alaAction No. 1 in a series
Revised June 1, 2001

21st Century Literacy
@ your library™

Why Literacy | Why Libraries | Why ALA | What You Can Do | A Sampling of ALA Resources | Contacts

“In our urban areas, small cities, and towns, the greatest resource for literacy is the public library. Moreover, it is through the public library and its community involvement and staff commitment that change happens in so many lives.”—Dinah O’Brien, director, Plymouth (Mass.) Public Literacy & Libraries: Learning from Case Studies

21st Century Literacy is one of five key action areas adopted by the American Library Association to fulfill its mission of providing the highest quality library and information services for all people. Helping children and adults develop skills they need to fully participate in an information society—whether it’s learning to read or explore the Internet—is central to that mission. This brochure highlights ALA’s activities in this area and invites your support.

Why Literacy

“I see my work in librarianship as a way of combining what I know and have learned with what I feel into the work that benefits the community and the library…. I see libraries as being the place for all learning to take place…. Libraries and literacy go hand-in-hand.”—Literacy and Libraries: Learning from Case Studies Lou Sua, Librarian, Greensboro (N.C.)

Good libraries help create a literate public.

A literate public demands good libraries. Libraries of all types are leveraging their investments in technology to generate additional support for programs and services that support an information literate populace. Increased public awareness of the importance of these resources provides an opportunity to build on established programs and makes the case for expanded library support in the information age.

As information professionals, librarians have the opportunity and responsibility to educate community leaders and the public about the expanded role of libraries. The American Library Association provides leadership and support in the form of professional education, legislative advocacy, demonstration projects, public awareness, and other activities.

Developing lifelong learners is a core charge for many institutions of higher education. These institutions believe that it is a college’s or university’s responsibility to not only teach subject matter but to also have students understand when to seek additional information, where to locate the information, and how to use and evaluate that information effectively. These abilities have been at the core of Association of College and Research Libraries’ Information Literacy initiative since 1989.

As information and technology increasingly shape our society, the skills adults need to function successfully have gone beyond reading. In 1998, the Workforce Investment Act defined literacy as “…an individual’s ability to read, write, speak in English, compute, and solve problems at levels of proficiency necessary to function on the job, in the family of the individual, and in society” (National Institute for Literacy).

Approximately 44 million adults cannot read well enough to fill out an application, read a food label, or read a story to a child. These individuals lack the literacy skills needed to find and keep decent jobs, support their children’s education, and participate actively in civic life (National Adult Literacy Survey, 1992).

Public libraries that have invested in strong adult literacy programs have realized significant returns both in building a stronger user base and increased funding.

Why Libraries

“Libraries…are permanent institutions in local communities that have many resources to support adult learning—for instance, accessible facilities, extensive referral systems and collections of books, technology, and access to a large group of potential tutors, including retirees and casual library users.”Literacy and Libraries: Learning from Case Studies

Libraries are places for people of all ages and abilities who want to read and learn.

For adult learners, public libraries are places where they can learn and practice new skills. Most public libraries provide information and referral about adult literacy programs in their communities. About one in three public libraries sponsors literacy programs for adults who wish to improve their reading skills. These include one-on-one tutoring, small group instruction and programs to help immigrants improve their English literacy skills.

A growing number of public libraries also sponsor family literacy programs. These programs aim both to help parents improve their reading skills and to help them raise children who are readers and lifelong learners.

Some libraries have closed-captioned and audio descriptive videos for people with hearing and vision disabilities. Many libraries have books on tape and other alternative formats for those learning English as a second language, or who have print or learning disabilities.

For children, public and school libraries offer a full complement of programs, including preschool story hours, reading clubs, homework help and Internet training, to assist in developing reading and information literacy skills.

Today many adults and children have their first hands-on experience with computers at their public library. About 95 percent of all public libraries, including branches, provide computers and Internet access to the public. Many public libraries offer training for parents, business people and other adults who wish to develop the technical skills and knowledge they need to succeed.

But providing tools is not enough. Helping people of all ages to be informed 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.

