Adult Learners, Libraries, and Digital Literacy
Date: August 12, 2011
—A Guest Blog Article in the Discussion Series on Social Innovations in Adult Education
Article by Elizabeth Friese
“I never thought I would say this, but I think I want one of those electronic readers.”
My father-in-law is a skilled and avid reader. However, over the past several years, his vision has changed. The primary reason my father-in-law asked for an e-reader was to take advantage of the ability to change the text size of whatever he chose to read.
My father-in-law’s experiences reminded me that each person’s literacy is changeable, not static. In times past, when we defined literacy as simply the ability to read alphabetic texts, it seemed we could draw a relatively sharp line between the people who were labeled literate and the people who were not. As we’ve come to understand literacy as more complex, we know that physical changes, cognitive changes, and numerous other factors can complicate or enhance our literacy situations.
Understanding literacy’s complexities raises questions. How many readers are we losing as their literacy circumstances change? Do these readers know of the services and resources libraries offer to enable them to sustain their reading lives? Are libraries reaching out to them to facilitate transitions to different technologies or types of texts?
Digital literacy adds yet another layer of complexity. As an example, I’ll return again to my father-in-law. Although he is an accomplished reader, in many respects he is early in his digital literacy learning. When confronted with the challenges of a new interface, downloading e-books, and manipulating text sizes, he was somewhat lost. Luckily, he was surrounded by people who had patience and knowledge to share. It was his 12-year-old granddaughter who sat with him for several hours. She showed him the basics including manipulating font sizes, finding reading materials, and more. My father-in-law calls her “my teacher” and she couldn’t be more excited.
Many public libraries offer similar opportunities for intergenerational teaching and literacy learning. One of the remarkable things about acknowledging a wide range of literacies is that everyone is both a literacy learner as well as someone with expertise to share. It was ideal for my daughter to teach my father-in-law in a relaxed and nonthreatening way. She was only slightly more expert than he, but she had more familiarity with the kinds of choices and movements that lead to success with new computers. Between them, though, there was a fair amount of play, mistake-making, and trial and error. Libraries are well positioned to foster these kinds of relationships between learners and teachers in our communities.
To some, expanding the definition of literacy to include many mediums for communication and understanding might be daunting. To me, the possibilities this expansion opens are thrilling. Instead of viewing this expansion of literacy as simply adding more to our “to do” list as librarian / literacy educators, I see it as giving more people the chance to express themselves through literacies than ever before. We have many young people who are not skilled at alphabetic reading who excel in the verbal, the visual, or creating other thoughtful, critical expressions. We have adults who may not read books but have incredible gifts and knowledge for storytelling. Today’s libraries welcome, encourage, and endorse all of these practices, while also helping each individual expand their literacy repertoire.
It is an exciting time for libraries as centers of literacy learning in our communities, where everyone has expertise to share and everyone has opportunities to learn from peers, cross generational partners, or librarian mentors. Whether connecting young learners with creative apps and board books or connecting those with lower vision with assistive reading technologies and recorders to capture their stories, librarians are in a position to encourage a culture of literacies across the lifespan.