Mapping the American Literacy Ecosystem

There is probably no single cause more popular than literacy. While libraries of all types are of course front and center in the fight, everything from a plethora of other governmental agencies to literacy-specific nonprofits international and domestic to giant for-profit corporations like McDonalds have dedicated resources to promoting reading and addressing the literacy crisis we scoped in our April issue.

On literacy, libraries don't have to go it alone.

literacy symbol

There is probably no single cause more popular than literacy. While libraries of all types are of course front and center in the fight, everything from a plethora of other governmental agencies to literacy-specific nonprofits international and domestic to giant for-profit corporations like McDonalds have dedicated resources to promoting reading and addressing the literacy crisis we scoped in our April issue (“How Serious Is America's Literacy Problem?” by Amy Rea.).


That complex landscape means a wealth of opportunities for partnership and/or funding for libraries. It also comes with the challenges of coordination and the need to avoid reinventing the wheel. If your library is looking to start a new literacy program or level up its existing offerings, it’s important to familiarize yourself with the local landscape of what’s already on offer and what the gaps and opportunities are.

In a crowded field, knowing which partners are right for your team, and how best to work with them, can be tricky. Here’s a rundown of some key players in the literacy space and their thoughts on what to know before you reach out for support for training, teaching tools, grants, etc.



Whether you’re establishing a new program or expanding an existing one, librarians and literacy consultants alike agree the first step is coming to an understanding of what your library’s offering should look like, and why. A literacy program for early readers looks much different from one for adults looking to pass high school equivalency exams, and both look different from a literacy program focused on English as a second language (ESL).

Having a sense of the kind of program you want to establish, and why it’s the most appropriate choice for your community, is not only foundational to your internal planning—it’s a question to which partners will expect a good answer.

Local libraries should know two main things—what the need for literacy programs looks like in their service area, and what programs are already serving those needs.

“It’s really important to look at your community first and get a sense of what other organizations are present in the literacy space, what they’re doing, and who they’re serving,” says Sarah Howell, senior project manager at ProLiteracy, a Syracuse, NY–based nonprofit supporting adult literacy and basic education efforts across the United States. “Knowing what other organizations are doing lets you establish a literacy program that will help you add services without replicating ones that are already being provided.”

Reaching out to other local literacy players is also a good way to get a sense of the communities that could best be served by a library-based literacy program. This groundwork can ensure library literacy programs get the details of their work right, such as ensuring that they invest in tools and resources that are relevant to the learners they’re looking to serve.

“Literacy programs are more than just buying a bunch of ESL books,” points out Mimi Lee, diversity and literacy consultant for the New Jersey State Library. “You’ll find people at all levels in these programs, from grandmothers who want to be able to read to their grandchildren in English to individuals with PhDs who just aren’t fluent in English. You may need more than one set of classes or resources to effectively serve your community, and to develop that, you first have to know who your community is.”



In California, 105 of the state’s 186 public library jurisdictions operate adult and family literacy programs supported by California Library Literacy Services (CLLS), a program of the state library. CLLS administers $7.3 million in state funding each year and also supports in-person and online training for literacy program staff and volunteers.

Funding through CLLS is not open to new libraries every year, but the program does invite unenrolled libraries to apply periodically. Natalie Cole, library programs consultant, California State Library, says that the CLLS team looks for libraries that have a plan for recruiting learners and tutors and training and retaining volunteers, and that are building community partnerships around their literacy programs.

“The libraries that provide literacy services supported by CLLS provide tutoring and programming in their library and collaborate with a variety of community partners including community colleges, local schools, jails, faith-based organizations, and nonprofits,” Cole says.

On the other coast, the New Jersey State Library provides continuing education opportunities such as the Literacy Boot Camp, a four-day training seminar that combines workshops, speakers, and hands-on training, which was developed in partnership with New Jersey’s Plainfield Public Library in 2015.

