Public libraries are significant national resources with crucial role of establishing, nurturing, and nourishing peoples' art and love of reading and writing. They also provide life-long formal and informal learning by providing access to books and other reading materials on paper and in digital form (Kupetz, 2005). Together with their staff libraries are trusted civic amenity which are highly valued as a safe public space and storehouse of advice, information and knowledge. This paper seeks to discuss the roles of public libraries in fostering and supporting citizens' information literacy, and establish whether they are well prepared to accomplish this vital role.
It is true that public libraries have plaid a significant role in fostering and supporting literacy. Surveys on literature on public libraries have revealed that public libraries are more than repositories for books. Through history, they have helped the public develop literacy skills; for example, in the late19th century librarians plaid a huge role in helping immigrants from across the globe to acclimate to their new life in the US (Fisher, 1999). The main goal for public libraries is to promote population literacy. For instance, literacy for all is the main objective; throughout the US they are said to be direct educational resources where human and materials in the library are geared towards helping children, teenagers, and adults to learn to speak, read, write and compute thus promoting communitywide literacy.
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To achieve the above literacy training, libraries have the following several tasks: provide services, materials, and opportunities to each and everyone who need them to develop his or her literacy skills; they should also become part of educational system; extend traditional library functions like support and resources to patrons with developing skills; try nontraditional ways of serving newly literate populations, provide interpretation resources; be proactive in education, dissemination of information and promoting resource use; and collaborate with other agencies in literacy programming. These literacy roles must be available in public libraries for them to wholly and completely foster and support community literacy (Dowd, 2002).
It has been public library's mandate to provide access to cultural, society, economic, and historic information to the general public. The librarian in this case is considered to be a reader advisor whereby he or she suggests best literacy resources and interpreting these resources in the library setting. Furthermore, to enhance literacy, public libraries should offer learning facilities, materials, and promote public discussion through the available resources in their collection (Kupetz, 2005).
In the US public libraries are focused on promoting and supporting literacy in three major segments of the population that are in need of developing their literacy skills: preschool and elementary school children, adults with poor reading skills, and people whom English is their second language. Studies have shown that it is crucial to develop literacy skills during the elementary school years. One third of a child's annual vocabulary growth is directly attributed to reading which substantially lead to permanent learning and high school achievement (Zapata, 2008). It has also been established that children from environments with poor language exposure such as reading exhibit dismal performance in tests of preschool educational development. Consequently, children who start out slowly in tests of literacy skills usually fail to catch up and often fail in their school achievement. It is therefore vital to expose children to language and early literacy learning in order to change the trajectory of failure in academics which begins in early childhood and prevails throughout later childhood and adulthood.
With the availability of public libraries which are strategically located in communities and urban centers, children are exposed to meaningful materials in great quantities and qualities that help them in developing their literacy skills (Zapata, 2008). Research indicates that children need to be exposed to a wide range of high quality books on diverse topics, genres, and perspectives for them to acquire relevant literacy skills. In addition, they should also be provided with books reflecting on diverse and multicultural nature of the society; those that can see themselves and others like them.
It has also been established that there is a widening gap between children with access to reading materials and those who do not. Access is the potential reason for the difference among children's interaction, behavior, and achievement in school and life at large. Parental involvement in children's reading achievement is another core factor that affects the levels of literacy (Dowd, 2002). For instance, parents with low income, single parents, and poorly educated mothers substantially add up to large risks of reading and hence school failure. Despite similar objectives and goals for their children, low- and middle-class parents widely differ in skills and resources at their disposal in upgrading their children's school performance (Dowd, 2002). Also children's achievement disparities may be attributed to seasonal variation in education opportunity. With regard to this, it is true that children from needy and poor areas lack resources to persistently continue developing their literacy skills outside schools.
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Public libraries have helped to close the gap "book gap" by providing access to high-quality reading materials and rich language experiences to children from all backgrounds. With regard to the American Library Association (ALA), librarians and other public library attendants work to ensure that many children regardless of their socioeconomic backgrounds achieve their full potential as readers. For instance the relationship between librarians, children, and literacy is demonstrated by the diverse services public libraries offer across the country. According to American Library Association, (2,000) report, 94% of libraries offer study space for children, 95% provide summer reading programs, 89% provide story hours, and 83% work cooperatively with schools.
Public library activities expose children to a vast range of topics providing opportunities for children to select their own books and reading materials. The moment the child starts schooling, books, videos, audiocassettes, computers, music and other programs available continue to support the child's learning process. In addition, apart from books, libraries provide other materials that correlate to books like arts, crafts, songs, drama, story telling and puppet shows. The task of the librarian and other library attendants is to encourage and support the above mentioned activities.
