December 13, 2013

Libraries as ‘Sponsors of Literacy and Learning’: Peeling Back the Layers

Category: Digital Citizenship
close up of a white onion

In my last two posts, I have reflected on a rationale for looking at the work of libraries through Deborah Brandt’s concept of sponsors of literacy as well as the philosophical and practical imperatives for libraries to examine the forces and ideologies that shape their work.  
As libraries begin to examine the ways they function as sponsors of multiple forms of literacy and to consider the kinds of literate practices that are privileged and marginalized, a checklist or inventory of questions for consideration is needed as a starting point for peeling back the layers of influences.

As a library “audits” itself, I believe the resulting range of answers will help librarians begin to identify trends and patterns that show what is valued in a library as a learning space and the ways those values support or silence digital, information, new media, and traditional forms of literacy.  As libraries begin to self-examine the ways they function as sponsors of literacy, they can engage in practice and decision-making that develop a more deliberate awareness of how they “validate, preserve, amplify, and equalize all routes to literacy” (Brandt 206).  It is through this peeling back of layers of the ways libraries serve as sponsors of literacy in a community that we can open up conversations about the “ideological congestion that hangs at the scenes of literacy learning” (Brandt 207) and disrupt literacy practices that may have been well-intended but limiting and even oppressive.

Using the work of Brandt as well as other scholarly studies I’m currently reading that frame the research of literacy practices in both academic as well as non-academic settings through the lens of sponsors of literacy, I have started developing a “script” that libraries might use to take an inquiry stance on their practices and policies.  Below is a list of initial questions and points of reflection I have generated as we begin to inquire on the ways a particular library functions as a sponsor of literacy:

Access to Resources (Physical and Virtual Access)

  • Classification systems to organize materials and resources
  • Degree and ease of access to materials via a library website or portal
  • Library card membership requirements
  • Circulation policies
  • Self-checkout availability and 1:1 help with circulation
  • Location of circulation desks/points of service
  • Fine policies
  • Filtering policies, including types of resources that might be blocked by the library’s filter
  • Geographical location of library branches in neighborhoods (public libraries) and ways of getting to the location (pedestrian, public transportation, sufficient parking space for access by personal vehicle)
  • Geographical location of campus libraries and how the library is situated on a particular campus (school and academic)
  • Ways resources (print, digital, human) may be embedded in community spaces (classrooms, Senior Citizens Center, local government website)
  • Is access equitable between branches or campus libraries within a school district?
  • Funding for resources at local, state, and/or federal levels
  • Americans with Disabilities (ADA) compliance


  • Percentage and kinds of resources in print
  • Percentage and kinds of resources in digital format
  • Percentage of nontraditional library resources for circulation or use (seed libraries, musical instruments, technological devices)
  • Age of collection
  • Weeding policies and practices (the process of removing materials from a collection)
  • Purchasing policies for various areas of collection
  • Challenged materials policies
  • Funding sources and guidelines/rules for the monies used to purchase materials
  • Cataloging procedures and policies for collection


  • Number, type, and age of devices available for use (desktop computers, laptops/netbooks, tablets, mobile devices, eReader devices, assistive technologies)
  • Arrangement and access to technology – fixed or flexible labs, freestanding hardware interspersed in non-lab or workstation areas such as the stacks or reading areas, “Genius Bar” type of seating and services)
  • Speed, stability, and security of network and Internet connectivity
  • Wireless access (quality as well as ease of accessing library wireless networks)
  • Filtering policies
  • Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policies for patrons
  • Printing services and availability (Are fees charged?  What kinds of printers are available?)
  • Emerging technologies available and the ways patrons might use them, such as 3D printers
  • Gaming technologies and devices
  • Technology training and services (group, 1:1 by appointment, online classes, types of technologies taught through classes)
  • Software available for use in the library and that is accessible through virtual means
  • Types of cloud computing and/or open source software offered
  • Short term and long term planning for technology – does it exist and how is it determined?
  • How does library staff make purchasing decisions for technology?
  • How might bid pricing rules impact technology purchasing and decision making?
  • What kinds of opportunities available for patrons to learn how to use technologies in participatory ways?
  • What kinds of learning opportunities spanning the spectrum of digital literacy skills and processes offered?

