The Public Library And Popular Culture: A Strategy For Improving Literacy
One strategy that is useful for public libraries that attempt to improve literacy is to partake in the popular culture of their communities. Library use will be increased, and reading skills will be raised, if the library becomes a focus of the communitys traditions and crafts. Specific programs are suggested to carry out this concept. Among these programs are the creation of resource files on community artists, authors, storytellers, and other representatives of the culture; and facilitating access to cultural information. Reading matter can be produced to match the reading skills most typical in the community. Success of this program in Colombia suggests that the image of the library is enhanced at the same time that reading and use of the library are increased.
Underdevelopment and poverty are related to the high rate of illiteracy, estimated by UNESCO as 38.2% of the Third World population. Latin America has 42.8% of all the adult nonliterates. The problem is concentrated in Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, EI Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala; but there are also large nonliterate indigenous populations, especially in Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador. Most nonliterates are over 40 years of age. Fortunately school attendance is increasing at all levels in Latin America, so that the possibility of illiteracy among young people is limited to those in isolated areas or those with learning difficulties.
Among the factors contributing to the high rate of illiteracy are the disparities between urban and rural communities, school dropouts, a lack of education in parents, poverty, lack of public services, and a shortage of competent personnel who are willing to work in rural areas. In declaring 1990 the Year of Literacy, UNESCO has called on leaders of all nations to mobilize resources and develop projects to deal with factors such as these.
One approach that seems useful is for public libraries to partake in the recognition and revitalization of popular culture. By drawing on this fundamental human activity, libraries can inspire motivation to read. Although there are many other ideas and programs for reducing illiteracy, there appear to be none that derive from the identity of the local communities. But the traditional culture of a people is the principal gateway to understanding their specific characteristics.
The mere ability to read does not prepare a person to participate fully in society. Functional illiteracy may remain an inability to comprehend written materials in areas of ones interests. Indeed this form of illiteracy is a problem in the developed nations as well as in the Third World. A difficulty in assisting functional illiterates is the lack of appropriate written materials, at a level that meets both the reading needs and the interests of those concerned.
Some experience in Tanzania and Gambia has suggested the value of folktales and oral history in reaching the desired combination of factors. 
The Role of the Public Library
Every community has a mode of creative expression that persists through time and is manifested in various ways. This mode results in a popular culture that gives identity to a region. "It is obvious that the volume and the preferences of readers are associated with the style and mode of participation of each person in the culture."  The public library needs to consider the cultural characteristics of its community, in order to help preserve tradition and to enrich it. By offering written and audiovisual materials related to folk activity, materials that take into account the levels of comprehension of the users, the library can promote reading and also serve an unquestioned historical purpose.
These goals are appropriate for the public library:
- To promote the understanding and diffusion of national culture and local cultures in order to strengthen national and regional identity;
- To stimulate participation of its own community in the activities that represent its cultural patrimony;
- To serve as the center of information and communication on popular culture, facilitating access to this information by the entire population.
To reach these goals, the library will provide appropriate reading matter on the nature and expression of folk culture. It will also create resource files on artists, authors, storytellers, etc. The library should participate directly in cultural activities by provision of staff, quarters, and equipment. It will promulgate information about distinctive local folk cultures that distinguish the local community. And it will cooperate with other agencies that are charged with the battle against illiteracy.
Some examples of public library activity are support for local artisans through exhibits, presentation of musical events, compilations of oral history through interviews with artists, authors, storytellers, etc., and preparation of background histories on local traditional celebrations. In all cases, the library will seek to utilize themes of local interest in the advancement of reading. But the librarys participation in the community will in itself bring it enhanced attention, and will also lead to greater interest in reading.
Colleagues in Third World countries may find it useful to consider some of the methods of implementing this library activity, as described in a publication of the Instituto Colombiano de Cultura. The librarian begins by surveying the community in order to identify persons who may have books, documents, or related materials. When relevant items are discovered, the librarian arranges to have photocopies made for the library collection. The same survey identifies individuals who have interests or abilities in the area of popular culture, but who are not professionally engaged in pursuing those interests. Names of those persons are the basis for the resource file mentioned above.
The librarian requests copies from publishers of periodicals of any articles, interviews, photographs, etc., that are concerned with local culture. Such articles may be discovered through visits to research libraries, through indexes, or through personal contacts with community members.
Unpublished photographs, slides, videotapes, films, audiotapes, and home recorded phonograph records are of great value if they represent some aspect of the communitys culture. Of course it is necessary to maintain strict criteria in acquiring these media, to be sure that the materials are relevant and that they present some perspectives not already found in commercially published sources.
An interesting file may be created that will direct interested persons to shops that make local artifacts available to the public. This file, arranged by type of object (ceramics, woodwork, glass, fabrics, etc.) and crossindexed by the names of the artisans, is a valuable reference aid, and serves also as a practical guide for persons who wish to make purchases. This information is gathered both from shopkeepers and from the artisans themselves.
Visits to the artisans present opportunities for the librarian to make audiotapes of interviews with them, for the library oral history collection. In conducting such an interview, it is helpful to have in hand a list of questions to ask. By using a list of questions, the interview with one person will be similar in content to the interviews of others, and the recordings made will have a formal historical value. One kind of question that might be overlooked is about the culture of the region; artisans may have useful observations about the work being done by others. An interview requires careful advance preparation, including a definite understanding that the artisan is willing to participate and to devote the necessary time to the effort. If anyone does not wish to be recorded, it will be necessary to take written notes of the conversation.
Concerts, competitions, meetings, and local fairs should be visited by the librarian, and careful systematic notes should be taken about the participants and their contributions. Gatherings such as these offer the opportunity to take photographs or to make videotapes that might otherwise be unavailable. It is recommended that observations made at such events be inscribed on specific forms, so that important data will not be overlooked.
All information acquired by the library needs to be treated professionally. Subject entries and name entries in the public catalogs are necessary, for nonprint materials and printed items, whether published or unpublished. It may be desirable to expand the classification used by the library, and to add new subject headings, to cover all the cultural activities of the community. A detailed list of useful subject headings (in Spanish) is available without cost to librarians in developing countries. Those who would like to have this list may request it from the Editor of Third World Libraries.
This paper began with a discussion of illiteracy. It is proposed here that a useful approach to combatting illiteracy is to find reading matter at the right level of difficulty whose subject is of interest to the person with reading difficulties. Folk culture is a subject of shared interest in a community, so that the presentation of writings about it is likely to be met with positive attitudes.
In Colombia there is a Program for Adult Literacy and Education (other countries have similar agencies). We have oriented our program around a recognition of popular culture, and endeavored to bring about a conjunction between popular knowledge and a more academic knowledge. When we are successful, there is a rise in a reading skill and in self esteem in our communities.
This article is a modified version of a paper presented at the 1990 IFLA Conference in Stockholm.
Francisco Delagado Santos, "Analfabetismo y lectura," in Ellibro en America Latina y el Caribe (Bogotá: CERLALC, 1990), pp. 1419.
John T. Guthrie and Mary Seifert, Medición de la lectura:fundamentos y técnicas (Bogotá: CERLALC/ UNESCO, 1985), p. 37.
Myriam Mejía, La cultura popular y la biblioteca pública (Bogotá: Instituto Colombiano de Cultura, 1990).
About the Author
Myriam Mejía is Subdirectora, Biblioteca Nacional de Colombia, Bogota.
© 1990 Myriam Mejía
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