Stigma-Free Reading for Adults | Collections

Nashville Public Library, the 2017 Gale/LJ Library of the Year, launched the Fresh Reads collection to adult new readers in 2017 to offer stigma-free reading to promote literacy and learning.

How Nashville Public Library rebooted its hi-lo offerings into the Fresh Reads collection

Nashville Public Library (NPL), the 2017 Gale/LJ Library of the Year, launched the Fresh Reads collection to adult new readers (ANR) in 2017 to offer stigma-free reading to promote literacy and learning. One in eight Nashvillians reads below a sixth-grade level, making tasks such as paying bills, helping a child with homework, or filling out a job application challenging and sometimes impossible. Helping them also helps the next generation: the National Bureau of Economic Research finds that “children of parents with low literacy skills have a 72 percent chance of being at the lowest reading levels themselves.” We need to leverage all our resources to build a literate community.

LOSE THE LABELS NPL’s former system of labeling adult new reader books was somewhat evocative of The Scarlet Letter. Fresh Reads displays are recognizable, distinct, nonstigmatizing, and consistent across locations. Megan Godbey, NPL adult literacy coordinator (and coauthor of this article), helping an adult learner from Nashville Adult Literacy Council

Learning from the past

NPL has experimented with books targeted to ANR patrons in the past, but its previous collections were plagued by issues including confusing locations, uninspired displays, outdated materials, and the stigma attached to books written on lower reading levels. Books were shelved inconsistently, and they were often in a lonely, dark corner. Some of the titles were for adults but had been adapted for new readers; some were actually children’s books; many had covers dated enough to make them embarrassing to check out.

Few patrons, regardless of reading level, would have sought out these works. Our local literacy council described the problem this way: “We found it extremely difficult to find material that was appropriate for our learners. Materials of interest to adults were written at a level that was too advanced, and content at the right level was geared to a much younger audience.” Eventually, these collections were pulled from the shelves owing to disuse, and we took a step back to reevaluate our approach.

Today, the library’s Adult Literacy program, funded in part by the NPL Foundation, has become a robust force in our city. We provide free classroom space and professional development opportunities to groups such as the Nashville Adult Literacy Council (NALC), Workforce Essentials, Nashville International Center for Empowerment, and other adult education partners. We wanted to revamp our ANR collection better to serve this population. To do so, we turned to the Memphis Public Library, Literacy MidSouth, and the San Francisco Public Library as useful references and to NALC as a thoughtful collaborator in creating a personalized solution for Nashville.

Starting afresh

We approached this project intent on offering highly visible, welcoming titles to our ANR audience. Our goal was to provide ANR patrons access to the same types of titles and materials offered to established readers, including books by popular authors that just happened to be on a lower Lexile level. We asked tutors at NALC what their students’ most requested books were in each genre and took those requests into account, as well.

We began by investigating traditional ANR publishers such as Rapid Reads, GEMMA/Open Day, Orca, and New Readers Press. While the reading levels were vetted, the material lacked the dynamics we hoped to infuse into the Fresh Reads collection, and the packaging was lackluster. The final selections included four titles from Rapid Reads and three from the Orca catalog.

About this time, James Patterson’s BookShots were ­released. These are 150-page, easily digestible stories meant for an adult audience. This series offered us a great opportunity to introduce a best-selling, recognized author to the ANR collection. We were especially thrilled to provide a way for the new reader to join their family in reading titles by a popular author. The final collection included 12 BookShot title sets (the book packaged with the audio CD), and we used the cover art to make sure each pack was fresh and attractive.

To round out the fiction selections, we sought out titles with broad, recognizable appeal, including Stephen King’s The Shining, Andy Weir’s The Martian, and Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend. We wanted new readers to feel savvy and smart about their choices, whether the title recognition came from the film adaptation or the author’s name.

We chose graphic novel adaptations to represent classics in literature. As anyone assigned to read one of the classics knows, the task can be daunting, so a new take seemed appropriate. We also wanted to include biographies and were able to locate a few contemporary adult titles within our reading range. We balanced out the collection with seven general nonfiction titles on subjects ranging from sewing to the Civil War. We looked for organized informational layouts heavy with photographic illustrations, such as works by DK.

Criteria and circulation

We employed basic collection-building parameters like recommendations and reviews, subject matter, and the balance of fiction and nonfiction. Titles were selected with Lexile levels ranging from 540 to 860. We used our vendor sites to gather titles and then customized those carts based on readability measures, publication dates, and availability of formats. Balancing the works to create a well-rounded collection became our next goal. Ultimately, we curated 40 titles.