Services/Programming/Learning Opportunities

  • What kinds of programming and services are available for patrons of different ages?  What pathways to learning are offered?
  • When, where, and how are programming and learning opportunities delivered?  Face to face, virtual, blended/hybrid environment, MOOC, embedded in community spaces?
  • Who delivers the programming and/or instruction?  What special qualifications, expertise, and/or background might the providers have?  (staff, community members, nonprofits)
  • How are programming decisions made and by whom?
  • Is programming centralized or more local/specialized?
  • How do grant monies, endowments, and federal/state/local funding influence the kinds of programming offered?
  • How is the impact and effectiveness of programming assessed?  
  • What kinds of learning opportunities are available to patrons of different ages?  
  • What kinds of literacies and skills are taught through these learning opportunities?
  • What, if any, models of instructional design inform the ways these learning experiences are provided?
  • What learning theories, if any, inform the design, delivery, and assessment of learning experiences?
  • Are there opportunities for library patrons to request specific kinds of learning opportunities and/or participate in the organization or delivery of these services?
  • What self-sponsored literacies of patrons are valued and supported by the library?
  • Do learning opportunities emphasize creation of content in multiple mediums as well as consumption?
  • Are there opportunities for patrons to connect and share ideas and content with each other?  With the community at large through the library?
  • How might programming and services support civic engagement?
  • What literacy skills are most prominent in services?  What existing literacy skills of the community are not nurtured through these services?
  • Does programming reflect the tension and complexities of literacy deficit as well as literacy surplus? (Brandt 207)
  • What definition of various literacies is reflected in the kinds of programming offered and the ways it is available to patrons?
  • How and to what extent does the library collaborate with community partners for programming and services?  What kind of collaborative partnerships does the library have and what factors drive these partnerships? (i.e. public schools and public libraries)
  • What kinds of mentors for learners of all ages are available and what role do they play in formal and informal kinds of learning through the library?
  • Budgeting for different kinds of library services
  • Regular audit of services and programs – are these being replicated in other community learning spaces?  Which services and programs might be better delivered by community partners and which might be more effectively distributed through the library?

Community and Cultural Influences

  • Academic standards
  • Government initiatives and services that are facilitated by libraries
  • Patron needs, interests, passions
  • Collaborative partnerships with community institutions and organizations (local government, nonprofits, cooperatives, businesses, research labs, faculty/departments, media)
  • Vendors with economic stake in library services and initiatives
  • Assessment practices in P-12 and higher education that impact school, academic, and public libraries
  • Local , state, and national trends in librarianship
  • Local, state, and national initiatives related to various forms of literacy (i.e. 3rd Grade Reading Initiative, STEM/STEAM, Accelerated Reader)
  • Economic forces
  • Initiatives sanctioned or prioritized by library organizations at the local, state, and national levels
  • Political interests and relationships with local and state government agencies
  • Technology and its impact on the development and demands for specific kinds of literacies
  • Local library board and/or advisory committees

Library Vision/Metrics/Assessment

  • What is the library’s strategic plan and what values are embedded in it?
  • What assessment measures and strategies does the library use?
  • Do the assessment measures actually evaluate the intended outcome?  Is the assessment tool valid?
  • What kinds of assessments might the library use to see how learners are using knowledge and understanding gained through a library learning experience in other “spheres” or worlds of learning?
  • What kinds of data do the library collect and how is that data used?
  • What access does the library have to community data that may be useful or informative?
  • What data visualization techniques might the library use?