Academic librarians were among the first to recognize the need for a new model for libraries and learning in the education process. In school, colleges and universities, librarians teach students and faculty how to use information technology for research and other needs.

“Second Start Adult Literacy Program [Oakland (Calif.) Public Library] changed my life….Second Start gave me self-esteem. Most of all I like coming here. I come in here and don’t feel like I’m going to be let down.” —Literacy and Libraries: Learning from Case Studies


“‘Information Literacy’—the ability to find and use Information— is the keystone of lifelong learning. Creating a foundation for lifelong learning is at the heart of the school library media program.” —Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning, American Association of School Librarians and Association for Educational Communications and Technology, 1998

The American Library Association has been a leader in literacy and education since its establishment more than a century ago. Through well-established channels for mobilizing libraries and developing community programs, the association has been instrumental in encouraging federal funding and legislation to support libraries as centers for literacy and lifelong learning.

The concept for 21st century literacy reflects an expanded vision of what it means to be literate in a global information society. Attention to these issues pervades the work of the association and its 11 divisions, with both literacy and information literacy the focus of many continuing education efforts.

The American Library Association is a founding member of the National Coalition for Literacy. Currently, the Coalition sponsors the National Literacy Summit Initiative (, a field-driven effort to improve our nation’s system of adult literacy, language and lifelong learning services.

The ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) addresses the library needs of underserved populations, which includes readers and non-readers. They also serve as a clearinghouse on matters related to adult literacy in libraries.

The Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC) promotes early childhood and family literacy through partnerships with museums, Head Start programs and health care providers.

ICONnect, a technology initiative of the American Association of School Librarians (AASL), offers school library media specialists, teachers and students the opportunity to learn how to navigate the Internet. In 1998, the online offering was expanded to include courses and other online tools for families to use to learn together. In 1998, AASL also announced new Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning to help students master the skills that will help them to be effective users of information throughout their lives.

The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) sponsors a National Information Literacy Institute to prepare librarians to teach others to become effective consumers of information and advocate for information literacy.

In 2000, a committee consisting of representatives from ACRL, the American Association for Higher Education (AAHE), and the Middle States Commission for Higher Education (MSCHE) developed the Information Literacy Competency Standards for Higher Education. The Standards are available on the ACRL homepage: The Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA) promotes literacy in all its forms for people with disabilities and people in institutional settings. The literacy efforts of many state library agencies and library cooperatives are led and managed by members of ASCLA. ASCLA administers the “Roads to Learning” initiative.

ALA Public Programs develops book discussions on topical themes hosted by public and academic libraries across the nation. Currently, the office is collaborating with the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities on “Prime Time Family Reading Time,” a library-based series for low-literate families funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA) is committed to literacy efforts that contribute to the ability of teenagers to read and to write. These efforts include the annual Teen Read Week, held the third week in October, to encourage teens to “Read for the Fun of It!”

ALA publishes posters and brochures to promote reading and literacy, as well as books and videos about how to set up and evaluate literacy programs. These materials are distributed throughout the world.

ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) administered Literacy in Libraries Across America, a $1.3-million initiative funded by the Lila Wallace-Reader’s Digest Fund. The LILAA Initiative strengthened library-based adult literacy programs, in part through the use of technology. Resources on adult literacy in libraries can be found at the “Literacy in Libraries Across America” Web page at

“If it wasn’t for the library I would probably still be illiterate. I still need help and I know with the use of the library, I can achieve my goals.”—M. Roldon, Daly City, Calif.

Born to Read—Originally funded by the Prudential Foundation, this project promotes partnerships between librarians and health care professionals to reach out to parents with limited literacy skills and help them raise children who are readers and learners. The program, administered by the Association for Library Service to Children (ALSC), includes a training manual and accompanying video, curriculum guide and incentives to encourage families to participate. The family literacy initiative is part of the national “Prescription for Reading” partnership led by former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton, honorary chair for “Born to Read.”

