A week or so ago, I stopped by the Petit Branch Library in the late afternoon on a workday to pick up a book on hold. I was struck by how crowded the library was — all the tables and computers were occupied and in use, and off to one corner, an adult learner poured over a literacy workbook with her tutor.
What struck me most was that every single person was an adult.
Maybe it’s because of my decade-long involvement with ProLiteracy, or maybe it’s because the recent Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) revealed how poorly American adults rank in reading, numeracy, writing and digital environments, but the scene at the library reminded me how many adults use library services, and how often adults are overlooked when we as a nation talk about literacy.
When literacy is discussed in the United States, it’s positioned as a K-12 or even a pre-K issue. Countless studies have been done and countless initiatives launched to ensure school-aged children, preschoolers and infants are given benchmarks to achieve literacy and the resources to do so.
But if a child’s mother or father struggles with reading and writing, the child’s own path to literacy is all the more challenging. In fact, research from NIH shows that a mother’s reading level is the single greatest determinant of her child’s future academic success.
As the world turns increasingly to technology to address daily needs, it’s critical that we ensure adults have sufficient digital literacy skills to navigate finances, the job market, our health care system and more.
For example, some 80 percent of job applications are now completed online. Yet among American adults with no high school diploma, only 61 percent use the Internet, according to a recent report by the Pew Research Center.
The recent data from PIAAC shows a correlation between Americans who are literate and those who are using the Internet — only 6 percent of adults in the U.S. and 8 percent of adults under 35 performed at the highest proficiency level on the problem-solving/technology scale.
Further statistics reveal only 9 percent of Internet users without a high school diploma participated in online job training or courses, compared with 12 percent of high school graduates, 23 percent of those with some college credit and 32 percent of college graduates.
Only 15 percent of online Americans with annual family incomes below $25,000 use the Internet for job training, compared with 31 percent of those with family incomes of $100,000 or more.
Some 36 million American adults are in dire need of literacy services and resources — and libraries help fulfill that need. ProLiteracy, in partnership with the Onondaga County Public Library and the American Library Association Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, is launching a Library Literacy Action Agenda designed to help increase and expand adult literacy services in public libraries across the nation.
Why libraries? Because today virtually all public libraries (99.3 percent) provide public access to computers and the Internet, and more than 87 percent of libraries provide formal or informal technology training.
This demonstrates the crucial role libraries play in the lives of low-literate adults — they provide a window into digital literacy, which in turn allows people to gain the skills they need to navigate an increasingly tech-driven society and a workforce that demands more of them than it ever did of their parents and grandparents.
Maybe it’s because I am fully aware of the consequences for the U.S. economically and internationally, but one day I hope we give adult literacy and basic education programs, including the ones embedded in our nation’s libraries, the attention and investment they rightly deserve. The reward will be a nation of skilled, literate, and globally competitive adults. What more could we want?