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Catching them in the cradle: family literacy programs.

Families are raising children under changed social circumstances and are often needing more flexible formal and informed social support. Public libraries are ideally placed to extend the social investment that communities make in their young people. Their role in providing family literacy programs that introduce children and their parents to literacy development is fundamental. Edited version of a paper given at the Western Australian Local Government Librarians Association conference March 2003


In a speech to the Australian House of Representatives in August 2002 Mark Latham asserted that 'If young Australians are to get a good start if life, they need access not just to good local schools but also to good local libraries'. (1) In his opening address to the sixth national conference of the Children's Book Council of Australia His Excellency Lieutenant General John Sanderson, Governor of Western Australia, said 'We know that reading is one of life's essential skills. Research shows that children and teens who read have higher IQs, are more creative, do better in school, and get higher paying jobs.' (2)

Investing in human capital

The prosperity of today's society is drawn from its human capital. There is no doubt that as we progress through the twenty first century there are increasingly compelling reasons for governments to invest in resources that will instil in citizens an ability to acquire the knowledge and skills for lifelong learning. Good literacy skills are not only an essential foundation for performance in formal education but also a prerequisite for successful participation in all areas of adult life. In particular, children must receive the information literacy development they need to recognise their need for, and to handle, the variety and abundance of written information that they will encounter throughout their lives. The opportunities that children receive in their early years will impact substantially on their opportunities in later life. Providing these falls primarily to parents.

The role of the public library

Families today are raising children under very different social circumstances to previous generations. Because of this, they often require more flexible combinations of formal and informal social support. Public libraries are ideally placed to extend the social investment that communities make in their young people.

To remain relevant and sustain its value the public library needs to anticipate and respond to the needs of its community. Public libraries play a vital role in strengthening communities and enhancing the individual's quality of life. Their role in offering family literacy programs that introduce children and their parents to literature and libraries is fundamental.

Social inclusion is a core tenet of public libraries as well as being central to all family literacy projects. For public libraries looking to establish community partnerships, the areas of emergent and family literacy lend themselves to development by an agency that is already established as a community hub. Public librarians must respond creatively and imaginatively to meet the changing demands. Well trained, well informed, library staff are catalysts for learning. By developing skills and knowledge in this area, they add value to the work they do and the difference they make in inspiring and developing literate young Australians.

Public libraries in Western Australia have long been committed to the delivery of excellent services to young people, developing a continuum of programs ranging from those for babies and their parents through to literature based activities for young adults. Their engagement with the early years agenda is widespread and varied. It does not follow one template but rather addresses the requirements of individual communities. While this effort has been laudable, in many cases it has focused on inhouse presentations which primarily target those who are already library users and who realise the value of reading.

The excluded

What about those children and their families that do not share a reading culture and have no experience of public libraries? One obvious way to identify and connect with these families is to collaborate with local agencies already working with them. There are also opportunities to work together with colleagues from around the state, as well as those in the rest of Australia and overseas, to build on existing potential. This will enable public libraries to play a key role in supporting children's development, improve their reading skills and help them to grow intellectually, socially and culturally. Additionally it will create new opportunities to reach out to the children who are at the greatest risk of not developing early literacy skills.


Public library staff have considerable experience with networking that helps them to develop and deliver services. Over many years, staff have established collaborative strategies through formal and informal channels to optimise time and resources and achieve positive outcomes for the users they serve. In Western Australia, many young peoples services librarians have established solid professional alliances and have built an impressive portfolio of partners and established networks which provide a wide range of services for young people of all ages, as well as their families.

There is a network of young peoples services librarians who meet regularly to support one another in developing innovative and unique library services to young people. This longstanding network has done much to address issues of isolation and professional mentoring, as well as providing a vehicle for information sharing.


The Nestle Write around Australia program, widely acknowledged as a model partnership between government and business, is fast approaching its tenth anniversary. Nestle Australia contributes around $1m each year to support visits by Australian authors to public libraries, prizes, travel and a media campaign associated with the program.

Additionally this money pays for three librarians at the State Library of New South Wales to coordinate the program. At Nestle Australia--as well as in schools, government and in the community--there is wide recognition of the powerful role that the program plays in ensuring that children are provided with opportunities to develop their literacy skills during the critical years of primary school education, regardless of their economic circumstances or physical isolation.

