Ah, the library. A sanctuary of pristine silence, disturbed only by rustling pages and the hushed whispers of patrons and librarians. Sitting in a quiet nook beside a window with an aged book in my lap, the outside world becomes still and calm. I feel at peace, transported to new worlds by the prose on the yellowed pages.
This is how I remember my visits to the public library in childhood and early adulthood. Nowadays, it is not quite the same. My local public library was renovated less than a decade ago. A decorative “card catalog wall” stands beside the entrance, commemorating donations to the library’s renovation. There are no cards, the “drawers” are not functional. The card catalog system has been replaced by reference computers, located throughout the building at convenient locations. There are automated book and media drops for returns of borrowed materials. Checkout is also automated, with a slot in which to insert your library card, and a sensor on which to place books and media being borrowed. There is a room lined with computers for public Internet access. Patrons and librarians no longer speak in hushed tones, and although there are numerous signs forbidding cell-phone usage in the library, you can still hear phones ringing and patrons answering them. There is less traffic as the library strives to keep up with electronic readers and other technological advances. There are still the nooks beside windows and aged books with yellowed pages, but the overall feel of the place has changed drastically.
Sadly, there are some who have never set foot in a public library; they cannot read well enough to enjoy a piece of literature – some cannot read at all. Worldwide, nearly a billion people are illiterate. Two-thirds of that number are women. In 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy measured literacy in the United States by the percentage of adults who performed at one of four levels of reading: below basic, basic, intermediate, and proficient. Literacy was defined by the NAAL as “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.” Only 13% of adults scored at or above proficient. An appalling 22% scored below basic.
What does this translate to at a societal level? Illiteracy and crime are closely related. The Department of Justice states, “The link between academic failure and delinquency, violence, and crime is welded to reading failure.” Over 70% of inmates in America’s prisons cannot read above a fourth grade level. Over 60% of inmates are illiterate. Two-thirds of students who cannot read proficiently by the end of fourth grade will end up in jail or on welfare. Three out of four food stamp recipients perform in the two lowest levels of literacy: below basic and basic. 16 to 19 year old girls with below average reading skills are six times more likely to have out-of-wedlock children than their counterparts with proficient reading skills.
Many public libraries offer adult literacy programs, free of charge. Yet with all the access to education available in this day and age, we still see levels of illiteracy that are incongruous with the modern information age. Why? Simply put, this ignorance is passed on from illiterate parents to their children. Conversely, “Children are made readers on the laps of their parents,” as Emilie Buchwald aptly stated. Literacy is learned. So is a disregard for the vital importance of literacy. If, from a very early age, children were taught that books are a portal to wonderful new worlds, and that learning is an empowering experience to be sought after, these statistics would be very different.
The ability to read is an essential life skill, one with the potential to enrich the lives of those who possess it. Proficiency in reading and comprehension not only affords us the opportunity to improve our minds through literature, but it enables us to interact with the world around us and perform simple daily tasks. As the information above shows, it is also a vital factor in producing a more harmonious society.
For more on the topic of literacy and education, see “Bored” of Education here on Diverse Philosophies.
Thank you for reading.