March 17, 2014

The Rise of Writing Literacies, Implications for Libraries

Categories: Connected Learning, Digital Citizenship
kids sitting reading playing in kids area of library

The look of any library — school, academic, or public — is always dependent on local needs in a community, but the feature that has traditionally characterized all types of libraries is reading literacy and the tools and practices that support readers. Walk into any library and the feature that tends to dominate and define library for most people is the print collection housed in stacks and stacks of books. Even as libraries continue to transition to digital formats of eReading like databases and eBooks, most people associate print books and reading literacies with libraries.

In the December 2013 Pew Research Center Report, “How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities,” 95% surveyed said that “public libraries are important because they promote literacy and a love of reading” (Zickuhr et al. 1). Eight percent of participants who were sixteen or older and had used a public library or had a household member use a public library expressed that books and media were “very important” or “somewhat important” (Zickuhr et al. 2). Both public and school libraries often cite a strong collection of books as part of advocacy campaigns. These kinds of surveys are consistent with academic librarian Char Booth’s opinion that “…the image of the library as a reliable, quiet bastion of bookdom has the most dogged cultural persistence” (Booth, “Content, Container, or Concept? What The Card Catalog Tells Us”).

School, academic, and public libraries around the country are rethinking programming, services, and collections for their communities to present opportunities not only for consumption but also for creating, sharing, and networking. While reading literacies continue to drive much of the programming and collections in libraries (particularly public and school libraries), an increasingly greater emphasis on digital, information, and new media literacies is prompting libraries to expand the possibilities for multiple modes of literacy and learning.

As one might expect, budgets for physical and human resources, community needs and initiatives, local economic, academic, and political dynamics, and library administration philosophies all impact to what extent new practices are happening in any given library. These influences are evident in newer and emerging library practices, such as collections of non-print items like seeds, tools, and musical instruments; digital media production; community spaces for economic growth and innovation; scholarly research hubs; embedded instruction and instructional design; and makerspaces and DIY learning experiences.

Yet, even with all the innovative and re-imagined possibilities for libraries as community spaces that encompass many forms of learning and literacy, the reading literacy narrative is still an overwhelming one, particularly in public and school libraries. In public libraries, look no further than federally and/or locally funded programs and grants as well as library literature related to summer reading and claims that it impacts children’s reading scores or school readiness. Public and elementary school library programs are often impacted by public campaigns and/or educational testing mandates for “grade-level reading” (a concept that is laden with all kinds of assumptions) as these libraries attempt to demonstrate they are supportive partners in their communities who contribute in tangible ways to children’s growth as readers. Library websites or pages for children often teem with reading-related content like booklists, reading activities and programming, recommended reads, book trailers, and book club information.

Very few people question that these efforts are often couched in positive intentions and that reading literacy is essential for learners of all ages. Reading is commonly viewed by most Americans as an essential skill in the pathway to equal opportunity as well as academic and economic success. Dr. Deborah Brandt observes that reading historically has been “…for being good — being good in worship, in citizenship, in school, in work…any kind of well-being one can think of has been associated at one time or another with reading” (163-64).  However, as libraries consider the ways they function as sponsors of literacy, is reading still the dominant literacy for the masses to acquire, or at least reading as we have known it?

In Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society, a series of essays on changes in perspectives and beliefs about reading and writing, Brandt explores the ways that expectations and uses of literacies are shaped by economic and technological changes. Brandt argues that reading as we know it is being reshaped by writing:

 “For perhaps the first time in the history of mass literacy, writing seems to be eclipsing reading as the literate experience of consequence. What happens when writing (and not just reading) becomes the grounds of mass literate experience, when more and more people ‘think about audiences’ as part of their daily routine engagement with literacy? How does a social shift in that and energy toward writing affect the ways that people develop their literacy and understand its worth?  And finally, how does the ascendant of a writing-based literacy create tension in a society where institutions organized a reading literacy, around a presumption that readers would be many and writers would be few? (161-162)

What accounts for the rise of writing as an essential form of literacy for the masses? Brandt traces the ascendance of writing in everyday and contemporary workplace life where writing, now essential for production and profit, is “increasingly itself…the product that is bought and sold as it embodies knowledge, information, invention, service, social relations, news — that is, the products of the new economy” (164). In addition, Brandt reminds us that writing has not been as privileged until now because of the “ways that it has been sponsored and valued…as it rises in prominence, we need to consider how it might alter the way literacy develops over the life span, how it will reposition reading within writing, how these shifts will change the ways that literacy finds meaning and value in our institutions and social life, and how in turn that might change our institutions and social life” (166). As points of access to learning and literacy across the span of an individual’s lifetime, libraries cannot afford to ignore Brandt’s arguments for writing as the emerging preeminent form of literacy.

