Waukegan Public Library confronts low literacy rates head on

At the City Council meeting on December 16, 2013, members of the Waukegan Public Library staff presented a statistical overview of the city’s literacy rates and the Library’s vision for the future that prioritizes its commitment to literacy for preschoolers through adults. Also known as “Literacy 2020”, the library’s future direction will concentrate on classes, programs, and resources that help community members be successful as literate individuals, employees, and citizens, regardless of barriers such as language, income, or age.

“A literate community is a successful community,” stated Richard Lee, executive director of the Waukegan Public Library. “Since Andrew Carnegie gave the City of Waukegan the funds to build the first library, we have been in the learning and literacy business. Libraries are not about books, they are about reading, resources, and access to information.”

Over the past year, library staff pulled together data and conducted surveys to determine the levels of literacy in the Waukegan community and what factors contribute to low literacy. Research showed that 17% of Waukegan residents live below the poverty level, higher than the average state level of 13%. “The United Nations defines poverty as a lack of capacity to participate effectively in society,” said Lee. “We know that literacy and the ability to read is a crucial factor in helping residents have more opportunities to be successful and essentially raise them out of the cycle of poverty.”

However, poverty is just one of the causes that hold residents back from being successful. Research pointed to other reasons that include a lack of education, language differences, health issues, and low technology skills, all factors that are related to basic functional and cultural literacy, in essence, knowledge as fundamental as when to go to the doctor, how to read street signs, or even how to print a form from a website.

For the last 30 years, the Waukegan Public Library has maintained literacy programs for adults and families with the help of partner organizations like the Literacy Volunteers of Lake County and outside funding sources. While a component in the overall library mission, literacy services had always taken a back seat to more established library priorities: the collection. Moving forward and away from a more traditional view of the library, Lee announced that the library’s new direction more firmly aligns the library’s own resources, including budget, staff, and space, to literacy. “I guess it’s been one of our best kept secrets, but now will be our number one priority.”

“Our new vision is called the Path to Learning and Literacy and highlights four of the target areas where we feel we can have the most impact and make a difference in the community from birth to adulthood,” said Elizabeth Stearns, Assistant Director of Community Services. Kindergarten Readiness, Grade Level Reading and School Readiness, College and Career Awareness, and Adult and Family Cultural and Functional Literacy are the four major areas that the Library will focus its relevant and innovative programming with the goal to increase literacy levels by 25% by the year 2020.

Summing up the presentation, Lee echoes how vital literacy is to our community. “The ability to read affects everything from graduation rates to employment as well as crime, health care, and our overall standard of living. At the library, we are committed to creating a community of readers from cradle to career. When our residents are successful, our city will be successful.”