How to Learn to Read

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The other day there was a girl sitting in the insaka. The insaka is one of the library buildings, a small, round, open space where children often gather. It's a "lobby" of sorts, and there are usually people sitting in the insaka, or playing soccer in the insaka. This was nothing out of the ordinary. And what happened next wasn't anything unusual either: Brenda, a staff member at the Fountain of Hope library, went out and sat next to the girl. Why didn't she come inside the reading room? Brenda asked.

The girl's answer was simple: she didn't know how to read. She felt embarrassed going into the reading room and flipping through the pages of a book she couldn't understand. She was too old for picture books.

What did the library have to offer her?

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Brenda told her about LubutoLiteracy, a series of computer-based literacy lessons in each of Zambia's seven major local languages that she could access for free in the libraries. The girl wasn't interested-- those were also for young children, she felt. She was too old to sit in a room full of children and use the little OLPC laptops to learn to read.

Okay, Brenda said, then I'll help you learn to read.

My first thought after hearing about this encounter was, "I wonder how long that girl would have had to sit in the lobby of a public library in the United States before someone would have come out and offered to teach her to read." It's not a perfect comparison, I know-- but the situation struck me in the moment because it seemed so out of the ordinary. I was lucky enough to intern at one of the best public libraries in the area where I live this spring, working with children's librarians who were skilled, passionate, and dedicated. But we did not wander the building looking for children who might be reluctant to come and read. We did not offer to impart spur-of-the-moment, one-on-one literacy lessons to struggling readers.

There are a lot of reasons for this, which is why I say it's not fair to make an instant comparison. One big reason is because in American public libraries children come accompanied by parents. Children aren't even allowed in my hometown's public library unless they're accompanied by an adult, and it's the parents who manage the library experience. The parents ask the reference questions. The parents help the children find books. If a child can't read, or is reading below grade level, the parent is the one asking for a book at lexile whatever, preferably with characters from Ninjago.

In Zambia, again for lots of reasons, children usually come to Lubuto Libraries without adults. Some of them come from nearby schools and some of them live in the neighborhood. Many of them have parents who work hard all day just to make ends meet, and some of them don't have parents at all. Regardless of the reason, when children come to the library without parents it thrusts librarians into a different type of role. And it could be just that-- it could be a role that you as a librarian felt was thrust upon you. Or it could be an opportunity to reach out as Brenda did-- to go beyond the bounds of the reading room, to find a reluctant child and to connect with her, to help her in a real, personal way. And while Brenda’s story seemed remarkable to me, it really isn’t anything unusual at Lubuto. I’ve since heard lots of similar stories about other staff members and other children, and this is just the one that happened to stick with me.

In library school we talk a lot about information needs. It's kind of a dry, academic idea-- just ask someone, "what are your information needs?" and see how useful of an answer you get. In an interview with a staff member recently we were discussing the information needs of children and the person I was interviewing asked me a good question. What exactly counts as an information need? Can the desire to hear a story that captures your imagination be considered an "information need" in the same way that learning where to access school scholarships is an information need? What about the need for a caring, patient adult to spend time with you? It may not be an information need as such, yet it is a need, something that brings children running eagerly into the library and keeps them there. But it's for the children who are just taking the first faltering steps-- who are sitting in the insaka and afraid to approach the reading room, or standing outside the gates-- that those caring, patient adults are the most essential. For those children the library staff members are a bridge that connects them not just to "information" or "services," but to the Lubuto Library community and all of its resources-- print and digital and human alike.

That girl probably hasn't learned to read yet. It's a process, after all. But the most difficult part of that process, I suspect, isn't learning to decode words or sound them out. I suspect the most difficult part of that process is getting past the voices of self-doubt in your head that tell you you can't learn, you're too old, people will laugh at you, there's no one to help. And I imagine that it would take hearing another voice, a patient, compassionate voice saying something like, "I'll teach you to read," to give you the courage to start.