Our top circulating titles for the first quarter were ­Malala Yousafzai’s I Am Malala (biography) and Sandra Cisneros’s The House on Mango Street (fiction). Next up in circulation was John Lewis’s graphic novel March, Volume 1. This was our Nashville Reads (citywide read) title for 2016, so interest in this timely and uniquely Nashville-based book was heightened. The next two titles were tied for circulation, Jen McLaughlin’s The McCullagh Inn in Maine (a BookShot Flame romance title) and Amy Newmark’s Chicken Soup for the Soul: The Spirit of America. The most interesting finding for the first-quarter circulation numbers was the popularity of seven BookShot Flame (romance) titles. These titles accounted for 21 percent of circulation. Five other BookShot titles accounted for 16 percent of total circulation.

Once the collection was set, we simply replicated it in each of our nine Fresh Reads locations. These nine library sites were selected out of our 21 locations because they were the most frequent meeting spots for adult learners and tutors.

Building a brand

Next, we tackled the challenge of how to market the titles. We wanted to learn from our past experiences and ensure that patrons using the collection would be able to locate ANR titles easily across the system. The question remained, how could we display these titles prominently and appealingly without making new readers embarrassed to seek them out? We wanted to address this issue with consistent branding and prominent placement. It was vitally important that the shelving units and signage be cohesive and recognizable. We also wanted to place the collection in high-traffic areas near front entrances, public computers, or service desks to ensure high visibility while avoiding stigmatizing locations such as children’s areas. In the end, we opted to purchase freestanding display units that are easily identifiable in each of the nine locations. We also needed a new name for the collection, with an clearly recognizable logo.

We met with local partner NALC to garner feedback about names that have the most appeal for adult learners. “Fresh Reads” was the winner for several reasons: it’s easy to remember, free of any reference to illiteracy, and piques general interest. After several rounds of graphic design, we opted for the leaf design. The leaf and book stand out since they are a different color scheme from our traditional branding (blue, orange, and yellow), and the leaf is distinct from any other program branding to avoid confusion.

Personal connections

With a name like Fresh Reads, how do adult learners find the collection? We leveraged our strongest asset for marketing: the tutors themselves. The library’s adult literacy team created bookmarks with the Fresh Reads logo. These are given to each new adult learner at orientation when they are matched with their tutor, often in library locations. When adult learners look for a new book, they can simply show the library staff their Fresh Reads bookmark, and staffers direct them to the display. (No awkward conversations required!) In addition, NALC staff have been trained about the collection and understand how to filter the online catalog by Lexile level. They serve as resources and trainers for new tutors.

This partnership has yielded positive results for everyone involved. Kim Karesh, CEO of NALC, remarks, “The Nashville Public Library collaborated with us to meet this unique need. It is only through their commitment to adult learners that we are able to offer Fresh Reads to further the learning progress of our students.”

The next chapter

Looking forward, we’d like to challenge publishers to offer more material for this audience. There are a limited number of titles available for adults learning to read, and many of the leveled books are merely reprints of texts from the 1970s. In addition, publishers may gain a new audience with these books. The general public is looking for shorter reads, as evidenced by the popularity of BookShots. While designed to meet the needs of ANRs, Fresh Reads is for all readers who love to experience great stories—for the first time or the 100th time.

Refresh Your Own Reads

Librarians are important gatekeepers for adults learning to read. Every service desk, regardless of size or system, can take these small steps.


Keep it simple! Don’t overcomplicate explanations; it’s not necessary to teach each adult learner the Dewey Decimal system and how to search the card catalog. Simply show them to the area of the library that has a topic of interest.


Make learning relevant. Adult learners are driven by personal learning goals. Ask targeted questions about what they’d like to learn, and find out which topics pique their interest.


Listen for what is unsaid. Adult learners often will not begin the conversation by stating directly that they are learning to read. They may offer up other information as a way of asking for help. For example, an adult learner may say, “I forgot my glasses today. Can you read this form to me?”


Speak with their advocate. Adult learners may also be too ashamed to approach a librarian to ask for help directly. Many learners get connected to services and learning tools through the help of an advocate. This may take the form of a friend, neighbor, or relative with whom they feel more comfortable sharing this private information.


Offer smart referrals. Adult learners may require other types of assistance, such as support for job skills, digital skills, and family literacy support. Connect to local service providers who can help, or create an online request form for services. (See our example at


Don’t make assumptions. The background of an adult learner is not necessarily obvious; they may hold college degrees, own businesses, or hold public office. In the same vein, honor their strengths; they have gifts and talents that have allowed them to succeed in other areas of life. Adult learners make wonderful library volunteers and often want to give back to their community after achieving their learning goals.

Megan Godbey is Adult Literacy Coordinator and Laurie Handshu is Acquisitions Librarian, Nashville Public Library

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