Fact Sheet

Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners

Library-Based Literacy Programs


The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners advises public libraries in the Commonwealth on matters relating to the establishment and development of library-based literacy programs. Literacy programs assist adult learners who need to improve their basic skills in the areas of reading, writing, computation and oral communication.


The Board has responded to the federal priority of allocating federal funds to establish and enhance library-based literacy programs in the community. Each year a number of libraries begin new services or expand existing ones. The challenge to provide meaningful opportunities for adult learners to improve their skills requires the involvement and coordination of many institutions. Once considered solely the purview of "traditional education," public libraries have increasingly become a partner in the coordination and delivery of literacy services in the community.

Library support for literacy includes the following areas:

  1. Adult new reader or instructional materials for use by adult learners, tutors or materials which are used by other adult education programs.
  2. Literacy support services including: space for tutor training/in-services, coordination of one-on-one or small group instruction at the library in adult basic education, English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) and GED preparation.
  3. Computer-assisted instruction for new learners.
  4. For parents, libraries provide basic materials which support family literacy. Trained children's librarians offer story hours, lap sits and other programs which target parents and discuss the importance of emergent literacy and reading.

Library-based literacy services bring a new and diverse clientele to the library, while enhancing library visibility and community goodwill. They help libraries fulfill their mission by providing information and resource sharing, as well as opportunities for life-long learning. Programs are designed to help learners meet the goals of improving their basic skills. Instruction for learners supports them in their roles as community members, workers, family members and life-long learners. Many programs engage volunteer tutors who provide one-on-one services or offer small group instruction in GED preparation or "conversation groups" designed to target newcomers. Community libraries are well suited for literacy services. They provide a neutral, comfortable atmosphere for learners and their families. Family literacy programs in libraries recognize the importance of the parent as the child's first and most important teacher and actively support adult learners in this important role.

Board staff provides technical assistance to public libraries in program development. This includes information about specific issues such as family literacy and services for people with learning disabilities. The staff also offers consulting in materials selection, proposal writing and identification of outside funding sources.


The major groups reached by these programs include: a) persons lacking a high school diploma or GED; b) persons 16 -64 years old with at least a high school diploma who have low literacy skills, as measured by the National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS); and c) immigrants who have limited English speaking skills.

According to a recently released report, New Skills for a New Economy, by the nonpartisan think-tank, MassINC (The Massachusetts Institute for a New Commonwealth) more than one third (1.1 million) out of the state's 3.2 million workers do not have the skills required by the state's rapidly evolving economy. This report suggests that more than half (667,000) of "at-risk" workers fall into a new category that traditional job-training and education efforts do not address. Many of these adults are being called "the new literacy challenged." They are adults with a high school degree and already working, but lacking in the math, reading, writing, language, and basic analytic skills considered acceptable for the typical 21st century workplace. This group represents 20 percent of the state's workforce, and poses a significant literacy challenge for the Commonwealth.

Of this group 280,000 workers never obtained a high school degree. Another 195,000 immigrant workers have been identified with severely limited English speaking skills. The report states that an upcoming labor shortage will threaten to undermine the boom experienced in the last decade. Massachusetts ranked 47th in the nation in labor force growth in the 1990s. Thus, the state has only been able to fill its labor needs by primarily attracting workers from other countries, many of whom have limited English proficiency. The existence of this large number of ill-equipped workers places the state's future economic growth at risk.

According to the Massachusetts Department of Education (DOE), Adult and Community Learning Center:

Low literacy has an impact on the full functioning of our democracy and growth of our economy. The lack of literacy skills is a key social concern which affects economic productivity, health, community development and the welfare of children. When parents need literacy services for themselves, it is difficult for them to support their children's learning. Thousands of Massachusetts families led by undereducated and/or limited English proficient parents stand to benefit from an awareness of the value and benefit of family literacy programs and collaboration in support of family literacy.


The impact of federal funding on literacy program development has been significant. From October 1991 to October 2008 more than 78 grants have been awarded totaling more than $1,650,000 to begin or expand literacy programs and services in the Commonwealth.

Grant funds are used to help adults reading below the sixth grade level, or who are learning English as a second language, to improve their reading and conversation skills. Programs include: basic reading, General Educational Development (GED) preparation courses, English language classes for refugees and immigrants, literacy programs focusing on job readiness and employment, programs for adults with learning disabilities, and programs which promote family literacy such as Mother Goose Asks Why? Federal grants are considered seed money. Libraries seeking to establish literacy programs are requested to institutionalize their literacy program as a part of their basic library service, thus ensuring long-term, stable support.


The Federal Library Services and Technology Act is authorized by P.L. 104-208.


98 North Washington St., Suite 401 • Boston, MA 02114 • 617-725-1860 • 800-952-7403 (in-state only) • fax: 617-725-0140 • mass.gov/mblc
Page last updated on 05/22/2015