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IFLA Working Group on Literacy Final Report
Prepared by Martin Kesselman, Secretary, and Dennis Blyth, Consultant, Motive Research, on behalf of the IFLA Literacy Working Group. Submitted to the IFLA Professional Board, August 1999
NOTE: The complete report text is reproduced below. The appendices and supporting survey documents are not included, but are available from John Y. Cole, chair, IFLA Section on Reading, % The Center for the Book, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. 20540-4920, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Members of the IFLA Literacy Working GroupBirgitta Bergdahl, ALP, Uppsala University, Sweden
Francoise Danset, Bibliotheque Centrale de Pret du Val d'Oise, France
Blanca Hodge, Phillipsburg Jubilee Library, Netherlands Antilles
Martin Kesselman, Rutgers University, USA (Secretary)
Kay Raseroka, University Library of Botswana
Gloria Rodriguez, Biblioteca Comfenalco, Columbia
Birgitta Sandall, ALP, Uppsala University, Sweden
Irene Sever, University of Haifa, Israel (Chair)
Valeria Stelmakh, Russian State Library, Russia
Maria Lao Sunthara, Srinakharinwirot University, Thailand
Bror Tronbacke, Swedish Easy to Read Foundation, Sweden
Background InformationNineteen ninety was declared International Literacy Year by UNESCO, which included in its objectives: increased public awareness of illiteracy and the means to combat it; increased action by member countries; and increased cooperation among countries in the struggle against illiteracy. In 1993, UNESCO published "Guidelines for Public Libraries Promoting Literacy," prepared by Barbro Thomas under contract for IFLA. This report built upon an IFLA pre-conference in 1989 on public libraries against illiteracy and a half-day seminar at the 1990 IFLA conference organized by the IFLA Section of Public Libraries. The Thomas report reviews various facets of adult literacy and public libraries and discusses the role of the library, guidelines, goals and objectives of literacy programs, conditions of illiteracy, collection development, public library services, staffing, the need for cooperation, and examples of successful literacy programs by public libraries. Thomas notes that common standards or guidelines are not possible given the fact that needs and resources vary widely. A key point, for IFLA, is Thomas's statement that libraries cannot afford to work in isolation on such a key issue as literacy and that cooperation needs to be carried out at the national, regional, and local level (1). This report builds on these recommendations and contends that this cooperation also be carried out on an international level. IFLA has a unique role to play in the promotion of literacy programs in libraries and building bridges between libraries and literacy organizations throughout the world.
At the 1994 Open Forum in Havana, Sissel Nilsen and Francis Kaiser presented a proposal for the establishment by IFLA of a core program for literacy and reading promotion based on a previous proposal made by the Standing Committee on Libraries Serving Disadvantaged Persons and supported by the Coordinating Board of Division 3 during January/April 1994. This proposal noted that although libraries have a responsibility to participate in the campaign against illiteracy, there has not been a forum where libraries can share their experiences and learn how to get involved in literacy programs. The primary aim of the proposed IFLA Promotion of Literacy and Reading Through Libraries Core Program is to "promote the advancement of literacy in the world and promote reading skills through libraries, including support for literacy among young people and people with disabilities, thus ensuring everyone's right to know and helping to secure democracy throughout the world."
Later in 1994, the Professional Board recommended to the Executive Board (PB Doc 94-117) that this sixth core group be established where "IFLA should expand and develop its strategies to support literacy and reading promotion and consider what practical ways support for literacy and reading can be developed throughout the world." A major focus of this core program would be the promotion and implementation of the UNESCO "Guidelines" and the UNESCO Public Library Manifesto. Some of the activities proposed for the core program included: the development of guidelines for reading promotion, publications on literacy promotion, pilot projects, organizing seminars and conferences, encouraging projects by libraries in less developed areas to combat illiteracy, training of librarians, easy to read books and audio-visual materials for use in public and school libraries to support literacy, assist those with reading handicaps, and volunteer tutoring programs for adults and guidelines for library literacy programs.
At a joint meeting of the Executive Committee and Professional Board in April 1995, the recommendation for a new core program was rejected based on organizational and financial grounds. It was decided that a working group of the Professional Board be established to study the feasibility of a major initiative by IFLA in support of literacy programs in libraries.
IFLA Literacy Working GroupThe Literacy Working Group held its organizational meeting at the IFLA conference in Beijing in 1996 charged by the Professional Board (PB Doc 95-111) to propose a policy and specific course of action by IFLA, over the long term, to support the promotion of literacy, and the development of reading skills through libraries, including support for literacy among young people and people with disabilities and to support the "right to know."
