Literacy sits at the core of library work, but what it means is evolving rapidly. When considered in its broadest sense, literacy is a rich concept that encompasses reading as well as information and news literacy, not to mention civic, health, and visual literacies, among others. How we engage in programming and teaching to achieve them is getting more and more interesting as librarians and educators get creative in the face of the massive challenge, even crisis, we face as a society.
The strategic approach to addressing multiple literacies got a serious workout at the recent joint Library Journal/School Library Journal Public Library Think Tank, held in Miami, March 9–10. There was plenty of mastery in the room, which became apparent when the insights from an afternoon breakout started to flow. Among them was recognition of a barrier to using play for building literacy: that parents don’t understand or have experience with play as a purposeful tool for learning. Yet—a useful reminder from Kathy Fleming, executive director of Sacramento’s Fairytale Town—“doctors recommend we all play 60 minutes a day.” Noted.
More inspired thinking came out of the group focused on how to take a multicultural approach to literacy led by Carmen Centeno, library services specialist at Miami-Dade Public Library System (MDPLS). After sharing a wish list—more language classes, a more diverse workforce, and collections that reflect the community—Centeno offered up her group’s ambitious idea: a “language café.” With help from strategic partners and volunteers, such a café could focus on the top three languages in a community, providing a space for informal gathering and programming.
An important but often unconsidered literacy is visual literacy. Oscar Fuentes, library exhibitions and programming specialist at MDPLS, used a visual prop to talk about “how to look to really see.” Several strong program ideas surfaced. They included connecting with local artists to read a book and then paint a picture based on it; the result could become an installation of public art. Or: to use a shared giant chalkboard wall as a space to capture community members’ thoughts in a quick display. Another: to limit the use of word signage and create visual cues instead. And: to build participatory art projects that “anyone who walks up can see and contribute to,” noted one participant, in order tell a community story or showcase diverse voices.
“Something like 90 percent of information is visual, and it’s the fastest information” to take in, noted Danielle Patrick Milam, director of development and planning at Las Vegas–Clark County Library District. “So, my provocative thought for the day was: What if we had libraries without words for a day?”
Asking “what if” is a great way to spur creative responses to even mighty problems, and in this case, speed the development of more radical approaches to building literacies.
Rebecca T. Miller
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