Lifelong Literacy | Strategic Planning

Developing literacies across a wide spectrum of applications is central to the mission of libraries. Whether building early literacy skills with the youngest of customers and their families or providing programming to support digital, information, financial, food, and other adult literacy skills, libraries can best find success in these avenues by making sure they are intentionally included in the development of the strategic plan and, in the process, rethought afresh just as newer services are, rather than taken for granted.

A core concentration on literacy from the top of the org chart yields next-level outcomes

Developing literacies across a wide spectrum of applications is central to the mission of libraries. Whether building early literacy skills with the youngest of customers and their families or providing programming to support digital, information, financial, food, and other adult literacy skills, libraries can best find success in these avenues by making sure they are intentionally included in the development of the strategic plan and, in the process, rethought afresh just as newer services are, rather than taken for granted.

Capacity and culturE

The 2017 Public Library Think Tank, held in early March by LJ and School Library Journal at Florida’s Miami Dade Public Library System (MDPLS) Aventura branch, brought together public library leaders to discuss the lasting impact created by using a “literacy lens” to create an organizational culture focused on maximizing community engagement. Jason Kucsma, deputy director at the Toledo Lucas County Public Library (TLCPL), spoke about the need to “secure your mask before helping others.” In order to support essential literacies and move the library toward innovation, Kucsma recognized the need for internal development to provide a more secure scaffold for bringing literacy to the customer. “How can we, as an institution that promotes and supports lifelong learning, adequately serve our communities if TLCPL is not itself a learning institution?” he asked.

THINKING BIG LJ’s Think Tank gathered leaders for a discussion of the impact of a literacy focus. Toledo’s Jason Kucsma (l., ctr.) and Sacramento’s Rivkah Sass (r., standing) were among those at the Florida confab. Photos by Kevin Henegan

A lapsed strategic plan gave Kucsma and his staff the opportunity to “radically engage our community and our staff” around a new five-year plan that focuses on the question of how TLCPL could contribute to the overall success of everyone living in the county. Using the slogan “Strong Libraries Build Strong Communities,” he notes that this strength originates with the entire staff. “Building our own toolbox of literacies is the first step to us helping build stronger communities.” One project that helped achieve this goal was creating an internal team made up of librarians and clerical staff who worked with Mozilla tools to build a package of web literacy skills for TLCPL employees across the system. By setting a baseline understanding of how to read, write, and participate on the web, staff became “better consumers and creators of web content,” which will then “help our communities do the same.”

TLCPL leadership also introduced an Innovation Incubator, recognizing that “the best ideas often come from the people on the front lines.” Staff across all levels will be able to recommend “experiments, programming topics, you name it,” in order to brainstorm new and creative ways to serve their customers. As Kucsma and TLCPL focus on other literacies such as community, civic, health, visual, and cultural, this approach to cultivating internal leadership and developing staff capacity under the guidance of a supportive strategic plan will continue to bear fruit. Kucsma says, “With this strategic plan, we had given our staff the tools to understand what was expected of their participation,” developing an internal cultural literacy devoted to the values of innovation and collaboration.

Early literacy plus

While early literacy is often considered to be primarily within the scope of a library’s youth services department, initiatives such as Family Place Libraries and Project SPELL (Supporting Parents in Early Literacy through Libraries) take a whole family approach, including offerings for parents, siblings, and caregivers as well as young children.

Collaboration and partnerships are key to breaking down barriers that may prevent families from accessing early literacy services at their local library, says Beth Crist, youth and families consultant at the Colorado State Library. Crist served on the advisory board for Project SPELL, a two-phase program funded by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) that concluded in 2016. During the first phase of the grant, multiple focus groups spoke to the need for connection beyond the public library. “One of our most important findings,” Crist says, “is that library staff will be most successful in supporting parents…when they partner with local organizations and work within existing infrastructure that serves this community.” Benefits of such partnerships include cross-promotion of programs and services, opportunities for cross-training, building on trust that already exists within the partnering organization to extend the reach of library services, and the potential to reach new audiences—such as recent immigrants—who may not be aware of a library’s offerings. Childhood health, wellness, and social service organizations as well as Head Start and other early education programs all offer ideal opportunities for libraries looking to make local connections.

A PLACE FOR EVERYONE Family Place Libraries live up to their
name by targeting the entire family, not just young children. Photos by Dutch Huff Photography

The next phase was a beta-test period for best practices identified in the blueprint “Putting SPELL into action.” According to the IMLS project page, “eight libraries devised their own prototypes to carry out Project SPELL’s mission, including activities both for parents and children, in and out of the library. With the help of site check-ins, monthly surveys, and feedback reports, each library transformed their programs into the missing puzzle pieces that their respective communities needed.”