Physical Spaces/Library Design

  • What are the design drivers for library spaces?
  • What features are prominent in a library space?
  • What kinds of zones or spaces are available within a library?  (performance area, workrooms, labs, interactive spaces, spaces to support production of traditional as well as nontraditional content)
  • Arrangement and location of library resources – how does the impact the user and learner experience?
  • Types of seating and workspaces (fixed, flexible) available in different part of the library
  • Acoustics
  • Design schemes and elements (lighting, colors, flooring)
  • Outdoor spaces part of the overall library experience
  • Security measures (i.e. security staff, security gates)
  • Signage
  • How does the physical design lend itself to the literacy and learning practices of affinity groups?  
  • What is absent from the library space?
  • Location of materials and resources

Staffing/Human Resources

  • Areas of staffing and number of staff in each area
  • Organizational structure of staffing
  • Hiring practices and qualifications for staff positions – what are they and how are they determined?  
  • Structure of positions (example:  is a children’s librarian position one that is targeted specifically to a certain set of qualifications or is it treated as an entry level position?)
  • Values and beliefs about learning and multiple kinds of literacy of staff
  • How do staff and administration define various kinds of literacy?
  • Ways staff may be embedded in community through physical or virtual means
  • Professional development opportunities:  traditional as well as self-initiated (personal learning networks, virtual PD)
  • Culture of problem solving and innovation
  • Role of library board or media committee in staffing
  • Management styles of library administration and its impact on day to day practices of library staff

As libraries seek to craft inclusive conversations for learning with their communities and engage the participation of all patrons to collaboratively compose organic and ongoing narratives of knowing, inquiry, and sharing, they must be cognizant of the ideologies and practices that shape the ways libraries both honor and discount different literacy practices and forms of cultural capital.  In order for libraries to understand their communities and the pathways to multiple literacies that are available, libraries must first analyze and reflect on the ways they function as a sponsor of literacy.  Through this starting list of inquiry points, libraries can better understand the ways they support or silence different discourses of learning and the roles it plays in building those communal stories of learning.

Looking at its work through the lens of sponsor of literacy can enable libraries to frame these stories of learning as “…the landscape within which we map the significance of experience and build towers of knowledge” (Short).  This introspection and audit of beliefs and practices can help libraries more clearly see the many threads in these stories of learning and literacy and better understand “…a way to see the world that privileges particular interests over others. Those in positions of power often use story to legitimate and dominate, to spin their version of ‘truth’, but story can also be used as counter-narratives to resist and challenge” (Short).  If libraries aspire to “…nourish new kinds of knowledge producers, social innovators, and citizens who establish alternative paths to opportunity and social mobility” (Watkins), libraries must continually be aware of the ways they function as sponsors of multiple forms of literacy through regular action and reflection.  This critical interrogation can position the library to think more intentionally about the ways relationships with the community are cultivated and nurtured and ultimately build a greater sense of trust.

I envision this draft of questions as a way to collect qualitative data and then look for patterns of literacy and learning practices in a particular library to better understand the many “dimensions of story as the landscape of knowing…story as literary and informational text, story as cross-disciplinary collaborations, story as multiple literacies and genres, story as memory and identity, story as teacher [or librarian or other professional] knowledge and research, story as community and culture, story as marginalization, and story as resistance” (Short).  These nuances of learning and literacy narratives of a particular library can illuminate the ways that library serves as a sponsor of literacy and provide the library meaningful data to think about pivot points for change to support equitable and participatory ecologies of learning.  What other categories, questions, and points of reflection would you as librarians or a library patron add to this list?  I invite your input as I work to finalize this working “script” of inquiry and put it into practice to research the ecologies of learning within library and library community contexts.

Banner image credit: matthileo


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Short, Kathy. “2014 Call for Proposals: Story as the Landscape of Knowing.” National Council of  
     Teachers of English. N.p., Nov. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.

Watkins, S. Craig. “Rethinking the ‘Race Between Education and Technology’ Thesis.” Web log   
     post. DMLcentral. N.p., 2 Dec. 2013. Web. 03 Dec. 2013.