal, "When I was a little girl I didn't get to go to school regularly like other children.  I had to stay home and baby sit while my mother and father went to work, but I had a dream of going to school. I was 49 when I went back to school." It's never too late to learn.

With the opening of the Flushing Library in June 1998, we set a new standard for our Adult Learning Centers, particularly for the polyglot community such as Flushing. The Adult Learning Center at Flushing was a priority in planning for the new building. The facility includes a separate classroom for ESOL instruction, a separate tutoring room so that activities there will not interfere with the conversation groups, individual work areas for multimedia learning, and computer work stations for self paced learning. We believe the Flushing Adult Learning Center is a model for the way in which adult learners deserve to be served and is a visible testament to how important we feel adult literacy is to the mission of the library.

But a public library does not have to provide instruction or have learning centers to make a commitment to eradicating illiteracy in its community. Public libraries can be involved in a variety of ways. To begin, libraries must be knowledgeable of the conditions of literacy in their service communities and gather information and facts concerning literacy status, service providers and delivery systems that are available to adult learners. Reference librarians, children's librarians and readers' advisors are key referral agents to such services on behalf of library customers.

Libraries can develop collections of educational materials, including ones designed especially for adults at low reading levels and containing books that parents can read to their children. Collections should include teacher's manuals, and tutoring guides. Libraries can provide meeting room space for tutor instruction, local learning councils and learner instruction provided by other organizations. Participate in community coalitions that focus on adult learning and family literacy. Actively advocate approaches that recognize the condition of illiteracy in the community and work to find community solutions. Work with adult schools, community colleges and private providers to ensure that all in need have the opportunity to be served.

At the most committed level, a library can provide instruction to adult learners in basic English and English for Speakers of Other Languages using computer aided instruction and one on one small group tutoring. Ensure that every adult in a learning program receives orientation to the public library and its services, and instruction in how to access and use information, facts and knowledge for personal empowerment,

 The ways in which libraries can be involved in literacy are as varied as libraries
themselves. Libraries can provide everything from bulletin board space to direct literacy
instruction. Libraries can apply for grants in varied amounts. One small upstate New York library requested, and received $650 to purchase a special desk and chairs for tutoring.  In contrast, the Lila Wallace/Readers Digest Foundation provided millions of dollars to libraries across the country, which provides direct literacy instruction. Funding is available from state, federal and local governments, private foundations and partnerships with other literacy providers.

No library's role in literacy is too small. A referral to a local literacy provider may be the
catalyst for real change in the life of a non reader. A hundred dollars of adult new reader
materials allows literacy students the opportunity to practice their newly acquired reading skills  something that may not be available to them in any other way. A volunteer tutor who is recruited at a library function or event will not only enrich his own life by giving to the community but will open the door of knowledge and information for an emergent reader.

Best Practices

Obviously, there is so much more to literacy and Adult Education than location, grants, and great ideas. None of it would be possible without the dedicated tutors. This is where it all begins.  At Queens Library we pride ourselves on the level of competency and dedication that our Literacy tutors have toward the program and their students. Tutors go through a thorough intake and assessment that includes goal setting, standardized tests, plus more outcome based assessments. Part of our training program is an integrated approach that moves beyond the phonics vs. language debate. Each of our tutors must be cognizant of the students' whole life and their need for life skills instruction such as job readiness, health, parenting issues, and consumer education, Projects that engage the students in drama, writing workshops, Internet groups and summer reading clubs are all part of the comprehensive learning process.

Although some of our educators are full time, they make time to attend meetings,
collaborate on innovations, and inform themselves of the best practices and research. Among some of the recent topics discussed in staff training were math instruction, family literacy, women in literacy, ESOL best practices, and technology.

Training is not limited to full time or part time staff. Our volunteers are very clear about what they are to do when they leave our training, and we look at what our tutors do well and what they do not. We are continually improving the training in order to address the problems we see. The training is focused on specific activities and the specific purpose of the volunteers.  In addition we make sure our volunteers are recognized for their hard work through tutor conferences, Library Volunteer Luncheon and Learning Celebrations for Tutors and students.