Library programs for children in elementary schools primarily focus on aliteracy problem where a child is able to read but lacks motivation. This is a problem widespread in the US; it emerges at elementary school levels where children develop a negative attitude towards reading. With regard to this, many public library summer reading programs are particularly designed to alleviate aliteracy. They also seek to attract children during summer, a period when reading skills decline. Educators believe that library programs promote children's literacy; for instance children exposed to a library outreach literacy training in preschool display a greater number of emergent literacy manners and pre-reading skills. Studies also showed that these children also read significantly more words rightly than children in control groups did.
Other studies have also established that children are not using libraries independently but with parents and other caregivers. In relation to this, libraries must depend on parents and caregivers to encourage their young ones to use library services consistently; hence libraries need to emphasize on the educational benefits of summer treading programs (Zapata, 2008).
It has also emerged that libraries are incorporating theoretical changes in children's literacy development into their children's programs. Educational researchers are also concentrating more on emergent literacy which is a more interactive and holistic approach to reading that accentuates the natural reading and writing behaviors displayed by preschoolers before formal instruction begins. In this program, children are encouraged to tell their own stories, write their own ideas, and perform their own dramas as a true way of fostering early reading and writing skills. Public libraries have redesigned their preschool programs to incorporate emergent literacy techniques.
Literacy is a continuous process that commences in infancy; through infant and toddler ages, children highly benefit from pre-reading experiences provided by public libraries (Dowd, 2002). These benefits include helping children's eye focus, helping recognize shapes and developing sensory awareness, reinforcing basic concepts, opportunity for physical closeness which is so crucial for young children's emotional and intellectual growth.
Consequently, public library librarians can serve as potential resources for parents and teachers; in this case they assemble materials essential and appropriate for every young readers; they can guide parents, children care professionals in selecting books for every child; finally, librarians help parents who feel uncomfortable reading to their children through modeling read-loud techniques thus helping parent develop their own literacy, and encouraging them to embrace reading (Dowd, 2002).
It has also been established that parents currently lack the traditional sources of common-sense advice which acted as a safety measure for extended families and the neighborhood at large. In order to compensate this, children's services dominantly focus on parents' needs. For instance librarians encourage parent/child story hours to alleviate the situation (Dowd, 2002).
Children reap a lot of benefits from participating in summer reading programs; summer reading clubs usually encourage children to visit libraries in summer months. The vital benefit that these children receive from summer reading programs is that they increase their literacy skills. In fact librarians during this period provide literacy activities similar to those found in schools. Summer reading programs encourage children to check more books out of the library than during school time. With this they are exposed to wider knowledge parameters.
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Despite the availability of public libraries and libraries' continued service to children, many children are underserved. Some essential pre-reading activities are only found in specific places that might be inaccessible to other parents and children. Considering that the majority of children under five years of age come from households where both parents work, the children's access to libraries is limited. In response to this, many public libraries have come yup with outreach literacy programs to reach preschoolers with less opportunity to access a public library.
Through studies it has emerged that there are adults with poor literacy skills; libraries have gone an extra mile and extended emergent literacy techniques in working with individuals in this segment. In addition, public libraries offer diverse programs that focus on illiteracy, low-literacy, and reluctant adult readers; some programs include discussions on family literacy (Dowd, 2002). Such programs are vital in stressing the importance of parental involvement if their children are to be fully literate. Even Start is a family centered education program that is administered by US Department of Education through local schools, public libraries and other public agencies with a key mandate of delivering literacy training for parents of children aged one to seven (Fisher, 1999).
Creating Readers is another essential adult literacy training program; a collaboration for Reading and Success Through Public Libraries; it brings families, schools, and local businesses together. This program asks families to sign one year contract with a public library stating that they will comply to foster literacy activities at home and participate in all other library-sponsored activities and services (Fehrenbach et al, 2003). These programs have inadvertently plaid a huge role in improved children's and adult's literacy learning through maintaining that parents/adults are the first significant sources of learning for children.
The New York State's Adult Literacy Library Services offer help to adult students and their families at large particularly to use the library resources to further their education and develop workforce skills. The library has several programs designed to meet specific needs for adult students like computer literacy as well as other traditional literacy competencies needed for job preparation and employment (Zapata, 2008). With continued financial support, public libraries will increase services to adult students who read below the sixth-grade level, those with learning disabilities and adults preparing for higher education; general equivalent diploma (Seager, 2004).
