Literacy Is About People, Not Books

I've read Jacques Poitras' book The Right Fight. It's about the changes in the provincial conservative party between the time of Richard Hatfield and that of Bernard Lord.

It is an informative read. In places, it's quite exciting. I look forward to reading his more recent book on Lord Beaverbrook and his legacy in this province.

Both books were published by Goose Lane, a Fredericton based publishing house. Over the years, Goose Lane has received support from the provincial government department responsible for culture and, apparently, put it to good use. I'm glad for that.

But this is not literacy.

I actually use some of the history and stories from The Right Fight in my adult GED prep classes. I also encourage learners to borrow the book from the library or our classroom.

But it's still not literacy.

A couple of years ago, I routinely waved my arms about ever-broadening definitions of literacy. "When everything becomes 'literacy'" I said, in my crankiest voice, "there will be no money and no support for old fashioned things like helping adults learn to read and write."

I would wave my arms, and my friends would say "Put your arms down - we're in a public building", and then, after awhile, I stopped worrying about it.

Promoting books and reading.

Recently, the Dept. of Wellness, Culture and Sport announced a promotion campaign for New Brunswick authors, publishers and booksellers. This campaign will appear mostly online or in schools and libraries, with some extra money given to local publishers and independent bookstores who want to expand their online presence (I think) or get some translation done. The dollar figure, $555,000 over several years, isn't much - that's the cost of about one kilometer of divided highway - and may well be federal money in some form, or maybe from the Microsoft/Gates foundation people that the premier was talking to 6 or 7 months ago.

The announcement came in the form of a document released by the Hon. H├ędard Albert (Minister of WCS), that is titled Creating a Culture of Books and Reading - The New Brunswick Book Policy. It happened in Dieppe (southwestern NB) and, we're told, he "was joined by representatives from the arts and literary community from across New Brunswick."

The workplan part of the document press release is short on actual objectives (activities). Under the goal "Improve access to books, and foster reading in the public library system" is another goal disguised as an objective "Enhance the presence and visibility of New Brunswick books in the province's public libraries and bookmobiles." But these are both goals - not objectives (i.e., not statements of who, where, when, what or how) - and you can reverse them without consequence:

Improve access to books, and foster reading in the public library system.
* Enhance the presence and visibility of New Brunswick books in the province's public libraries and bookmobiles.

Enhance the presence and visibility of New Brunswick books in the province's public libraries and bookmobiles.
* Improve access to books, and foster reading in the public library system.

Here's the objective that is meant to reach both those goals: Promote New Brunswick authors and New Brunswick publications made available through the public library network by creating a public, interactive, online resource on the New Brunswick Public Library Service website.

(Ah, yes. Increase access by creating a website. How very familiar. We must be in New Brunswick, land of the information highway but almost no community. Ooops. Did I say that out loud?)

Anyway, my point is that this is a reasonable and appropriate undertaking for a government department responsible for culture. That's culture, not literacy, nor education. It's the arts and heritage and history and NB's sense of itself.

So why are literacy people being asked to comment on it?

This is not literacy.

Mostly, people are misled by that dreadful title: Creating a Culture of Books and Reading. (Hasn't anyone told the minister that, whatever else it does, the department of culture should never be seen "creating a culture.") Since it's got the words "reading" and "books" in it, some people think it must be related to literacy.

Also, because the published "action plan" has these six goals (goals, people - not objectives*):
  • to foster the development and visibility of New Brunswick books through increased support for writers and publishers;
  • to improve access to books and to foster reading in the public library system;
  • to introduce measures to ensure increased access to books throughout New Brunswick;
  • to give a predominant place to books, particularly New Brunswick books, and to reading, at all levels of education;
  • to encourage New Brunswickers to further integrate books and the joy of reading into their daily lives; and
  • to make access to books and reading a widespread and ongoing commitment within the provincial government.
However, contrary to fashionable belief, not all things bookish or having to do with reading are literacy related. Nor does more reading mean more literacy. UNB's Law Library is full of books: that doesn't make it a literacy resource. The Telegraph-Journal, our provincial English-language newspaper, publishes more locally written words per year than any NB author or printing house, but it's not a literacy resource. In fact, it and it's publisher's attitude, are very nearly obstacles to higher literacy rates.

(Today's paper gave us the shocking and inexplicable news that no one has ever done any research in reading methods or how children learn to read; inexplicable, not least, because of the dozens of times the same paper has reported on 'new' research into reading methods or how children learn to read.)

This book-culture-thingy announcement is fine, but it isn't a pro-literacy or literacy-support undertaking, and ought not be viewed as such. If the literacy field is asked about it, I think we should all look puzzled and say "That sounds interesting, but the economics of book publishing and promotion really isn't my field." If pressed we might ask why anyone would think promoting New Brunswick authors online or in libraries was related to literacy work.

Hopefully, no one will say "Oh that's great! More books will really be great for literacy!"

Hopefully. Because the more things we identify as literacy, the harder it will be to gather resources for the simple work of helping people learn to read and write.

Okay. I'm putting my arms down now.

* Here's how I learned it while studying at the feet of Health Canada.

Though people use "goal" and "objective" interchangeably, in work-plan or action-plan writing they are intended to have different meanings. A "goal" is something we want to create or happen. An "objective" is a measurable step or activity that will realize a goal.

A goal is "increase readership of NB authors." An objective is "create and deliver promotional displays for 20 NB authors in every main-branch public library in the province." The crucial difference is measurability. You can always tell with certainty whether or not an objective has been completed. You can rarely tell if a goal has been reached.

Hence, it's effective to evaluate projects on the basis of a) are their objectives likely to result in their goal, and b) did they reach their objectives. Not that anyone will actually evaluate this project, but that's another post....

1 comment:

Chris Jackson said...

Nice post, Wendell. It's an old-fashioned, compromised view isn't it, the equation of literacy and reading books. I have come across the occasional adult literacy learner who wants to read books, or read books better, and I've come across a few who have ended up enjoying books. But most need help with all those multifarious and ever-increasing intersections between written words and their lives.