7 September 2020

Literacy Cannot Wait: How Libraries Have Continued to Fulfil their Mission to Promote Literacy during COVID-19

Literacy is a foundational skill. With it, doors are opened to countless other opportunities to learn and grow. Without it, people struggle to find work, to make the most of the internet, or to gain new skills.

Libraries traditionally have a key role within the infrastructure of any country for promoting literacy.

From providing opportunities for pre-schoolers to maximise their exposure to language, to complementing the work of teachers in schools, to allowing adults to continue to hone their skills through access to books, and through offering a gateway to further learning for those who need it, libraries are often recognised in national literacy strategies.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused major disruption in teaching and learning in general, including of course to literacy-promotion. Yet simply suspending work here is not an option.

Without opportunities to build these skills, people with low-literacy risk falling behind. In schools, less well-off children can see the gap between them and their more fortunate peers grow. Outside, at a time when millions more people are facing unemployment, a lack of skills will make it even more difficult to find work, or at least benefit from government programmes.

Fortunately, libraries have shown both resilience and inventiveness in finding ways to continue to support literacy throughout the populations they serve. To celebrate International Literacy Day, here are just a few ideas:

Taking storytimes out of the library

Storytimes offer a great way to expose younger children to language, building their vocabulary, skills and imagination. Yet bringing people together in the library to run them has not been possible for many in the last few months.

In response, many libraries have looked to set up online storytimes. In some countries, this has been relatively simple, thanks to flexible copyright laws that recognise that what is possible in person should also be possible online. Elsewhere – notably in Australia, Ireland and New Zealand – library associations have agreed with publishers that online storytimes should be possible.

Therefore, for example, across the State of Victoria in Australia, there have been over 600 000 views of specially created storytimes between April and June, and a million if uploads from other library services is included.

Meanwhile in Hässelholm, Sweden, where meeting together in the library has not been possible, libraries have taken story-time to the park, with children enjoying hearing fairy tales! Based on the experience already gained, OCLC’s WebJunction has been able to share some tips for virtual storytimes.

Running reading challenges

For those countries who have school summer holidays between June and August, summer reading challenges are a regular part of library programming. These can be highly valuable for more vulnerable children, who otherwise can risk losing skills over the long break.

Once again, meeting in person has not been possible – and so libraries and reading support agencies have taken reading challenges online. England’s Reading Agency did so, and indeed this proved so popular that their website struggled to deal with all the visitors it was receiving! Dutch and Flemish libraries too have sought to take reading challenges online, in order to keep young readers engaged.

Providing access to materials remotely

As highlighted, a key way in which libraries support literacy is simply through providing access to materials. We know from analysis of adult skills by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development that when adults – especially older ones – do not use their skills, they risk losing them. Access to books can help overcome this for people who may not need to read or write much otherwise at work.

With libraries closed, librarians have proved good at finding alternative ways to provide books to people. As well as cancelling fines and due dates, some have increased the number of books people can borrow, intensified home delivery services, and increased their online offers, as seen for example in New South Wales, Australia.

eBooks in particular have seen major increases in uses, although given the cost and terms under which they are available, maintaining high levels of use may pose budgetary challenges in future. Alternatively, sharing photos and running storytimes over the phone can also help keep children engaged, as the manager of Dandelion Mobile Library in Iran has done.

In doing so, libraries have of course been cautious not to risk the health of those receiving books, especially people who are older or have conditions.

Running conversation classes for second language speakers

For newcomers to any society, being able to speak and use the language can be vital for integration. Libraries can help by providing literacy support, not least through guidance from librarians, provision of relevant materials, and hosting language cafés.

While in-person meetings are not always possible now, libraries in Malmö have moved to bring them online, working with the Red Cross. This has brought the added benefit of meaning that they can draw on a wider range of volunteers.

And beyond!

The above provide just a few examples of all of the great work taking place around literacy in libraries around the world, even while the measures necessary to tackle COVID-19 have forced them to close their doors.

There are plenty more like them, as well as wider activities which demonstrate how libraries’ strengths can be used to deliver benefits for society, even in lock down – for example, the State Library of Victoria has launched online bibliotherapy sessions to help people cope with the stress of the renewed restrictions there. 

Please do share your own great ideas through social media, and of course – Happy Literacy Day!

Literacy and Reading, New professionals, Reading

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