The Working Group was further asked to:
During March 1997, several members of the Literacy Working Group met at The Hague for a series of meetings. Between the first meeting and this meeting, there were a number of changes in the membership of the Working Group and there was a need to select a new chair and secretary. Irene Sever volunteered to be Chair and Martin Kesselman volunteered to be Secretary. Several IFLA documents related to literacy, the reports of various members and published documents on regional literacy activities and other documents were numbered and passed out to members for review. These documents included reports on reading and literacy in Russia (Appendix 1, Valeria Stelmakh), in the United States and Canada (Appendix 2, Martin Kesselman), Asia and Oceania (Appendix 3, Maria Lao Sunthara), Africa (Appendix 4, Kay Raseroka), and the Caribbean (Appendix 5, Blanca Hodge).
At the Hague meetings, several discussions took place on the role IFLA might play with literacy, the need for a sixth core program on literacy, and the work of the Working Group. One major way we agreed IFLA could have an impact is with the promotion of literacy programs in libraries, in particular through cooperation with other NGOs and foundations involved with literacy programs worldwide. We realized as a Working Group that we must first define a role for libraries and library associations with literacy and then we could come up with some potential roles for IFLA.
Literacy DefinitionsAt the Hague meetings we discussed definitions we might use for literacy. UNESCO defines a person as being literate as someone who can with understanding both read and write a short simple statement on his/her everyday life (2). However, it is extremely difficult to come up with a single definition for functional literacy, which can differ, from one country/culture to another and change over time. According to Bhola, new literates describe their journey from illiteracy in terms of power, freedom, and light. Bhola contends that there is a strong relationship between literacy and the library and that within a non-literate community a public library is inconceivable (3). This report instead contends that even in a non-literate society, libraries can still play an important role to promote literacy.
An international adult literacy survey undertaken between 1994 and 1996 compared literacy levels of adults in 12 developed countries. This study chose to view the concept of literacy/illiteracy as a continuum of how adults use written information to function in society. This study defined literacy according to three domains: prose literacy as the ability to understand and use textual information; document literacy as the ability to locate and use information in various formats (e.g. job applications, maps, tables, etc.); and quantitative literacy as the ability to apply arithmetic operations. Within each domain, five levels of literacy were described (4). The UNESCO definition of literacy is roughly equivalent to the lowest level, level 1 of prose literacy described by this study (the ability to read short pieces of text to find a single piece of information). Illiteracy at this most basic level is at epidemic proportions worldwide, especially within developing countries. Libraries have the opportunity, however, to provide support for literacy efforts at all levels. A report by Martin Kesselman on information literacy is appended (Appendix 6).
General Issues for Libraries/Library AssociationsLibraries assist literacy activities on three basic fronts: providing collections in support of literacy, actively participating in instructional programs for learners, and providing support services for literacy efforts by the library and other organizations.
At the Hague meeting we affirmed the need for libraries to provide access to information and materials that includes variety and is of high interest. Information needs to be provided equally to different sectors of the population: both adults and children, males and females, urban and rural populations, ethnic minorities, and services to special populations such as the disadvantaged and those with learning disabilities, etc. In order for libraries to provide resources towards literacy there are needs for training and infrastructure such as staffing, equipment, telecommunications/access to the Internet, and space.
Libraries need to be aware of the cultural and political realities in their country in determining ways to develop appropriate literacy programs and providing motivational support to learners. How libraries help learners to become autonomous/self-sufficient depends greatly on the socioeconomic context. In some societies it may be just the ability to read and write, in other societies there may be needs for other literacies (e.g. information/computer literacy). Libraries need not only be in the business of providing information but of teaching information searching skills as well, especially in our rapid evolution into a global information society.
Literacy initiatives can exist elsewhere-schools, family, religious institutions and libraries need to know how best to support these efforts. Cooperation with local entities such as the government and media (e.g. the use of newspapers and other locally published or locally produced materials) are ways to promote literacy. Libraries need to have a role in the educational curriculum and have access to appropriate reading materials. Storytelling is another way of promoting literacy to young children. Libraries must be recognized for their role in lifelong learning and continuing the process of learning for those that go through literacy programs.
There are literacy activities that individual libraries perform best, those that can best be done by library schools, those that can be done by library associations, and those that can be done by IFLA. It was initially felt that IFLA would be most effective in working through library associations and that IFLA could encourage the development and promote the strengthening of associations, which are weak. However it is important to note that there are many grassroots programs out there that are very effective. Even in these situations, library associations can help, serving as mediators between the grassroots level and decision-makers. Library associations and IFLA can also help with intellectual property issues, working with library schools in the training of librarians for literacy work, as well as other ways of supporting literacy efforts at the local level.