I believe it is fair to say that most libraries operate under the assumption that there are indeed more readers than writers. However, if we accept Brandt’s assertion that writing, not reading, is now the chief literacy to acquire, cultivate, and develop over a lifetime, how will that change the way libraries conceptualize their role as a sponsor of literacy in their communities? How might this shift impact the education and training of librarians?How might libraries embracing writing literacies amplify the possibilities for the ways libraries can transform their communities? What might a school, academic, or public library look like if it becomes a community center for writing in multiple modes and formats? How might libraries contribute to the ongoing conversation of what it means to write and compose in print and digital mediums? If libraries take on this role as a “steward of a new mass literacy,” how might they effectively partner with community institutions like schools and nonprofits to collaboratively “protect and equalize access to literacy,” a resource Brandt identifies as “central to our democratic possibilities” (175)? If writing literacies become a new focal point for libraries, the possibilities for partnerships can change dramatically.

Libraries are in a prime position to be a hub for critical literacy development as well as a disruptive partner in disruption as K-12 public schools wrestle with assessment-driven forms of writing and higher education continually confronts academically privileged forms of writing. Instead of focusing on public school and public library partnerships that are collection- and resource-centric, what if libraries and schools instead partnered to function as a collaborative hive for writing in print, digital, and artistic formats?

The Connected Learning model offers us guiding principles in developing collaborative writing experiences for youth that connect academic, interest driven, and peer or mentor oriented spheres of learning (“What Is Connected Learning?”). What if a public library became a National Writing Project site where youth librarians and classroom teachers from schools in the community designed and participated in professional learning activities together to grow their knowledge and understanding of writing literacies? In turn, libraries and classrooms could function as cohesive spaces that enable students to cross learning boundaries during and after the school day to engage in multiple forms of writing.

How might youth librarians and teachers work together to advance new understandings among themselves and within their learning communities of what it means to compose? How might this work help validate and honor new forms of writing and young people’s out-of-school literacy practices? How might they work together to reframe writing not just as an end product but as a medium for inquiry for young people? How might we together help youth negotiate social tensions and construct identity in the context of their lives through writing as part of a pathway to learning (Smith)? How might academic libraries that work with writing centers or house writing centers in collaboration with academic faculty support and nurture students as scholarly writers, yet take a critical literacy stance on writing with undergraduate and graduate students to open doors for other forms of writing that might not be legitimized in academia but hold value (Elmborg and Hook)?

Public libraries can also be a catalyst for equality and economic empowerment in the lives of adult learners, across all economic lines, who are often shut out of opportunities for literacy instruction and development in workplaces. As opportunities for literacy learning in the workplace may wax and wane due to economic reasons, stratification of workers along job descriptions and titles, or career changes in the face of a rapidly changing economic landscape, libraries have the opportunity to be a constant access point of literacy development by providing learning experiences for their communities that respond to the changing nature of writing as a means of production (Brandt 171-73). School, public, and academic libraries can serve as writing studios that support self-sponsored literacy practices. Imagine how libraries might impact civic engagement and personal agency by more intentionally advancing and championing both creative and informational kinds of writing in multiple mediums that help people compose and publish their stories, histories, and narratives.

In closing, many librarians will readily take on Brandt’s call to action while purists will resist and argue that the teaching of writing is not in the sphere of libraries or part of “library science.” I would argue, though, that libraries cannot silo themselves off from their communities when there is so much at stake. For libraries to ignore the importance of teaching writing across all ages, needs, and contexts is to fail to be a participatory space for learning in our communities. Who will serve as a sponsor of literacy in the development of writing literacies in the absence of libraries if we fail to partner with educational institutions and businesses in our communities to identify and address the needs of writers? Libraries that minimize writing literacies ultimately fail to provide equitable access to literacy opportunities to all members of their communities.

While this call to action may seem radical, there are school, academic, and public libraries that are expanding their roles as sponsors of literacy when it comes to writing in multiple modalities and helping other cultural institutions and spaces for learning redefine what it means to “compose.” In my next series of upcoming posts, I’ll examine how school, academic, and public libraries are taking an inquiry stance on literacy by supporting communities of writers of all ages, framing writing literacies as participatory practices, challenging orthodox definitions of what it means to write, and helping their communities create, compose, remix genres, and share texts for multiple purposes.

Works Cited

Booth, Char. “Content, Container, or Concept? What The Card Catalog Tells Us.” Weblog post. Info-mational. WordPress, 3 Oct. 2011. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

Brandt, Deborah. “How Writing Is Remaking Reading.” Literacy and Learning: Reflections on Writing, Reading, and Society. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2009. 161-76. Print.

Elmborg, James K., and Sheril Hook, eds. Centers for Learning: Writing Centers and Libraries in Collaboration. Chicago: Association of College and Research Libraries, 2005. Print.

Smith, Anna. “What Do We ‘Let the Page Be’?” Developing Writers. N.p., 11 Feb. 2014. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

What Is Connected Learning?” Connected Learning. Digital Media Learning and Research Hub, n.d. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

Zickuhr, Kathryn, Lee Rainie, Kristen Purcell, and Maeve Duggan. How Americans Value Public Libraries in Their Communities. Rep. Pew Research Center, 11 Dec. 2013. Web. 02 Mar. 2014.

Banner image credit: US Army Garrison Red Cloud – Casey