The comprehensive training that our tutors receive is evident in the positive response and interaction of our students. Our adult learning center students actively participate in small group instruction for adult new readers by trained volunteer tutors. They engage in conversation groups for adults learning English as an additional language, computer instruction for students learning English or improving their reading skills, and adult basic education classes. They have access to collections of materials, which include books, cassettes and videotapes for adult new readers and for those whose native language is not English.

Sensitivity to cultural differences is axiomatic to a successful learning experience.
Because the students themselves direct the themes they are interested in, certain cultural taboos are automatically accommodated.  Our tutors are counseled not to make physical contact, however casual, such as shaking hands with learners. They must be careful about using humor, as it often does not translate well. Asians hold teachers in the highest regard, and they may feel it is disrespectful to have the casual give and take conversations we rely on as learning tools. Hispanics often find it disrespectful to make eye contact with a teacher, so looking down must not be interpreted as lack of attention. Tutors are further counseled that in order to preserve the all accepting character of the American public library experience, the tutor cannot impose his/her own values on the learners. Sometimes this is very difficult for them.


As I mentioned earlier, there is a multitude of opportunities for public libraries to meet the literacy needs of America, one of those are partnerships. In New York there are three major library systems: Queens, Brooklyn, and the New York Public Library, which serves the three remaining boroughs of the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan, all working independently of each other to serve their communities, but yet ultimately joining forces for the same goals. The Tri Li arrangement as it's informally referred to, recognized that three powers were better than one in attacking illiteracy in our communities. As a result we joined together in areas of staff development and communication. The Brooklyn and New York Public systems sent staff and volunteers to our Queens staff development day for volunteers. We participate in site visits to and from other grant recipients across the country and see how they implement their programs, as well as attend annual conferences to keep abreast of the latest trends as well as technology in literacy training.

In a recent collaboration, the Queens Library partnered with our local Ecuadorian radio station, Radio Sucre to conduct an ESOL class on the air. One of our tutors, Beatriz Roman of our Elmhurst Adult Learning center teaches basic English for one hour per week on the air. The response has been incredible.

Other excellent examples of partnerships that work is the Suffolk Cooperative Library system, which houses LVA Suffolk County, the largest LVA affiliate In New York State. The LVA has several regional offices located in member libraries. 

The Migrant Evenstart Program is a joint family literacy venture of the Pioneer Library System in Canandaigua, New York working with the Genesee Migrant Center and the Agribusiness Child Care Center.

In the fall of 2000 the Westchester Library System collaborated with Southern Westchester BOCES, SER Inc., and Mercy College to launch a model adult education project for non English speakers, supported by a demonstration grant from the United States Department of Education's English Literacy/Civics Education Program. Two learning centers were opened at the White Plains and New Rochelle Public Libraries.  At each center immigrants can participate in ESOL classes, computer training, and informational workshops that will offer a wide range of skills and knowledge to help them adapt to their new homes.

The program is successful. Classes have full enrollment, the computer lab is in constant use and workshops are well attended. Teachers have noted that the richness of the environment -library resources, computers, speakers -have contributed to the advancement of the students. The library system and on site librarians were active participants in the project's planning and implementation. Book discussions are common in most of the classes.  Theater workshops, journal writing and exploration of poetry are other tools that teachers have used. Librarians provide ongoing support for students and instructors in identifying and developing appropriate library resources for lesson plans and themes used in the curricula.

The old saying that the children will lead us is clearly evident in our GEAR UP Program an acronym for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. GEAR UP is a federally funded program for at risk youth with the goal of keeping them on an academic path that will lead to college. The Queens Library has partnered with LaGuardia Community College to support 1900 students in grades 8 in a quest for higher education. The mission of the program is to significantly increase the number of low income students who are prepared to enter and succeed in post secondary education. 

The program provides individual counseling, mentoring, academic guidance as well as small group socialization workshops and class presentations.  However, this
initiative has a two prong effect. One of our main roles in the GEAR UP project is the ALC program component aimed at the parents. The library involves the parents of the participants by offering them assistance through the library's New Americans Program's Coping Skills Programs and Adult Learning Centers.

