In one of my classes today we were talking about literacy statistics from the D. C. Literacy Clearinghouse. We were all shocked to find out that the number of adults with low-literacy abilities are quite high. In 1996, Approximately twenty-five of American Adults could not read well enough to address an envelop correctly. Forty-three percent of adults that are at the lowest level of literacy proficiency live in poverty, while only four percent of individuals with strong literacy skills are considered poor. The Ohio Literacy Resource Center reported that fifty percent of the nation’s chronically unemployed are not functionally literate.
What does this mean for young adult librarians? First we must recognized that individuals in the library, reading material is a good thing. It doesn’t matter that the girls are reading what we would consider trash, and the boys are going through car magazines. I remember high school English as being the most boring thing on earth, because all of the assigned reading was classics that didn’t even use the English I spoke everyday with my friends. I loved reading the YA novels that were in my high school media center, along with children’s books, chick lit, and comics. I would have people judge me for not really enjoying the classics, and now I look back and see I was the one who was right. Reading is reading.
Another thing we must realize, especially those just entering the profession and still in school, is that the people that walk in you door may not be able to read, and it may be extremely embarrassing to tell another adult that. We can’t assume that writing down a call number or directions will meet the patrons needs. It can be hard to remember sometimes that a college education isn’t normal, in fact a high school diploma may not even be the norm. The national average for high school drop out rates is one in three. That means that those teens that may be in the library causing you problems maybe the same adult that doesn’t know how to help their child in 10-20 years with homework, because they can’t read the materials. Engaging them somehow, and working with them may be a better idea than judging them for being teens (socializing, exploring different interests, and pushing the limits).
I think the library should be an inviting place for these teens to come and feel free to find themselves. It doesn’t matter if they are reading novels, or even reading at all, because the message you send when you let them have the space, and access to the information could tell them “You have a chance to make something of yourself. You are welcome in the library as you, and can use any of the information here how you want. You can even find pleasure by reading, which you may not find at school.” Who knows they could be not reading at the library because they have to read all day for school and they don’t have the time, but when they do have the time there the books will be right in reach.
Lastly I wanted to point out that all of the studies about literacy and child performance state that low literacy is a cycle. It affects parents who have to work extra jobs to make ends met when they don’t have the skills to have a higher paying job. The attitude that school is hard, and there is no help gets passed on to the children. Low literacy is also associated with poor health, since the parents can’t understand the medical advice given, or read the labels on the medicine. The most effective way to increase a child’s performance is to increase the education level of the parent’s. As librarians we can be human with our patrons, show them that we aren’t different from them. To break the cycle a child needs someone to go to for help with homework and encouragement. Middle school tends to be the place where poorly educated parents are no longer able to help their child and I think many libraries have great programs to help both students and adults, but it is important that we encourage it as acceptable.
You can make a difference in lives, but the impact you make maybe so small you may not realize it. Sharing your passion for reading with both parents and teens, as well as you willingness to help, openness to the teens suggestions, and commitment to creating great programs and selecting quality and popular titles, can make the difference between an illiterate adult who reads at a fifth grade or below level, and a college graduate. It is the connections with people that help make the library dynamic, so please make connections, and remember on the bad days you are doing good things.
Rantings by Jami Schwarzwalder
Statistics from D. C. Literacy Clearinghouse