Crist encourages library administrators to address early literacy in high-level organizational work such as strategic planning. Doing so “makes a statement to staff, library boards, and community members that it is a significant priority of the library.” A commitment to early literacy not only benefits the youngest participants, but parents are taking resources and newly learned skills back to their entire family. Older children at home will benefit from overall increased library knowledge, and libraries can provide collaborative organizations with information on adult services such as prep for the GED, English-language and citizenship testing, computer and digital literacy classes, and résumé and job search assistance. “What resulted was an excellent example of a two-generation approach to fighting poverty,” she notes.

Kathleen Deerr, national coordinator for Family Place Libraries, corroborates the need for administrations to consider early literacy initiatives as a transformative, top-down tool for libraries. Family Place Libraries evolved from a 1970s series of parent/child workshops at the Middle Country Public Library (MCPL), Centereach, NY. “This was so ahead of its time,” says Deerr. In 1996, MCPL partnered with Libraries for the Future, a former nonprofit library advocacy organization that ceased operations in 2009, to develop the workshops into a full framework to help participating libraries expand their role as “key players in family and early childhood development, parent and community involvement, and lifelong learning beginning at birth,” according to the Family Place Libraries website.

Deerr notes that the initiative seeks to change the attitude and approach of libraries from “I know the right answer and I’ll teach you” to “You know your child better than I do. How can we work together?” This collaborative approach is at the heart of early literacy services offered by the now more than 500 active Family Place Libraries. “Library administrators see how powerful the framework is,” she says, “and how easy it is to take this idea and apply it to other audiences and target groups.” Over time, “this feeds into economic development, [creating] a well-educated workforce that begins when your kids are one, two years old,” Deerr says.

In 2012, Family Place Libraries implemented a multiyear evaluation specifically designed to assess organizational change as a result of participating in the initiative. According to the results, “there is strong evidence that the understanding and promotion of Family Place Libraries transcended the children’s area. For example, 82 percent of staff from departments outside the children’s department could explain the core tenets of the program.” Directors also shared that they could credit participation in Family Place with helping pass budgets; younger families who may not have been previously compelled to vote in support of libraries now saw the benefit of a high-level approach to early literacy in these participating systems and wanted to see it continue.

Rivkah Sass, director at the Sacramento Public Library, CA, spoke at the Public Library Think Tank on key components of early literacy. Identifying innovative methods will help in “building community and helping parents and caregivers understand that the library is a place to gather, to connect, and to learn. From a strategic level, we’re also building the next generation of library users.”

Digital literacy

One of the Public Library Association’s (PLA) four initiatives is digital literacy, informed by the Pew Research Center’s report titled “Libraries at the Crossroads,” in which 94 percent of survey respondents said “libraries should offer programs to teach people, including kids and senior citizens, how to use digital tools such as computers, smartphones, and apps.” While computer classes are a common offering in public libraries, the Pew report revealed that very few respondents had ever used their library to learn more about computers or the Internet, or to develop other digital literacy competencies that could support job-related skills.

Enter the DigitalLearn program, an IMLS grant–funded project that aims to “create an online hub for digital literacy support and training.” DigitalLearn is composed of both end user tutorials and a community of practice to support library digital literacy trainers. Libraries that participate in ­DigitalLearn can benefit from “a branded digital literacy training web site, accessible to patrons at any time, that shows the library is providing digital literacy training as a service.” Users can tailor content, track progress, and “receive certificates for course completions,” while the site generates learner analytics to help demonstrate impact.

The Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL), MI, is one of six libraries nationwide offering DigitalLearn. According to Kevin King, head of branch and IT services, DigitalLearn fits in perfectly with KPL’s strategic priority of “Connect to the Online World.” He notes that not only does the product assist patrons with their educational needs, it “adds to the knowledge base of our staff.”

KPL plans to add DigitalLearn to its staff tech competencies program, as well as purchasing the software to create its own modules customized to the needs of the community. “Simply stating that our goal is to connect patrons to the online world was not enough if a good number of our patrons were afraid of technology,” he says. King notes the value of a full-library approach to adding services such as this. “We are lucky at KPL to have IT staff capable of working with the developers and who understand what it takes to create courses that are important to our community.” He advises other libraries that may be considering an increase in digital literacy services to “involve the input of stakeholders and maintain a high level of transparency. When staff and patrons have input throughout the process and are allowed to observe each step, the buy-in is much higher and results are ­better.”