Literacy Issues Related to Libraries in Developing CountriesThe following are some issues, outlined by Gloria Rodriguez and Blanca Hodge, that prevent libraries in developing countries from becoming more involved in literacy.
Building on the Work of IFLABirgitta Bergdahl compiled a detailed list of activities of IFLA standing committees and roundtables concerned with literacy including expert meetings, seminars and workshops, projects, and publications. A copy of this report is appended (Appendix 7).
We also decided to endorse the following documents as reasons why libraries, library associations, and IFLA should be involved in literacy programs. Documents endorsed include:
Other International Literacy InitiativesThe organizations described below are some of the major players in the worldwide fight in eradicating illiteracy. This should not be considered an exhaustive listing, but serve as a sampling of the wealth of information and activities that exist. It is important to note that none these organizations include libraries as major players with literacy programs.
In 1994 UNESCO and the University of Pennsylvania's Graduate School of Education established an International Literacy Institute in the United States. The Institute has as its mission: "to provide leadership in research, development, and training in the broad field of international literacy and development, with an emphasis on developing countries." (5) The International Literacy Institute supports regional and international literacy conferences, networks and regional projects through linkages with universities and government agencies, and a summer literacy-training program for training specialists in developing countries. In 1999 the Institute published an International Literacy Explorer on CD-ROM and provides an overview of literacy issues and practices worldwide, literacy concepts and statistics, and highlights several innovative projects. A web version is available at :
The International Literacy Support Service was established in 1992 by the International Council of Adult Education as a global alliance of regional networks and worldwide adult education associations. Activities include fostering linkages and collaboration for literacy promotion with national, bilateral and multilateral organizations, and other voluntary and private sector organizations. The International Literacy Support Service is involved in cataloging and disseminating information on development and literacy activities, to strengthen literacy networks, and to provide literacy education for marginalized groups such as refugees, migrants and indigenous peoples (6).
World Education's Literacy Division works with grassroots community initiatives, NGOs and government agencies to employ innovative training approaches for literacy. The division fosters team-based approaches and the development of peer support networks and study circles. Countries in which the organization has been active include the United States, Nepal, Philippines, Thailand, and India (7).
The Laubach Literacy International Program Division is another non-profit organization dedicated to helping adults with reading, writing, and problem-solving skills. Laubach Literacy International works via a network of education and development groups in more than thirty countries (8).
The International Reading Association was established in 1956 and is a non-profit professional organization that encourages the study of reading and promotes research and better teacher education. The association has more than 90,000 members including teachers, administrators, parents, librarians, and psychologists. Through its sections, the International Reading Association sponsors conferences throughout the world such as the European Conference on Reading (9).
An example of a more regional effort is the Asia-Pacific Literacy Division developed jointly by UNESCO working with many government and non-government literacy agencies. The database includes a wealth of statistical information on literacy rates, governmental policies and initiatives in each country, projects, training programs, and access to more than 500 literacy learning materials (10).
Literacy Survey BackgroundThe major task the Working Group decided on was to do an international survey to determine the current state of affairs of libraries and literacy to have some baseline data on where we are today. The aim of the survey is to collect missing data on literacy programs and identify reasons for success/failure. Another major aim of the survey is to review existing library-based literacy throughout the world and the services that exist to support these programs. Francoise Danset and Irene Sever developed the survey instruments. Funding remaining for 1997 was earmarked as seed money for the survey and analysis.
During the period between the Hague meetings and the 1997 IFLA conference in Copenhagen, an e-mail list for the Working Group was developed. Irene Sever and Francoise Danset, with input from Working Group members, prepared a draft survey for discussion at Copenhagen, which could then be translated by members of the Working Group into appropriate languages.
Although several literacy surveys have taken place throughout the world, in particular those by UNESCO, there has never before been a systematic assessment of the role libraries and library associations with literacy.
Literacy Survey MethodologyAt the IFLA annual conference in Copenhagen, the questionnaire was reviewed, resulting in a final questionnaire. It was divided into two parts-part 1 for library associations (or other representative organization in each country) and part 2 to be filled out by libraries. The Working Group concluded that the best way to disseminate the questionnaire for libraries was to ask national library associations to take responsibility to send it to public libraries in their country (by mail, e-mail, newsletter, etc.). A cover letter for the questionnaires was developed soliciting library associations to help as well provide the names of members of the Working Group where the completed questionnaires could be sent. The questionnaire was also posted on IFLANET and its availability was announced on IFLANET and various Internet lists related to libraries and/or literacy. Shortly after the Copenhagen conference, Working Group members made translations of the questionnaires into Russian, French and Spanish. English language versions are appended to this report (Appendices 9,10, 11).
