Describing Vernacular Literacy Practices to Enhance Understanding of Community Information Needs: A Case Study with Practical Implications

Denice Adkins, Jenny Bossaller, and Kim M. Thompson

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Key documents guiding U.S. library service, including Reference and User Service Association (RUSA) guidelines and the American Library Association (ALA) Code of Ethics and Bill of Rights, focus on equitable public library service. By viewing literacy practices as an increasingly crucial realm of the social structure, librarians, policy makers, social researchers, and other interested groups can better understand information barriers that result in social inequality. A clear understanding of vernacular literacy will afford librarians greater insight to the information needs of the public, including a greater understanding of nonusers of their libraries.

The reality of providing materials in multiple languages to meet information needs for multiple cultures is more complicated than simply looking at demographics that are available through the Department of the Census. This study demonstrates the value of field research to more fully understand the literacy needs of one’s service community.

In its Guidelines for Information Services, RUSA states that “information services in libraries take a variety of forms including . . . dissemination of information in anticipation of user needs or interests.”1 Literacy products evident in the community allow libraries to better understand their communities of users and nonusers and allow librarians to think about community information needs from a different perspective. These literacy products demonstrate how a community is using literacy socially, which is not always the way literacy is viewed in libraries. The difference comes from a focus on literacy as a tool used to accomplish an end rather than a social or status marker where one gains prestige or emotional satisfaction in the act of reading itself. By focusing on reading and writing outside of the library, librarians might be able to determine the needs of library users and nonusers, allowing them to better meet those needs and anticipate community interest.

The current study expands upon Barton and Hamilton’s study of self-generated literacy products (i.e., the things that are read, such as books, magazines, graffiti, and signs) within a community, focusing more specifically on the Latino minority population and their use of literacy and language choice.2 We used Barton and Hamilton’s concept of vernacular literacy as a guide to explore how literacy was used by Latinos in a quotidian context. Barton and Hamilton suggest that by studying the artifacts produced by a group we can attempt to connect beliefs about what is useful and appropriate for communication within and between cultures. The authors chose Kansas City as the locale for field research on this topic because of its rapidly changing ethnic and cultural landscape. The wide variety of languages noted in public signage and graffiti is an indication of cultural change. The settings in which the various languages occur indicate the uses of the dominant language (English) and the vernacular (various languages other than English). The intention of this study was to reexamine the cultural landscape of information exchange to suggest ways to improve equitable access to libraries.

This study focuses on both literacy products, as defined above, and on verbal communication. While many languages were observed throughout the Kansas City region, as a means to reduce the scope of observation to selected areas (and because of our familiarity with the Spanish language) the researchers focus on Spanish and English literacy. We travelled to different parts of the city and visited a variety of public venues in order to discover where Spanish was spoken and written and where English was spoken and written, particularly in historically Hispanic neighborhoods. We employed ethnographic field methods, including photography, interviews, and observation of people in public places, to record observable instances of these two types of communication in these two languages. By focusing on the two facets of language listed above, we were able to record a holistic picture of who is using which language and when.

Definitions of Literacy

An acceptable modern definition of literacy might be the one used by the U.S. Department of Education for their national adult literacy surveys of 1992 and 2003: “using printed and written information to function in society, to achieve one’s goals, and to develop one’s knowledge and potential.”3 Literacy includes the ability to interpret written information, understand the message being communicated, and the ability to communicate one’s own message through writing. Using this definition, we can see that reading a book and writing an essay are literacy practices, and we can also see that tagging a school wall with graffiti and understanding the other tags on that wall are also literacy practices, though they take place in very different social contexts.4

Literacy Practices

As a functional skill, literacy includes practices viewed by the dominant society as being necessary to function within that society. This might include filling out job applications and tax forms or reading prescription labels and nutrition information. Literacy as a social practice, however, emphasizes communication. This communication can be within a culture, such as might occur when a new immigrant writes to her family in another country, or between cultures, with an immigrant mother writing a note to her child’s school teacher.

Literacy practices are values and beliefs that underlie literacy events and determine how someone will respond to a particular literacy challenge. These literacy practices include beliefs about when writing is appropriate or preferred over oral communication, what type of language is used, and even which language is preferable. The immigrant mother writing a note to her child’s teacher may decide that it is better to write in English to the teacher, while she would write in her native language to her family. She would use a less formal language in her letters home than she would in her letters to school.

Literacy Events

Literacy events, on the other hand, are those actual, verifiable activities that can be observed. A man reading a newspaper on the bus and a teenager text messaging her friends are both demonstrating the literacy practices accepted within their referent subcultures. Literacy practices are generally inferred from both literacy events and people’s discussions of the roles of literacy in their lives.

Literacy Products

Literacy products are the things that are read—books, magazines, graffiti, signs, and so forth. We use the term “environmental literacy” to refer to the literacy products that can be seen in public by a casual observer or the literacy products that are available in one’s environment. These can embody dominant or vernacular literacy and can be written in, for instance, Spanish, English, both, or neither.

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