Multicultural literacy

In 2009, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) endorsed the Multicultural Library Manifesto created by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA), which outlines the principles a library should follow to serve its diverse communities by addressing cultural and linguistic diversity. Libraries can increase their multicultural literacy through a variety of key missions, such as “promoting awareness of the positive value of cultural diversity and fostering cultural dialog.”

According to Selina Gomez-Beloz, library director of the Crown Point Community Library, IN, and immediate past president of REFORMA, the National Association To Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking, “Even libraries in mostly homogenous communities need to begin to recognize the small but growing population of diverse residents in their service area.” Bringing this awareness to the governance level of a library is critical, she says. “A staff person who makes the effort to reach out to a growing diverse community to improve multicultural literacy will more likely succeed if they have the backing of administration and peers. Incorporating a commitment to multicultural literacy in the strategic plan or mission of the library is a solid step in the right direction.”

Gomez-Beloz highlights the need to identify community partners and volunteers to build the capacity of a library looking to increase its multicultural reach. “Not all libraries have the staffing, expertise, or money to provide specific services,” such as dedicated bilingual staff members or cultural programming, she notes. Partnerships with local agencies already working with culturally diverse communities provide a bridge for new library users to see what their library has to offer. Gomez-Beloz shares that the ­REFORMA website offers reliable resources for libraries that are growing their multicultural literacy mission to include serving Latinx/Spanish-speaking residents, and she recommends connecting with REFORMA members. “Being creative, passionate, and persistent is key,” she says.

Visual literacy

“Ninety percent of the information we take in is through our eyes, [using] the imaginative process to interpret what we see,” says Oscar Fuentes, library exhibitions and programming specialist with MDPLS. Fuentes spoke at the Public Library Think Tank on visual literacy and how libraries can incorporate this skill into their service model. “The work of public libraries goes beyond providing accessibility to books and Internet usage,” he said. “It starts moments before the library building comes into view. It is the eyewitness experience that libraries need to keep in mind as they build their visual literacy strategy,” which, he notes, includes everything from art exhibits to exit and restroom signage, wall color, and television monitor displays.

VISUALIZE LITERACY MDPLS’s Oscar Fuentes (in hat) engages patrons of all ages with the library’s art exhibits, interacting with Abigail Gomez’s “Edificios en el Malecon” (top photo) and Alissa Alfonso’s “Cloud Inspiration 2” (bottom photo). Photos ©2017 Larry Gatz Photography

One way MDPLS helps develop this particular literacy is by offering guided tours of its art exhibits to local schools. “We ask students to look at art with their eyes and with their mind’s eye. Through the integration of text and images we teach them how to tell the difference and sort what they see,” both in the essential composition of the art piece and then moving on to “describe what they see, analyze it, so they can interpret and construct meaning.”

Why should a library be concerned with visual literacy, to the point of making it an organizational priority? MDPLS director Ray Baker says that “the development of visual literacy [is] especially important in our increasingly image-­saturated culture.” He notes that MDPLS has a strong internal culture in which staff are educated in this skill set so that visual literacy can be incorporated into a wide variety of programs and events. “It has become part of the fabric of nearly every event we have,” he says, “and is further bolstered by carefully selected local artists and [local] organizations that work with us.”

One current exhibit at the West Dade Regional Library branch features mixed-media artist Abigail Gomez. Titled “ROOTS: La Cuba de mi bisabuelo,” Gomez’s art reflects her Cuban heritage and include a multidimensional, tactile layer that “presents an opportunity for people who don’t usually engage with visual art in the traditional sense, including people who are visually impaired or blind, to have an authentic visual art experience by being able to touch the paintings,” according to an MDPLS press release. At the Hispanic branch, Alissa Alfonso created an installation of pieces made of upcycled and recycled materials, helping raise awareness of overreliance on plastics and what can be done to “create a sustainable community that protects and preserves the environment.” Alfonso will hold a workshop where attendees can craft their own upcycled sculptures.

Fuentes notes that visual literacy, which also has strong ties to early literacy, “is multimodal. It’s interdisciplinary and it’s collaborative.” At the Think Tank he encouraged the audience to take away these questions: “What is the visual message you’re sending? Is the eyewitness experience being considered? How are the visually impaired visualizing your message? What steps are we taking to educate visitors about what is visual literacy?”

Through exploring and implementing a variety of literacies, libraries better position themselves to be proactive and responsive. Library administration should consider a comprehensive plan to up their literacy game through methods such as building staff capacity and addressing literacies at a high level through strategic plans and mission and vision statements. The results are an empowered staff, ready to make an impact, and a community that benefits from a purposeful approach.

April Witteveen is a Community Librarian with the Deschutes Public Library system in Central Oregon

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