KidsConnect   —Operated by the American Association of School Librarians (AASL) in cooperation with Drexel University’s College of Information Science and Technology and SRI, this online question-answering, help and referral service helps students K-12 learn to use the information available on the Internet effectively and efficiently. KidsConnect is part of the ICONnect technology initiative. (— is an interactive how-to web site for building and sustaining literacy coalitions. The web site features tips on coalition building, profiles of existing literacy coalitions, and a menu of literacy coalition activities. The web site includes a special section devoted to building literacy @ your library. Web site content is provided by ALA, the National Alliance of Urban Literacy Coalitions (NAULC), and the National Institute for Literacy (NIFL). The project is funded by Verizon Communications and administered through the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS).

Verizon Literacy Network ( — ALA has joined with Verizon Communications, the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL), the National Institute For Literacy (NIFL), and Reading Is Fundamental (RIF) to create the Verizon Literacy Network, an online network that will provide continuous and instant access to a variety of critical resources that promote a more literate America.

Prime Time Family Reading Time -- This new reading, storytelling and discussion series uses illustrated children’s books to help low literate families bond around the act of reading and learning together. Originally created by the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities, Prime Time is based on a series of the same name that began at the East Baton Rouge (La.) Public Library and has expanded nationally with funding from the National Endowment of the Humanities.

Roads to Learning (Roads to Learning site)— Administered by the Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies (ASCLA), this project uses partnerships between libraries and community members to build and improve services and resources for children and adults with learning disabilities, improving literacy and library services in the process. Funding is provided by The Emily Hall Tremaine Foundation.


What You Can Do

“The library is invested in the Literacy Program because the program represents what is best about libraries. Librarians are information literacy experts and the public library, the most democratic of institutions, is here to serve the lifelong needs of all residents.”—Brooklyn Public Library Literacy Report

1 Make literacy in all forms central to your library’s mission.

2 Educate others about the changing information environment and its impact on members of your community, school or campus.

3 Advocate support for the library’s role with school and library boards, the media and legislators at all levels of government.

4 Learn more about literacy programs in your community. Even if your community has strong literacy programs, libraries often find important “gaps” they can fill.

5 Network with literacy providers and supporters. Support for them translates into their support for libraries.

6 Be a leader. Become active in your local literacy coalition. If there is no coalition of concerned groups, start one.

7 Find money. Investigate existing sources to determine whether additional funds are available to expand literacy services as well as provide technical resources and training.

8 Collaborate with public officials, students, faculty, administrators, trustees and other key groups to develop a 21st century literacy initiative that addresses a wide range of literacy and learning needs.

9 Keep current on issues related to the use of information and information technology for learning.

10 Expand your professional horizons. Join ALA’s Literacy Assembly, which meets at Annual and Midwinter Conferences. Volunteer to work with committees that focus on literacy and technology issues within ALA and its divisions and in state and regional library associations.

A Sampling of ALA Resources

For more information, contact sponsoring units. To order titles from ALA Editions, call 800-545-2433, press 7. ALA members receive a 10 percent discount.

ALA Annual Conference

Programs and discussions on a full range of topics, including preconferences focusing on literacy and information literacy. Held in June of each year. See the April issue of American Libraries for conference preview and registration information.

ALA Division Conferences and Training Programs

Listing of division conferences and regional institutes.

ALA Editions Catalog
Professional books for the library and information services community. To request a free catalog, call 800-545-2433, ext. 2425.

ALA’s Guide to Best Reading
ALA, 2001. A kit with ready-to-print bookmarks and brochures of all of ALA’s annual lists of award-winning books for children, young adults and adults. 82 p. $34.95. #0-8389-8183-0.

ALA Graphics Catalog
Posters, bookmarks, t-shirts, stickers and other items promoting libraries and literacy. To request a free catalog, call 800-545-2433, ext. 5046.

American Libraries
Special Issue on Literacy, December 1998. American Library Association. Articles offer an overview of libraries and 21st century literacy.

Born to Read: How to Nurture a Baby’s Love of Learning
Born to Read website

Association for Library Service to Children. An overview of the project and support materials available. These include two videotapes, planning manual and “Born to Read: How to Raise a Reader” pamphlet in English and Spanish.