Another long established partnership developed by young peoples services librarians is that with the Children's Book Council (CBC). For more than 20 years the State Library and public libraries have partnered with the Western Australian branch of the Book Council to obtain grants to run an extensive outreach program to celebrate Children's Book Week. Each year public libraries in around 35 local government areas provide in kind and financial support to reach out and provide young people with an opportunity to experience literature in an atmosphere of celebration that encourages them to read and write. In 2002 over 43,500 children participated in Children's Book Week events run by Western Australian public libraries. The CBC distributed almost $45,000 in grant funding to public libraries to help fund this program.

Excellent programs such as these are an investment with a large return to all parts of society. In Western Australia there is a growing awareness, at a state and local level, of the value of forming new partnerships to encourage literacy skills in its young people.

Partnerships will have an increasing strategic importance in delivering children's services and maintaining the role of public libraries in providing services to children in their early years, particularly those hardest to reach families in our community. In other countries, including the UK and US, the expansion of early years activities has been supported extensively by noncore funding and the creation of strategic partnerships. In Australia, we have yet to fully realise the opportunities that exist to harness funding through community partnerships in order to support an expansion of services in this area.

Partnerships in the UK

Local partnership opportunities are extremely valuable. Experience overseas shows that positive outcomes from small local programs often lead to more extensive projects. For example in Northamptonshire, Sainsburys sponsored local libraries' summer reading challenge for a number of years. When the chain agreed to sponsor the national BookStart project in 2000, local managers already had a good working relationship with the libraries. This in turn, led to positive outcomes for both parties. For the libraries, the project introduced an innovative and very successful program that encouraged parents to help their children to learn to love reading. For Sainsburys, the special relationships forged with libraries in the heart of the community has brought an increased profile and demonstrated the company's commitment to local communities.

There are other examples of successful UK partnerships. The mobile phone company Orange supports Chatterbooks, a national network of children's reading groups, held in public libraries for 4-12 year olds. British energy supplier Powergen has invested almost 1m [pounds sterling] over the past three years in research and reading initiatives including a program of nationwide reading events in public libraries. In June 2002 Powergen extended its support to the Prince of Wales Arts and Kids Foundation pledging sponsorship to develop reading initiatives and promote storytelling in libraries and the community.

One of the most successful features of the UK's 1999 National Year of Reading was the Asda Big Read program. This was a two week event drawing the attention of parents to the benefits of reading with their children. Asda, a national supermarket chain, was the major partner. Over 4,500 libraries participated by giving staff time and expertise to the project. Asda staff committed considerable time and energy to the scheme, and the company sponsored special reading events featuring authors and local personalities, reading competitions and sessions with librarians offering information and advice on reading. The project reached over six million shoppers, and there was a big flow on effect on public library membership. Outcomes for Asda included an immediate increase in sales of children's books as well as establishing new contacts in government and an increased profile in the community.

The advocacy challenge

Public libraries play an essential role in providing an opportunity for as many children as possible, regardless of socioeconomic status, to achieve their full potential as readers. Research shows that establishing programs that encourage reading and educate parents is one of the most effective ways to leverage social change. The challenge is to have public libraries recognised as leaders in these crucial areas.

A recent study from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), published late in 2002, tested the reading literacy levels of students aged 15 in 32 countries. It examined how well they used written materials to meet the challenges of the real world and to become lifelong learners. It reported that
 The most striking result ... is the difference
 between students who are more 'engaged' in
 reading and those who are less so. Those who
 express positive attitudes to reading are on
 average much better readers. The analysis also
 indicates that the reading engagement can to
 some extent compensate for the disadvantage in
 student's social background (3)

We know from Australian and other research, such as Young Australians reading, (4) that children who are engaged as readers tend to come from families where reading is modelled by parents. The OECD report reasons 'This result underlines the critical importance to school systems of developing curricula that will interest students as well as instruct them'. Yet nowhere in the 262 page report does it recognise the role that public libraries play in engaging children in the reading habit. Clearly, advocacy is needed to support the mainstreaming of family literacy programs in public libraries and to promote the value of these programs. Public libraries must ensure that government, business and the community make the connection with libraries and that they are not left out of the loop when family literacy programs are initiated.

