Don’t Turn the Page Yet

Those literacy basics still matter.

In a country of rapidly gentrifying communities and runaway technologies, it is easy for some library lovers to lose sight of the people who depend on the library for basic literacy (i.e. reading and writing) training and computers. I recently heard about a library supporter who was criticizing a public library director for focusing too much on basic literacy skills offerings. When I wanted to do a video on the digital divide and computer access, a teen librarian told me that the digital divide was about so much more than computers, and that a “better idea” would be a video on makerspaces.

The comments of the library supporter and the teen librarian brought me back to a topic that is never far from my mind, which is who controls what goes on in libraries.  I am especially concerned about the influence of the technology industry and how the quest to keep pace with technological change can shift attention away from basic needs like computer access and reading tutors.

In his book Our Enduring Values Revisited (2015), Michael Gorman stresses that the concerns of the information technology industry – “speed, efficiency, the bottom line, and information rather than knowledge” — should not be “the main drivers of librarianship.” I agree strongly with this view. Reading, critical thinking, and independent research (i.e. the skills librarians are trained to value and to promote) are not developed quickly; they require years of perseverance and patience. As psychologist Angela Lee Duckworth’s research on grit suggests, perseverance is critical to long-term success in any professional field –and in life in general. Of course, reading, critical thinking, and research are not the only pathways through which to learn perseverance. Without those skills, however, most people will not progress very far in school or in the workplace, and their life prospects will be limited. You need perseverance, and you need the tools to translate that perseverance into a positive life outcome.

About two months ago, I had a conversation with a twenty-something e-reader user. We were comparing print books to electronic ones (the e-reader user strongly preferred print). As we talked, I shared something I had learned while studying the Wilson Reading System method of literacy tutoring. The lesson was that people who have trouble reading can benefit from running their fingers under lines of text while reading aloud. This helps them connect the sounds they are making with the letters on the page.  My conversation partner then demonstrated what happens when she runs her finger under a line of text on her e-reader: instead of allowing her to finger-underline each word, the e-reader makes the entire page turn.

What happens to a patron who does not have the means, the time, or the skills to keep up with the new technologies that libraries are embracing? Library users with limited literacy and computer skills do not typically have the clout to make their voices heard in the technology industry. They cannot stop the page from turning, even if they haven’t finished the previous chapter. Neither can libraries, of course, but librarians and library boards can make basic literacy tutoring and computer access top priorities when or if the community’s needs demand that they do so. Librarians can embrace technologically enhanced makerspaces for all the meaningful experiences that they offer while acknowledging that 1) they are not enticing to all library patrons; 2) they may not offer the skills training that some people seek; and 3) while they can and sometimes do offer a space for literacy training, they do not take the place of the “old-school” learning spaces that many patrons, of all ages, still want and need.

According to Durham Literacy Center director Lizzie Ellis-Furlong, “it is estimated that “up to 22% of Durham’s adults lack the fundamental reading, writing, and English language skills that they need to function well in the workplace and the community overall” [sentence edited on March 30, 2019 to include a new reference because the old reference link is no longer functional]. This is an alarming figure, made even more so by the fact that Durham is the site of two large university libraries. What are the literacy challenges in your city or county, and how are public and academic libraries partnering to address them?

When ensconced in a technically sophisticated environment, it is easy to forget about the basics. Makerspaces may help you think like an engineer, but they do not take the place of someone guiding you through the job-hunting process or teaching you the steps for writing a resume that will land you an engineering job. People need librarians who see both the potential and the limits of technology and who band together across institutional lines to support the bread-and-butter services that our communities still need to thrive.


Duckworth, A. (2013, April). Grit: The power of passion and perseverance [Video file]. Retrieved from

Ellis-Furlong, L. (2016, February 20). From “each one teach one” to an intergenerational community of engaged learners. (Excerpt from The Herald-Sun article.) Retrieved from

Gorman, M. (2015). Our enduring values revisited: Librarianship in an ever-changing world. Chicago : ALA Editions, an imprint of the American Library Association.

Copyright © 2018 by Stacy Torian. All rights reserved.

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