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How Grand County libraries help in the uphill battle to literacy

I continue to read with alarm the warnings that decry the gradual but real decline in reading and literacy in the United States.

There are no specific figures about Grand County in the studies – conducted by the National Education Association and the National Endowment for the Arts – that prompt these warnings.

But Grand County is a part of the United States and I’m inclined to believe that these declines are taking place here in the beautiful and isolated high mountains of Middle Park as well.



In fact, when I edited and published the local newspapers in Grand County, I was frequently astounded after interviewing candidates for reporting and editing jobs. In many instances, I discovered, to my chagrin, that some of these people who declared that they wanted to write and edit newspapers spent little time actually reading newspapers.

Many times, they said they got their “news” from the Internet, the radio or television.



That in itself points out the disturbing disconnect we are seeing in this media-saturated and information-loaded culture. The very people who think they want to write don’t even read what the type of material they want to write. On a parallel route, how many people think of themselves as literate even though they may not have read a book in the last year.

This is a failure of literacy and education.

That being said, I take faith in many local institutions that are fighting the good fight to promote and encourage reading and literacy, starting at the earliest ages possible.

The Grand County Library District and the East Grand School District are two of those local institutions.

It may seem self-evident that our libraries are bulwarks against the rising tide of illiteracy and indifference about books in general. Libraries, after all, are places where books can be found, checked out and read at no cost to the reader. And yes, in that traditional manner, our libraries represent a defense against illiteracy.

That defense starts with efforts to instill what is called “early literacy.”

“Early literacy is an increasing focus in our libraries, in our public health department and our schools and more collaborative programs are developing,” said Mary Anne Wilcox, Executive Director of the Grand County Library District. “The easy path to literacy is truly most possible when parents talk to their babies, read to their babies and let children see their parents reading for enjoyment, education and research.”

The libraries also offer children’s story hours, reading programs and an open, welcoming environment for children. In this way, perhaps, the libraries can also help parents realize the importance of literacy appreciation at an early age.

There are other ways our libraries operate in this complicated and difficult battle for literacy.

Take, for instance, the fact that our libraries have available for free access to computers and high-speed Internet. Computers and the Internet are blamed by many for the literacy decline because people eschew their newspapers and magazines in favor of news Web sites, blogs and web-browsing. Now, novels and non-fiction books are available for download and reading on the Internet itself.

It would be easy for a person to say this Internet and computer availability works against the very cause libraries would seem to promote. But I have seen that, in many instances, the reverse is true.

Don’t get me wrong. “Reading” a computer screen that has generated its information from the Internet isn’t the same thing as reading a book, magazine or newspaper. It’s more like browsing for information, which many studies have proven to be true.

Sustained, concentrated reading on computer screens doesn’t produce the same sort of results as reading from a book or printed object.

It’s reading, perhaps, but it isn’t literacy.

But by having these computers and Internet access in our libraries we are bringing many people into libraries who may have never entered libraries before. Use figures at libraries throughout Grand County, and particularly in Granby, bear this out. Library usage numbers are increasing, partly because of the computer and Internet access.

These are people who may have never entered a library if not for those assets.

So, computers and the Internet get these people in the door. Then what? Well, there’s curiosity. And curiosity can help make web browsers into readers. And when curiosity strikes while staring at computer screen in the library, the method to satisfy that curiosity is right there. Books, magazines and newspapers abound in our libraries for those who want to know more than what some blathering blogger might be extolling or condemning on the World Wide Web.

Then these people read because they browsed. This, I would argue, is a good thing in the fight against literacy. Libraries can help make this connection that links browsing the web and reading for literacy.

But there’s more our libraries do in the fight against illiteracy. They are creating central spaces in our towns where people can share ideas, interact and socialize. The libraries are more than mere repositories of books or buildings for Internet access.

They are social and cultural centers.

Just consider the book clubs, art shows, film events, children’s programs and other special programs that take place in our libraries. These are all activities that make literacy thrive in our communities. Reading a book or a magazine can make an individual literate, but it’s community interaction derived from books, newspapers and magazines that makes a community literate.

Individual literacy is one thing. Community literacy is another altogether. Our libraries strive to enhance both.

So while the Internet, film and DVDs may at first glance seem to be the enemies of society’s need to promote reading and literacy, the truth is those assets can work to encourage reading. Libraries help make it clear that without books, magazines and newspapers the World Wide Web and the film industry wouldn’t be what they are today.

That connection is made every day @ Your Library in the ongoing effort to improve literacy in America and Grand County.


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