Although there is a growing recognition of the value of literacy programs, public libraries are often not seen as a primary player in their delivery. To take advantage of this growing awareness, public librarians need to define their purpose and show this to administrators and government in a context that demonstrates how they and users can benefit from their services. Government and private sector organisations are not overly interested in good library services and programs because they want good libraries. Rather, it is because they want young people who can read better, learn more and be better citizens. If the role of public libraries in achieving this can be sold it will provide opportunities to leverage funding and resources to further develop their services.

What the public library offers

Library staff offer skills as information managers and a knowledge of literacy in the early years that is attractive to partners. In Western Australia there are public librarians whose skills, knowledge and expertise is acknowledged in their community by parents, children, teachers and other professionals working with young people and their families. Often, however, libraries do not recognise and exploit this. With the support of library managers and staff, there are many young peoples services librarians capable of researching, planning and implementing excellent literacy education services.

An educational role

Public libraries have done themselves a significant disservice by playing down their educational role. In the desire not to be the primary library for students, they have emphasised that, while they support lifelong learning, they do not provide the resources for formal education. Indeed, librarians are not teachers but they should be playing an essential role as educators by designing and delivering emergent literacy programs for young children as well as educating parents in their role as their child's first teacher. It is clear that this is a role of increasing importance for library professionals who have the right blend of skills and expertise in delivering literacy education services.

The early years of childhood

Educationalists recognise that children learn more in their first five years than at any other time in their lives. Children who are read to, learn to read more easily and those who have varied and stimulating preschool experiences are more likely to fit into life at school without difficulty. This, in turn, leads to improved life chances. Obviously a child's parents are instrumental in how this learning takes place. However many parents need encouragement and support in providing early learning experiences for their child. Many adults who are not readers themselves are aware of the importance of reading in their own children's lives. They are keen for their children to have opportunities they did not have and are attracted by public library programs that improve their confidence and ability to succeed as their child's first teacher. For this reason parent education should be a fundamental role of all early childhood programs.

The potential for funding public library initiated family literacy programs is great. There are young peoples services librarians with the knowledge and enthusiasm to develop and deliver them. As well there is government acknowledgment and a societal willingness to recognise the role played by the family in early childhood education. This intensification in the recognition of the value of family literacy programs is built on solid foundations. Integrated family literacy programs have proven to be more effective than traditional approaches to adult education, early childhood education or standalone parent programs. The involvement of all family members increases commitment and achievement. It also produces a positive attitude and an ongoing, supportive family environment.

The role of government

Librarians must ensure that government automatically makes the link between literacy and public libraries when planning and delivering policies. Current government strategies to address literacy problems usually focus on primary and early secondary education. These fail to recognise that when a child begins school without good emergent literacy skills, he or she is already significantly disadvantaged. Family literacy programs that are developed and delivered by public libraries should play a central role in linking with these school programs and in supporting formal education.

Through family literacy programs that work to develop self direction and social competence in young children and in their parents, public libraries have the potential to lay a firm foundation to become the principal participant in early years and parent education. By forging new partnerships with community agencies, libraries will be better able to respond to the needs and interests of young people and provide the bonus of enriching library services to communities.

Progress in WA

Public libraries in Western Australia are already offering programs that support family literacy. As recently as 1999 the only widespread core family literacy program was storytime, usually a weekly program at which library staff in metropolitan and larger regional libraries read stories to young children.

Staff at the State Library of Western Australia recognised the value of these programs in fostering a positive attitude towards books, libraries and reading and in developing young children's literacy skills, as well as modelling a positive reading experience to parents.

To extend these programs to small country libraries, State Library staff developed travelling storytime kits. These make it easy for staff and volunteers to introduce children and their parents to a wide range of good books for young children. They also promote story sessions in public libraries as a recognised and valued activity that encourages reading to children. The kits have proven outstandingly successful. Since the launch of the first three kits in April 2000, 63 country libraries have used them to establish a storytime program.