Public libraries have also plaid a big role especially to English Language Learners; immigrants in the US whose English is a second language have found public libraries productive in nurturing their reading and writing skills. In addition, public libraries have programs designed for English Language learners. Many immigrants subscribe to these programs where they find reading materials in their native languages. They also utilize libraries in conjunction with English as a second language programs as a resource for upgrading their English literacy skills thus becoming proficient in reading and writing English (Fehrenbach et al, 2003).
These programs also teach citizenship preparation and English language and conversation skills to immigrants whose English is a second language (Johnson, et al, 1997). Public libraries also offer workplace literacy workshops thus helping the unemployed or underemployed population in the US get into the workforce or get employed. Workforce literacy for instance, help individuals to approach their job search in a more professional and confident manner, demonstrate initiative, acquire computer skills, communicate effectively with their seniors, colleagues and the general public (Barstow, 2000).
Public libraries mission to ensure literacy for the nation is a massive task and access to information according to some researchers, it depends on the willingness of libraries to collaborate with other community agencies (Fehrenbach et al, 2003). For instance working with agencies like universities doing research on public literacy, day care centers, literacy outreach programs or preschool services helps the public library sector to come up with programs that will improve the literacy levels in the country. In addition public libraries are increasingly being called upon to meet educational demands. In general, the public's need for libraries have increased in the recent years. The widening gap between the less educated populace and the society based on technology and easy access of information is evident (Dowd, 2002). It is therefore, paramount that libraries collaborate with literacy program providers, tutors and the community at large to ensure improved literacy for the society. Nevertheless, public libraries are offering information literacy, which includes knowing not only how to read and write but how to find information and evaluate or use it (Fisher, 2001).
Public libraries are institutions that are importantly expected to deliver the Big Society agenda of public literacy, but this vital role has not been clearly articulated (Johnson, et al, 1997). For instance libraries are much more than just a collection of books, they are supposed to play a central role in the community: providing space where groups and individuals can hold events and meetings, running children activities, helping people with literacy problems, providing access to the internet and other services for the house-bound (Zapata, 2008). To deliver these activities satisfactorily, professional support and management is required. It has been established that community based public libraries are run and managed by volunteers and in most cases they fail to deliver efficiently and comprehensively (Fisher, 2001).
In conclusion, libraries offer structured activities that engage children and adult alike to make sure that literacy levels are alleviated across the country. For instance many parents appreciate the library's efforts at encouraging children to read (Johnson, et al, 1997). The libraries have developed strong reading skills, the programs also encourage children to enjoy reading by giving them opportunity to spend most their time with books rather than playing. The summer reading program has even been lauded by educators for sharpening literacy skills especially for children. In addition public libraries have fostered literacy skills for American children, in Pennsylvania for example, public libraries took the mission with zeal (Seager, 2004).
The library has several programs designed to meet specific needs for adult students like computer literacy as well as other traditional literacy skills needed for job preparation and employment (Barstow, 2000). These programs also teach citizenship preparation and English language and conversation skills to immigrants whose English is a second language. Public libraries also offer workplace literacy workshops thus helping the unemployed or underemployed population in the US get into the workforce or get employed. For sure public libraries are key in improving different illiteracies across the nation.
English Language Learners; immigrants in the US whose English is a second have found public libraries productive in nurturing their reading and writing skills. Public libraries have programs designed for English Language learners. Many immigrants subscribe to these programs where they find reading materials in their native languages. Creating Readers is another essential adult literacy training program; a collaboration for Reading and Success Through Public Libraries, and brings families, schools, and local businesses together (Barstow, 2000).
Although, libraries have not satisfactorily achieved their core mandate of fostering and supporting literacy, together with other community agencies they will accomplish this critical objective. There are several setbacks that must be addressed to enhance library services: the government should establish a national strategy with regard to provision of library services, and national standards for quality and performance of those services in harmony with its statutory responsibilities; libraries should also incorporate new technologies in context with their key function of providing information and knowledge to the community and society at large; libraries are viewed as a safe public environment and thus they have the potential to act as a suitable home for diverse services that meet a wide range of community needs and wishes (Callison, 2006); regardless of the location public libraries should be set with core minimum standards of provision which are focused on core purpose which is to provide access to relevant written materials including high quality books, journals, newspapers, and internet. Consequently, improvement of quality, range and a number of books in public libraries' stock should be made a priority by the government; spending on each library authority should be increased (Fisher, 2001).