How Public Libraries Can Support Community Literacy

I recently had the fortune to participate in a UNESCO meeting on mobile literacy solutions for out-of-school children in Thailand. With a large population of migrants in some of the most difficult-to-reach parts of the country, many children risk missing out on school. Thailand’s official commitment to ensuring access to education for all is impressive — an explicit mandate to include all children, regardless of status — but there are many hurdles.

As the starting point for access to information, opportunity and advancement, literacy is understandably a key priority for governments and organizations across the development spectrum. Millennium Development Goal #2 targets universal primary education, and includes literacy rates as a key indicator. USAID has prioritized early grade reading and aims to improve the reading skills of a 100 million children by 2015.

So, with more than 230,000 public libraries in developing countries around the world — institutions historically devoted to access to reading materials — it’s confounding that libraries are usually left out of systematic literacy efforts. It’s a huge missed opportunity. And as new technologies start to become a realistic supplement to education efforts, there’s even more of a need for a coordinated community learning hub, a role libraries are suited to play.

At the meeting in Bangkok, participants from government and NGOs shared familiar challenges they are currently coping with — not enough teachers, not enough equipment, not enough time in class. While no panacea, public libraries are ideal institutions to help mitigate these issues in many places, including Thailand, where there are more than 800 around the country. I shared some of the lessons Beyond Access has learned in ways that existing public libraries can support literacy efforts.

A library can be an ‘ecology of learning’ — a safe space open to all that isn’t just a warehouse for books.

A public library in Tbilisi, Georgia shows how comfortable spaces for enjoying reading together can be created cheaply and simply.

A public library in Tbilisi, Georgia shows how comfortable spaces for enjoying reading together can be created cheaply and simply.

Children don’t gain fluent literacy skills from school alone. Research from the OECD PISA exam shows that “the performance advantage among students whose parents read to them in their early school years is evident regardless of the family’s socioeconomic background.”

Any literacy effort must foster a convenient place where families can spend time reading and learning together. And libraries can serve this role.

A room full of academic reading desks and locked bookcases is no longer a relevant model. A modern library has soft carpets and beanbag chairs, and short shelves with book covers facing outward, facilitating browsing and discovery.

Tech that supports literacy should encourage sharing and collaborative family interaction.

To foster literacy, technology should encourage interactivity and create a substantially new experience. That doesn’t happen by simply providing PDF copies of books to be viewed on a computer screen. But new technology — such as shared tablets — can be used to bring families together, for example around collaborative educational games. Public libraries are the best place to host these tools and serve as community learning laboratories when new technologies arrive.

Literacy initiatives demand a coordination point for collective impact.

Frequently overburdened with too many students, subjects and levels, teachers can’t be expected to lead the literacy charge on the local level by themselves. But librarians are often perfectly placed to supplement their work. Libraries can create welcoming literacy hubs and conduct outreach to schools — bringing books for lending and sharing, leading group reading activities like story times, and supporting teachers in working effective literacy activities into their lessons.

Training infomediaries is key to achieving results. 

In our work on Beyond Access, we notice similar tendencies around the world, in literacy projects as in others. Big investments are made in things — technology, publishing, connectivity — while the skills in how to use these things to improve lives are shortchanged. When equal consideration is not given to proper training, things quickly become obsolete and disused. Our experience has led to a roughly 1:1 ratio as a guideline. For each dollar put into things, we recommend spending one dollar on training. Often, that means fewer things. But of course, it means much more impact from the investment.

Beyond Access is just starting out on efforts to address the gap between libraries and literacy initiatives. We are developing programs that include a focus on community literacy in Myanmar and Bangladesh, and we’re exploring how we can assist with efforts in other regions. We’re also involved in the latest round of the All Children Reading Grand Challenge, supporting projects that integrate libraries. As we learn more about how public libraries can most effectively fit into the literacy picture, we’ll share our reflections here.

As always, if you’re interested in partnering with us on this initiative, please get in touch at


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  2. Ian Johnson

    While I can only congratulate you on your enthusiasm, I cannot help but notice that UNESCO is not a member of ‘Beyond Access.’ Having recently reviewed the efforts of UNESCO to promote literacy development in the Arab world in the second half of the last century, it is fairly evident that UNESCO’s libraries division (in its various manifestations during that period) were not involved, and that even on the few occasions when librarians did manage to get involved in meetings organised by UNESCO’s Education Sector, their comments and recommendations appear to have gone no further than the official report on the meeting. Until and unless UNESCO’s education sector is firmly convinced of the role of school and public libraries, they will not be seen as having a part to play in literacy development.

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