“Literacy Boot Camp is a comprehensive continuing education program where groups of up to 20 participants can learn about designing, conducting, and sustaining literacy programs in their library,” says Lee.



How can partnering with a larger organization help level up your library literacy program?

One ADLI grantee, the Terrebonne Parish Library in Louisiana, used the resources from its grant to develop a collection of books helpful to communities of English learners. That includes textbooks and training manuals to help staff and volunteers sharpen their ESL tutoring skills, but it’s not limited to strictly practical offerings. The library also increased the number of both classic and contemporary Spanish titles on the shelves in response to added engagement with Spanish-speaking community members—a result of expanded conversation classes.

Terrebonne Parish Library also developed new literacy training partnerships with local schools and community centers, cross-promoting one another’s programs and making sure students are aware of all the resources available. Even with added funding, librarians have to be diligent and persistent to make sure their offerings are integrated with those of other organizations, says Adult Services Librarian Jessi Suire.

“Those relationships don’t come together overnight,” Suire points out. “It can require lots of work to understand what other resources are available in your community, where the gaps are, and how your library can work to fill them.”

We also spoke with Kristen Cassidy and Jamie Claxton of the Chester County Public Library in Chester County, PA, which received an ADLI Grant from Dollar General and the ALA in 2018, about how the support allowed the staff to evolve their literacy services.

The library was already running some conversation programs, but staff were largely referring people looking for literacy tutoring to the Opportunities Industrialization Center (OIC), a local community nonprofit. As Cassidy started the grant application process, it presented an opportunity for her team to hone their thinking about the programs they offered and how they were investing their bandwidth already.

“We knew we already had some of these resources available, but what we hadn’t identified as well were the gaps, so we had work to do getting a clearer picture of the services available in our community, and more than that, the services that people were asking for,” Cassidy tells LJ.

By getting to know their community partners more closely as they did research to prepare their grant application, Cassidy and her colleagues wound up with a fuller picture of the literacy environment in their region, and where the library could make more impact.

“Because we were making more personal connections with tutors and students, we learned about literacy programs at places like local churches that we weren’t previously aware of,” says Cassidy. “The process really helped us strengthen our partnerships and build connections that we might not have otherwise.”

The ADLI grant provided some starter cash to boost Chester County’s collections and improve staff training, and those efforts have continued to be funded today with some help from Chester County Public Library’s Friends group. Now, library literacy services are not just more fully integrated with those of partners like OIC—they’re generally more robust, from scheduling to resources.

Today, Chester County Library has expanded its literacy offerings from two monthly conversation groups to four, and has also been able to invest in expanding its collections of dual-language materials, as well as access to online resources for English learners. The staff also used the feedback they’ve gotten from library users putting those resources to work to discover other services that are worth investing in, like making improvements to the library’s resources around citizenship.

“Improving these literacy programs has helped us learn more about populations we weren’t tailoring our services to,” says Chester County Library Information Literacy Librarian Jamie Claxton. “Expanding our services has helped us build better relationships with the people who use them, and get an improved sense of how we can serve them better overall.”


Organizations and programs supporting literacy efforts come in many shapes and sizes, and serve a range of needs including early childhood, family, and adult literacy. Here are some of the key players.


AMERICAN DREAM LITERACY INITIATIVE Administered by the American Library Association (ALA) and funded by the Dollar General Literacy Foundation, the American Dream Literacy Initiative (ADLI) provides grants to libraries serving adult learners, provided they are within 20 miles of a Dollar General store or office. In the 10 years since it started, the program has provided $10,000 grants to more than 200 libraries, supporting services like expanded services, workforce training, and collection development. The hope is that those libraries treat the grant as a kind of seed money, says Kristin LaHurd, interim director of the ALA Office for Diversity, Literacy, and Outreach Services.

“Ideally, when libraries get funding through the ADLI, what they’re doing with that funding is creating a literacy program that is sustainable and replicable,” LaHurd tells LJ. “That way, other libraries who didn’t receive grant-funding can look at the programs coming out of ADLI-funded libraries and use them as models for their own programs.”