CHOICE’s 5th Web Review Special Issue
Choice Magazine

Aug. 2001. Association of College and Research Libraries. Reviews of some 700 scholarly Web sites. $24. Multiple copy discounts available. Call 860/347-6933 ext. 33. Fax: 860/704-0465. E-mail:


American Association of School Librarians. Online classes for families to learn about the Internet together, including safety tips.

Great Sites

More than 700 sites recommended, annotated and organized by children’s librarians plus links to KidsConnect, The Librarian’s Guide to Cyberspace and more.


American Association of School Librarians. Online classes and links to educational Web sites. For school library media specialists, teachers and families.

The Count on Reading Handbook: Tips for Planning Reading Motivation Programs
Edited by Susan D. Ballard. American Association of School Librarians, 1997. Assistance in planning and implementing reading motivation programs. 84 p. $19.95. #0-8389-7892-4.

Information Power: Building Partnerships for Learning
ALA Editions, 1998. Developed by the American Association of School Librarians with the Association for Educational Communications and Technology, this book outlines standards and strategies for preparing students to be information literate. 205 p. $35. #0-8389-3470-6.

Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning
American Association of School Librarians, 1998. Companion publication to Information Power. Designed for distribution to teachers, principals, parents, boards and administrators. 48p. $20. #0-8389-3471-4.

Information Literacy Standards for Student Learning Video
American Association of School Librarians, 1998. 15 min. Designed for presentation to teachers, parents and other school stakeholders. Student-activity scenarios bring to life each of the nine information literacy standards. Produced by Great Plains Network. $39.95. #0-8389-3492-7.

Internet for Active Learners: Curriculum-Based Strategies for K–12
Pam Berger, ALA Editions, 1998. Connects information to learning with technology advice for basic and advanced strategies and teaching tools such as Web sites especially selected for the curriculum. 168 p. $30. #0-8389-3487-0.

Literacy in Libraries Across America

This web site features model library literacy programs and includes fact sheets written by and for library adult literacy programs. The site provides information regarding ALA’s adult literacy activities, as well as events and links to the virtual literacy community. In addition, the site features a question box linking users to the Ask Verizon Reads and Partners, a natural language database.

National Information Literacy Institute
Association of College and Research Libraries. Information and training opportunities designed to support academic librarians in teaching information literacy.

Prime Time Family Reading Time

ALA Public Programs. Project description and updates on new reading and discussion series for family readers.

A Progress Report on Information Literacy: An Update on the American Library Association Presidential Committee on Information Literacy—Final Report

Association of College and Research Libraries, March 1998.

Roads to Learning

Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies. LD basics, ALA resources, conferences and training programs, related organizations and networking resources.

Teen Hoopla: An Internet Guide for Teens Young Adult Library Services Association
Links to quality sites, organized by category for school, entertainment and other needs. Also book reviews by teens.

Literacy and Libraries: Learning from Case Studies
Literacy programs in libraries across the country have literally changed people’s lives. Understand the essential role that libraries play in literacy and adult education.
Edited by: GraceAnne DeCandido
Office for Literacy and Outreach Services
ALA Editions, May 2001

The Adult Literacy Assessment Tool Kit
Proven in libraries nationwide, the 13 strategies in this new hands-on resource will help you to create effective adult literacy programs.
Written by: Illinois Literacy Resource Development Center
Office for Literacy and Outreach Services
ALA Editions, June 2000



ALA Conference Services
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 3223
Fax: 312-380-3224

ALA Public Programs
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 5045
Fax: 312-944-2404

American Association of School Librarians
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4386
Fax: 312-664-7459

Association of College and Research Libraries
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 2521
Fax: 312-290-2520

Association for Library Service to Children
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 2163
Fax: 312-944-7671

Association of Specialized and Cooperative Library Agencies
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4398
Fax: 312-944-8085

Office for Literacy and Outreach Services
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4294
Fax: 312-280-3256

Young Adult Library Services Association
Tel: 800-545-2433, ext. 4390
Fax: 312-664-7459

American Library Association
50 East Huron Street
Chicago, Illinois 60611
Telephone: 312-944-6780
Toll-free: 800-545-2433
Fax: 312-440-9374
TDD: 312-944-7298

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