Posted on 8 September 2014 - By Guy Daines

International Literacy Day: the library’s role in promoting literacies

Today is International Literacy Day. It reminds us that promoting and sustaining literacy is one of the critical roles of libraries. Our strength lies in the fact that we are really about literacies, all those skills individuals need to participate effectively in an information society.

Reading ability may be at the centre of this but digital and information literacies are also essential life skills of today and underpin lifelong learning. Libraries provide a holistic approach embracing all these literacies (and often others such as health or financial literacy) and so help equip the citizen, consumer, employee and learner of today.

Linking the Literacies

This relationship between basic literacy skills and more “advanced” literacy skills was a theme of last year’s International Literacy Day that focused on the “literacies for the 21st century”.

It helps to see the link between these literacies if more current definitions of reading literacy are understood. No longer is reading just about decoding symbols on a page and giving them meaning but it is described, for instance, in PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Draft Literacy Programme 2015 (see paragraph 30) as: 

“Reading literacy is understanding, using, reflecting on and engaging with written texts, in order to achieve one’s goals, to develop one’s knowledge and potential, and to participate in society”.

This more dynamic definition has similarities to CILIP’s definition of information literacy. It combines aspects of reflection and evaluation with a strong sense of purpose. It can be seen as a fundamental building block for information literacy which we define as, “knowing when and why you need information, where to find it, and how to evaluate, use and communicate it in an ethical manner"


The recent report of the EU High Level Group of Experts on Literacy (2012), chaired by H.R.H. Princess Laurentien of the Netherlands, has been important in stimulating greater awareness of literacy problems across Europe and a bigger determination to address them.

It sets out the grim statistics that an estimated 20% of all adults in Europe lack the literacy skills to function fully in society with a similar percentage of 15 year olds having poor reading skills. In the UK the statistics are equally embarrassing and shaming for one of the most prosperous countries in the world: according to the National Literacy Trust report, “Literacy, State of the Nation” (2012), 16% of adults have a literacy level at or below that of an 11 year old and, similarly, 16% of 11 year olds do not reach the expected reading level for that age.

One response of the EU to the literacy challenge has been the ELINET (European Literacy Policy Network) project. This was set up in February this year and involves 79 partners across 28 EU countries. It has been set up to gather and analyse policy information on literacy within the EU, exchange policy approaches and good practice and raise awareness of the importance of  acting now to reduce the number of children, young people and adults with low literacy skills by 2020.

The library interest is represented by EBLIDA (European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations). But it is the only library organisation and so much of its work will be advocating the role (and successes) of libraries in addressing literacy problems to a community of educationalists, researchers and subject activists, as well as engaging the library community in the project’s work. 

EBLIDA is presenting the library contribution within the broader concept of literacies and is drafting a statement on library and literacies. ELINET will certainly be covering digital reading but it is unclear how much further it will go in addressing digital literacy. 

Another response to the report of the High Level Group of Experts on Literacy has been the formation of Literacy for All, a European Library Network and their conference at Botkyrka, Sweden in June.

The Library Story

It is important that libraries shout about their work in promoting literacy. Within the UK public libraries, and libraries in schools, further and higher education and community learning institutions all play an important part.

The Reading Agency, National Literacy Trust and others support libraries in these tasks and, in England, the Society of Chief Librarians have developed the four public library universal offers – reading, digital, health and information – all of which resonate with the literacies agenda, although the first two especially so. Wales and Scotland are both a step ahead with their respective national information literacy strategies.

CILIP is focusing on digital inclusion and also information literacy in the workplace through its Information Literacy Project, chaired by CILIP President, Barbara Band. But it is conscious of the interdependencies between the various literacies and the need for them all if people are to engage effectively in today’s society.

International Literacy Day 2015

Next year the International Literacy Day will also be the European Literacy Day and a major showcase for the ELINET project. Let’s ensure that libraries play a prominent role in it!

How important is the library's role in promoting literacies? How is that role changing? Let us know what you think in the comments below


Image source: This work, "alphabet-blocks", is a derivative of "Alphabet Blocks" by lwr, used under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. "alphabet-blocks" is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 by CILIP.

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