BARBARA BUSH FOUNDATION Since its founding 31 years ago, the mission of the Barbara Bush Foundation has evolved, but continues to work to serve literacy efforts aimed at children and adult learners alike. These days, direct grant-making has taken a backseat as the organization shifts its focus to a thought-leadership and advocacy role epitomized by events like its 2019 National Summit on Adult Literacy.

DOLLY PARTON'S IMAGINATION LIBRARY Since its inception in 1995, this program of the Dollywood Foundation has helped support early childhood literacy by sending children one book a month from birth until they turn five years old. They’ve provided more than 130 million free books to kids in the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Ireland, and Australia as of February 2020, but the program isn’t available in all areas.

Establishing a branch of the Imagination Library in a region requires an affiliate—such as a business, school district, or library system—to provide funding for the program and enroll local children. New affiliates also need to partner with a local 501c3 nonprofit, such as the United Way, to secure nonprofit mailing rates and keep costs down.

EVERY CHILD READY TO READ A collaboration of the Public Library Association and the Association for Library Service to Children, Every Child Ready To Read (ECRR) helps train library staff in developing workshops and resources for parents and caregivers looking to give their kids a leg up on literacy from a very young age. ECRR, a turn-key program with a nearly 20-year history, is available in both English and Spanish. Their resources are designed to engage parents of young children, and are less about teaching literacy skills than about communicating to parents what they can do to encourage their kids to read early and often, and why that encouragement and engagement are so important to lifelong literacy.

ECRR also provides resources to help library staff train in advocacy and outreach for their literacy and other programs, and places an emphasis on reaching outside of library walls to families who might not yet view their local library as a resource.

NATIONAL CENTER FOR FAMILIES Learning Working to end poverty through family education, the National Center for Families Learning aims to reach families where they are, and working with public libraries is a key component of their outreach efforts, says Project Manager Emily Sedgwick, the organization’s point person for library partnerships.

“We consider libraries important partners as trusted community organizations where families feel safe,” Sedgwick tells LJ. “We’ve been increasingly intentional about building partnerships with libraries in recent years, providing resources like professional development training for library staff and literacy volunteers to grant-funded support for library systems.”

PROLITERACY This umbrella organization, which supports member programs in all 50 states as well as internationally, doesn’t do direct granting, but does provide resources to help librarians hone their skills as both literacy tutors and advocates for their programs with local and state legislators. In collaboration with ALA and the Onondaga Public Library, ProLiteracy wrote the booklet on establishing adult literacy initiatives in public libraries in 2014. It has since been developed into an online training course available through the ProLiteracy Education Network. Other online trainings help librarians support their communities with programs to improve their reading and writing skills, train for the GED and similar equivalency tests, and implement workforce training.

“Libraries are well represented among ProLiteracy’s more than 1,000 member programs, because they’re often the first stop for people looking for adult literacy education,” says spokesperson Michele Bellso. “We’re dedicated to providing librarians with all the tools they need to establish and operate successful, sustainable literacy programs.”

READING IS FUNDAMENTAL Funded by a variety of private organizations, Reading Is Fundamental works with schools and public libraries to give young readers access to books they never need to return to a drop box. The organization’s flagship program, Books for Ownership, partners with schools, PTAs, and library branches to host book celebrations where young readers can walk away with a book of their own—often the first they’ve picked out for themselves, says spokesperson Carla Tevault.

Focusing on elementary school–aged kids, Reading Is Fundamental also provides resources for youth literacy programs through its Literacy Central app, which offers educational supplements, like read-alouds, Q&As, and other tools. Those resources are free without signing up for anything, and many librarians and educators use or adapt them for literacy programs and summer reading classes, Tevault tells LJ.

Ian Chant is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Scientific American and Popular Mechanics and on NPR.

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