“Prime Time Family Reading Time”: Turning Low-literacy Populations into Your Library’s Biggest Fans

As librarians, we tend to take for granted our love of reading. As we gather around our conference, lunch, and dinner tables our conversations often fall back on old favorites we recommend to a reluctant reader, new authors that are going to be the next big thing, and books that surprised our sensibilities or generated controversy. But what if we couldn’t have these conversations? For many adults and children living in our local communities, reading and discussing books is simply not part of their daily lives because of low literacy rates. The Public Programs Office in conjunction with the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities brought this reality to the forefront at today’s program “Prime Time: Family Reading Time.”

PRIME TIME Family Reading Time

Thomas Phelps, long time advocate for PPO’s efforts and Division of Public Programs Director at the NEH, set the stage with a sage quote from Thomas Jefferson that embodies the mission of the NEH and dovetails with the sentiments of most public libraries and librarians: “Democracy demands wisdom and vision in its citizenry.” Lainie Castle, Project Director for the ALA Public Programs Office, re-emphasized the role of the library in creating this type of citizenry and reminded attendees that we can’t expect ready-made literate audiences to appear in droves at our doorsteps. We have to prime them!

This is where the “Prime Time” program has excelled since literacy and libraries became catch-phrase partners in the early 1990’s. The program is designed to reach underserved or never-served populations and encourage families to learn to love reading as their kids reach that ever-so-important early reader stage (6–10 years old). The impact of the program is impressive. Of the 33,000 individuals that have participated in the program, 82.9% of families report reading as a family on a daily or weekly basis, 81.0% could name a book they had read within the last week, and 72.0% reported using the library within the last month. As one librarian who implemented the program attested, “you reach people who’ve never been into the library and they become your biggest fans.”

Sue Warner, Head of Youth and Neighborhood Services at Kalamazoo Public Library, a told attendees what to expect from the program and shared stories of success and frustration in working with underserved populations. One functionally illiterate mother asked for reading recommendations and Sue gave her an Angela Johnson YA book. Although it took her six weeks to complete, she then recommended the book to another mother and came back to Sue asking for more.

As our budgets shrink and demand rises for public libraries, we need to remember that building and caring for our reading communities is still at the heart of our work. “Prime Time, Family Reading Time” is one foundation block that can help libraries draw in those families that don’t sit around the dinner table talking about books and make them into our biggest fans.