The long term goal of the program is to provide all the support mechanisms to help students stay on track for college. It is our strong belief that the parents who participate in the Adult Education Programs will be better able to help their children and be more aware of the value of education. Our New Americans Program offers books available in 65 languages, a directory of Immigrant Serving Agencies and primarily the coping skills programs. The programs range from How to Get A Job with the US Postal Service; Facing Difficulties in the US; Gender issues for South Asian Women; and Negotiating the System to Prepare Your Child for High School; to An Afternoon of Haitian or Chinese Folktales.  All of which are conducted in international languages. The GEAR UP program is now in its second year.

These are but a few of the many partnership opportunities available where libraries can make a difference in solving the problem of illiteracy. Others are still to be developed, most likely by you. More importantly, there are organizations, federal programs and even legislation that require so many of the elements that libraries offer but do not seek out libraries as a resource, but which we as librarians must tap into. One such piece of legislation is the Federal Workforce Investment Act of 1998.  It is umbrella legislation for workforce development. Under its mandates each state is required to have a Workforce Investment Board and implement so called "One Stops."  The One Stop is a location where anyone can go to access information and services related to jobs, training and education.  Each One Stop is required to have a Resource Room. There are also mandated partners such as adult education and labor representation. The first One Stop in New York City was set up in our area. To me that immediately spelled LIBRARY INVOLVEMENT!

   Our role at the Jamaica One Stop will be to provide, on site testing, assessment and referral to One Stop customers in need of literacy skills; promote One Stop services to Library customers; and promote library programs and services to One Stop customers. We will also consult with One Stop partners regarding purchases and program recommendations for our Job Information Center, schedule Job Information Center programs at library locations in English and international languages, register One Stop customers on site for select library programs, provide library promotional materials for One Stop customers and expand adult literacy and ESOL services to meet demand created through One Stop referrals. Many of the customers who visit the One Stop for job information, or other services do not have access to computers or other learning tools this is where the library can also play a large role by offering free access to our technology.

The Library's kiosk within the One Stop will be staffed for approximately 15 hours per week, with one hourly rate page, a full time adult learner staff, and one hourly rate ESOL teacher. The kiosk will be equipped with a computer, books and resource materials. It took a year of planning and meetings but it is becoming a reality as I speak, with the final touches being put in place right now. What makes this initiative so unique is that it is not only the sole One Stop in New York City; it is the only one in the entire nation that has library involvement.

I cannot stress to you enough the notion of innovation, of looking beyond the obvious, of being the playmaker.  The potential to effect so many individuals  and families  who need our services is within our grasp   but it won't be easy.  Nothing worth having is.  To borrow a phase from Robert Browning, "A man's reach should exceed his grasp, or what is heaven for."

As a librarian and the head of one of the most culturally diverse libraries systems in the country, we realize the importance of bringing not only technology, but also a technological literacy to our customers whose native language is not English. Fusing these two components is not easy, but it is doable and necessary.  With the advent of e books, which we are currently experimenting with to see how this technology fits in with Queens Library's customer service strategies, we do not want to leave anyone out of the process as we move rapidly into the technological age. To accomplish that end, our Adult Learning tutors are trained on the latest software, are skilled on the Internet and its multitude of uses as well as how to incorporate video teleconferencing into the curriculum. We want our Adult Learners to be able to navigate our e book collections as readily as they will our standard book collection. How ideal this tool will be for our Adult Learners who may need to access a reference book, or look up a passage from a story if they are unable to attend a class.
E books will never replace ink and paper, or the personal attention and experience of a librarian but, we want to ensure that all of our customers are on the same playing field. We want to ensure that reading, having access to books will never be denied to anyone, no matter what form a book takes.

So I ask you: why Library's for literacy? Why should libraries take a leadership role in creating and implementing innovative ways to bring literacy to everyone who needs it - because we can and we must, and because reading is our reason for being.  What could be more rewarding than knowing in some small way you brought a light into
someone's eyes who had been denied the joy of reading, and now that person can live a better life, move on to bigger things, provide in a fuller way for their families? For many communities and its residents the library is the only accessible and affordable resource; everything from intellectual pursuits, social  interaction, to entertainment.

Our customers come to us with hope and expectation, with that innate thirst for knowledge, to pick up a book and be transported.  And in the words of one of our 2000 reasons to read submissions, "I like to read because it can take me anywhere I want to go."

No one should be denied that joy.