For distribution of the questionnaires, we decided to use the IFLA library association/other organizations list in the membership directory which cold also be supplemented by appropriate IFLA institutional members and ministries of education. We estimated the cost of keying in results and analysis for the questionnaires at $6,000 for the use of statistical packages, keying in the results and analysis. The Professional Board approved an additional 6000 NLG in March 1998 towards completion of the project.
As of March 1998, we found that we had not received a very large pool of returned surveys. It appeared in retrospect that working through the IFLA library association organizational members was not very effective. Posting the survey on IFLANET and announcements on IFLA-L resulted in a flurry of some additional survey responses from libraries directly. Because of this setback, the deadline for return of the questionnaires was extended, which did not leave time to process any of the survey results before the conference in Amsterdam. There was little the Working Group could do (except for making requests to additional libraries in various countries to fill out the survey) until we had a final tally of the number of questionnaires completed at the Amsterdam conference, which happily resulted in the receipt of more questionnaires than expected.
At the 1998 meeting of the Literacy Working Group in Amsterdam we reviewed where we currently were and the development of a work plan to complete our project during the next several months. At our meeting, reports were made by various Working Group members as to the completed questionnaires received. Unfortunately the surveys of countries included was uneven. Few questionnaires had been received from Africa, Asia, and South America. There was some discussion on whether we should attempt to get additional questionnaires from these areas but decided we needed to move forward. Instead, the current goal of the survey became to have a worldwide snapshot of the role libraries and library associations play with literacy programs rather than a country by country analysis.
Soon after the 1998 IFLA conference, members of the Working Group sent the questionnaires they had received to the Secretary in the United States. In October 1998, a progress report/financial report was made to the Professional Board that provided information on the steps the Working Group had taken up to this point and plans for completing the work during the coming year using the funds earmarked by IFLA.
A market research consultant was contracted to develop a program for coding, input and analysis using various statistical packages and to analyze the results. This report includes the analysis of results from the consultant and charts and graphs related to the analysis are appended. During the 1999 annual conference, the Literacy Working Group is holding its final meeting and an open review session of research and findings is being held for members of the Professional Board and other interested IFLA participants. A poster session of review findings and conclusions will also take place at the conference. It is hoped that the final report and survey findings will be made available on IFLANET. It is expected that the Working Group will be disbanded at the conclusion of the 1999 Bangkok conference.
Literacy Survey Results(Not included)
Recommendations for IFLABased on the many discussions of the Working Group, review of IFLA activities and documents, and our literacy survey results, we make the following six major recommendations.
In order for IFLA to begin carrying out these recommendations, we recommend that IFLA request funding by UNESCO for a full-time Literacy Officer for Libraries for a trial period of two or three years. This officer would work closely with a number of IFLA Standing Committees (e.g. Reading, Public Libraries, School Libraries, Education and Training, Regional SCs), Round Tables, and Core Programs (in particular ALP). The officer would also be very involved in developing liaisons to library associations and the many international/regional literacy organizations that exist and in developing grants and project proposals on behalf of IFLA. It is also urged that this officer do a more extensive survey of library-based literacy programs focused in particular on developing countries. After a period of two years, this position should be evaluated and at that time the need for a permanent Literacy Officer (and) the establishment of a new core program or the designation of literacy activities within another core program should be re-examined.
This report should not be viewed as a closed book but rather as an opening. Literacy is an issue that touches all parts of our lives and is of concern to all libraries worldwide. Reading and its promotion as well as information seeking skills are and will continue to be critical skills for lifelong learning. A major thrust for literacy programs by IFLA and by libraries, with assistance and leadership from IFLA, can be a major catalyst for global change and have a positive impact on many levels-education, health, and social and economic vitality.
AppendicesReading and Literacy in Russia, by Valeria Stelmakh
Literacy Activities in the United States and Canada, by Martin Kesselman
Literacy in Asia and Oceania, by Maria Lao Sunthara
Literacy in Africa, by Kay Roseroka
Literacy in the Caribbean, by Blanca Hode
Report on Information Literacy, by Martin Kesselman
IFLA Activities on Literacy, by Birgitta Bergdahl
Cross-Cultural Assessment of Literacy, by Irene Sever
Cover Letter Addressed to Library Associations Regarding Survey
Survey Form for Libraries
Survey Form for Library Associations
Survey Tables and Graphs
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