Other excellent examples of public library driven family literacy programs are the BookStart style projects in the Shire of Collie and the cities of Swan and Stirling. Libraries in these local government areas have introduced programs aimed at new parents to encourage them to read to their young children. This has forged natural links with community health services that has extended their reach and has begun to build social support networks for children and their families. These programs have gone from strength to strength, and other metropolitan and country library systems have used them as models to establish their own programs.

With this experience, the West Australian public library network has a base with the potential to develop leading edge programs in family centred library services and community coalitions that support and educate families and preschool children.

In 2002 the State Library of Western Australia partnered with the Western Australian Local Government Librarians Association in a grant application to the private sector to establish a statewide family literacy program. This was unsuccessful but valuable lessons have been learnt. This experience will be built on to take advantage of new opportunities.

Where to from here?

The existing local programs in WA and elsewhere have done much to establish public libraries as valuable community partners. The expertise gained by public librarians running these programs can be used to plan and establish improved programs and services in the area. Sustainability remains a key issue in maintaining these programs. Often the partnerships established to deliver the programs rely on the enthusiasm and good will of individuals within agencies, and the service crumbles when these people move on.

Funding is a recurring challenge. Libraries need to broaden their vision and increase their profile with the corporate and government sectors to establish public libraries as central partners in developing literacy and lifelong learning prospects. By working to establish a statewide focus for a family literacy program, they broaden their appeal to corporate and government partners and also have the opportunity to add real value to literacy efforts right around Western Australia, and Australia as a whole.

Strengthening the partnerships

By working together as a sector public libraries can build stronger partnership networks that will produce collaborative and cooperative practice among like minded agencies. Implementation of the statewide marketing campaign @your library will certainly create opportunities by raising the profile of public libraries. They will need to be ready to take full advantage of these to initiate mutually beneficial partnerships and pursue funding opportunities.

The State Library of Western Australia is inviting public libraries to join it on a steering panel with representatives from other key agencies including education, health and community services. This panel will advocate for the importance of launching an emergent and family literacy program that will educate children in their preschool years and assist parents in their role as the primary teachers of their young children. Libraries can share their expertise and contacts to lobby and inform influential individuals, as well as the corporate and government sectors, to establish an effective and sustainable literacy program.

By working to establish relationships with other agencies, they can achieve new ways to fulfil and extend their reach to nontraditional library users and expand their mission. These, in turn, can lead to new relationships that strengthen social networks in communities. Through these coalitions, they will establish family literacy programs that will provide the connecting link between the library, the family and the community.

Changing young lives

In an address to the 2000 UK Public Library Association conference Neil McClelland, director of the National Literacy Trust, referred to a partnership he had reached with the coffee company Starbucks in which public libraries would be key players. He said
 ... when I knew less about the work of libraries
 across the country I would not, I think, have
 proposed the library model as the best way
 forward. I would have been wrong. But I think
 libraries are also moving forward very fast with
 new resolve and imagination. They are now for
 me an absolutely key resource in the national
 drive to raise literacy standards.

In Western Australia libraries can work together to generate this sort of confidence and recognition amongst government, business and those in the community who are passionate about, and influential in, early childhood programs.

If they can do this, they have a unique opportunity to offer a socially inclusive service that encourages ongoing, lifelong literacy, links with libraries that will connect with families and change young lives.


(1) Latham, M Parliamentary debates, House of Representatives Hansard online Monday 19 August 2002 p4812

(2) Children's Book Council of Australia Write/right/rite at the edge: proceedings of the sixth national conference of the Children's Book Council of Australia, Perth Western Australia 2002 Perth, Children's Book Council of Australia WA branch 2002

(3) Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development Reading for change: performance and engagement across countries: results from the program for international student assessment 2000 London, OECD 2002

(4) Woolcott Research Pty Ltd Young Australians reading: from keen to reluctant readers Melbourne, The Australian Centre for Youth Literature 2001

Prior to joining the State Library Service of Western Australia, Sue North worked for a number of years in Western Australian public libraries, mainly specializing in children's and young adult services. She is a long time committee member of the Children's Book Council and a past president of the Alia Children's and Youth Services Section. Sue has a long held interest in the delivery of public library services, particularly those to young people and their families. Address: State Library of WA Perth Cultural Centre Perth WA 6000
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Author:North, Sue
Publication:Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Jun 1, 2003
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