About Gary Strong 

Gary Strong has served as the director of the Queens Borough (N.Y.) Public Library since September 1994. The Queens Library is the largest circulating library system in the country, reaching a record circulation level of 17.2 million items and 16.9 million library visits in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2000.

Mr. Strong's career spans more than 30 years as a librarian and library administrator, giving him a unique perspective on the ramifications of the Information Age. He can address many of the key issues reflecting the social challenges facing public institutions now and into the next millennium, including the role of the public library in the 21st Century; adult literacy; electronic equity for equal access to information; multiculturalism and cultural diversity in a pluralistic society; intellectual freedom, privacy and censorship; funding and fundraising for public institutions; and a host of subjects relating to the knowledge explosion.

Since coming to the Queens Library, he has won the Distinguished Service Award from the Chinese-American Librarians Association (1996) and has been named to the New York State Board of Regents Advisory Council for Libraries. He serves on the Board of Directors of the New York Metropolitan Reference and Research Library Agency (METRO) and was elected treasurer of that organization in October 1996. He also serves on the IFLA Committee on Copyright and Other Legal Matters, and the Board of the section of Services to People with Disabilities. He is Co-Chief Executive Officer of the IFLA Boston 2001 NOC and serves as the IFLA Representative to the United Nations. He is an active member of INTAMEL. He has initiated International Cooperation Agreements with the National Library of China and the Shanghai Library.

Before coming to Queens, he was the State Librarian of California, the top administrative post in the California State Library system, from 1980 to 1994. He was a founder and member of the Board of Directors of the California State Library Foundation and is now a Director Emeritus of that body.

While with the California Library, he also served as the Chief Executive Officer of the California Library Services Board; Chairperson of the California Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act Board; member of the California Library Construction and Renovation Bond Act Finance Committee; Executive Director and ex-officio member of the Board of Directors of the California State Library Foundation; Chairperson of the Governor's State Literacy Collaborative Council; and member of the Family Impact Seminars Advisory Board. He started the California Literacy Campaign and the Families for Literacy Program as State Librarian.

Prior to that he spent four years with the Washington State Library system, as Deputy State Librarian (1979-1980) and Associate Director for Services (1976-1979). His career in library management has included positions as Director of the Everett (WA) Public Library, 1973-1976; Director of the Lake Oswego (OR) Public Library, 1967-1973; and Head Librarian of the Markeley Residence Library at the University of Michigan, 1966-1967. His earlier career as a librarian included service with the Latah County (ID) Free Library, 1966; and the University of Idaho Library, 1963-1966.

Among many forms of professional recognition in his career, Mr. Strong's honors include the Librarian of the Year award from the California Association of Library Trustees and Commissioners (1994); the John Cotton Dana award from the Library Administration and Management Association (1994); the Advancement of Literacy award from the Public Library Association (1994); and the Exceptional Achievement Award (1992) from the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies.

Throughout his career Mr. Strong has served on a number of leading policy panels, including the Government Technology Conference Advisory Board (1993-1994), for which he received the [California] Governor's Award for Exceptional Achievement, and the White House Conference on Libraries (1992).

He has served as a consultant and advisor to the Library of Congress. He is a member of the American Library Association, the New York Library Association, the Library Administration and Management Association, and Chief Officers of State Library Agencies, among other professional organizations and affiliations.

Mr. Strong is the author/editor of numerous journal articles on library and literacy issues, and in 1988 won the H.W. Wilson Periodical Award for his work on the California State Library Foundation Bulletin, which he edited from 1982 to 1994. He authored a chapter "Queens Library: Global Reach to Serve Diverse Communities" in Libraries: - Global Reach - Local Touch (published by the American Library Association, 1998).

In 1984 he was named a Distinguished Alumnus by the University of Michigan, from which he earned a Master of Library Science degree (MLS) in 1967. He received a Bachelor's degree in Education (B.S. Ed.) from the University of Idaho in 1966.

Since coming to New York from California he has become active in various local organizations, including service as a member of the Board of Directors of the Chamber of Commerce of the Borough of Queens; the Greater Jamaica Development Corp.; the Board of Directors of the Queens Council of the Boy Scouts of America and the Flushing Cemetery Board.