We Need Public Libraries

By Maia Baker ’19, Opinion Columnist

Reading is one of the basic requirements of existence in most parts of the world. We read emails; road signs; billboards; books; medicine instructions; menus. But none of this information is accessible with only a low level of literacy. And if this kind of daily reading is difficult, forget about most jobs. Filling out paperwork, reading instructions and producing written material constitute the basic tasks of all kinds of job. For those with low literacy, these tasks can be all but impossible.

In 2003, up to 23% of American adults had limited or no reading skills. 1 in 7 adults operate at the “lowest level” of literacy, meaning that while they can glean basic information from some printed material, they may not be able to read the side effects or instructions on prescribed medicine, follow written directions to a location, or read something like this article (National Center for Literacy Statistics). These adults face immeasurable structural barriers to improving their lives. In a cruel but predictable twist, adults with no basic literacy at all face health care expenses that can be six times higher than for other adults. One study found that Medicaid participants with the lowest literacy spent, on average, $13,000 annually on medical costs, where the average participant only spent $3,000. Higher literacy often correlates with earlier treatment of diseases; the lower the literacy level among adults, the higher the proportion of heart disease or diabetes.

Women with low literacy often endure the most vulnerability to poverty and are more likely than men to read at low levels, to live in poverty, and to suffer from poor health. Women make up 70% of adults without any basic literacy, constitute almost 2/3 of the minimum wage workforce, and, if they dropped out of high school, earn only 70% the income of men with equivalent education, an inflated wage gap compared to the average gendered earnings disparity. Frighteningly, higher infant mortality is directly linked to less education (and thus lower literacy). Women, already a disadvantaged population, disproportionately suffer from the direct effects of low literacy.

Enter possibly the best method of promoting adult literacy: the public library. The ability to access reliable news sources, and especially to judge the reliability of any news content, has become one of the major issues in today’s political America: with more adults and children learning basic Internet literacy, improving their capacity to think deeply about any given information, and growing into independent thinkers, election cycles will become more accessible to larger numbers of better-informed voters. This triple increase means a vastly improved political engagement within communities and more representative elections. An informed populace underlies the health of a whole country: but when only 1 in 7 adult members of the populace can’t read, an informed populace is impossible.

As America becomes increasingly diverse, immigrants still face obstacles as they work toward stability. In 1997, 21.7% of immigrant households were in poverty, compared to 12% of all households. Low literacy perpetuates a cycle of poverty that adults with higher literacy and English fluency can escape more easily. A national survey found that 35% of adults in programs for English as a second language reported “increased employability” after their programs. For those who have difficulty finding such programs or can’t afford them, public libraries are free. The combined information and opportunities in these community centers can mean the difference between poverty and stability, minimum wage and a career. For families and individuals, libraries offer the chance to work against obstacles and achieve the dreams they set out to accomplish.

Literacy connects directly to financial success – reading more easily means the likelihood of making more money. The National Adult Literacy Survey found that although ability to read may not lead directly to higher salaries, an inability to read precludes that higher earning potential – though you may not automatically earn more with higher literacy, you won’t be able to earn as much without it.

Libraries that encourage literacy also foster powerful personal empowerment. An improvement in the basic skills needed to live and work leads to increased self-esteem, secure employment and higher financial status. ProLiteracy America found that three-quarters of adults with improved literacy reported improvements in their roles as parents, workers and citizens, and that increased literacy led directly to increased self-advocacy, the kind of social development that adults often crave but have trouble enacting. One study found that voter registration increased by 13% after literacy programs. Most importantly, perhaps, reading makes people not only smarter and more capable but feel smarter and more capable. A community of readers is more politically engaged, personally successful and publically supportive. Libraries cultivate this kind of community in their outreach and accessibility. We need these libraries, places of learning, achievement and imagination. We all need libraries not just to house our books but to keep our dreams.