Last month, I experienced the incredible honor of representing Dakota County Library and the United States of America at the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions Satellite Conference in Singapore.
Hosted at Singapore’s National Library Board, this Satellite Conference brought together members of IFLA’s “Children and Young Adults” (CYA) and “Library Services to People with Special Needs” (LSN) Sections for a day of learning, cooperation, and collaboration. The focus of the conference was to discuss how to promote inclusive library services to children and young adults, leaving no one behind, in support of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. My article Stronger Together: Successful Community Partnerships Serving Youth with Special Needs in American Public Libraries was one of eight that were accepted and published by IFLA’s CYA and LSN and featured at this conference. And in Singapore, all of the authors were invited to present a summary of their articles to conference attendees.
In an effort to pay it forward for this incredible opportunity I had, I’ve compiled these resources and lessons learned to share with the American youth services library community.
Universal Literacy matters.
To start off the conference, Hiroshi Kawamura, member of the Assistive Technology Development Organization in Japan and founder of the Daisy for All Consortium, gave a fantastic keynote presentation entitled “Why Does Universal Literacy matter for Children and Young Adults with Specific Needs?” One of the key points presented was that while books and reading are essential to literacy, they are not the only path to literacy.
There are a variety of reasons someone may not be able to read print. As Hiroshi explained during his presentation, birth to age six is the most critical time for a child’s development of visual function, which allows for one’s ability to read printed material. Since both brain and eye function are needed for visual reading, those with a physical disability or difference that affects their visual function may be limited in that capacity to read. Because of that, librarians need to be aware of and advocate for alternative formats to address an individual’s reading abilities.
What formats can we advocate for? Hiroshi suggests accessible multimedia, such as Daisy Books, to be effective solutions to support universal literacy. Digital Accessible Information System, or DAISY, is a means of creating digital talking books for people who wish to hear and navigate written material presented in an audible format. Using DAISY, a talking book format is presented with enabled navigation using a computer. Many DAISY book listeners have print disabilities including blindness, impaired vision, dyslexia or other issues.
Taking perspective is key.
Conference presenters came from all corners of the globe, literally–Japan, Russia, Kenya, America, Singapore, and Nigeria. We represented county, city, state, national, school, and academic libraries with different organizational structures, missions, priorities, and funding. All of us served youth, but our library buildings, our resources, our capacities couldn’t have been more different. This was especially apparent to me during Richard Wanjohi’s presentation about his project at Meru County Library in Kenya.
Using information technologies, such as tablets and e-readers, the objective of Richard and his team was to teach digital literacy to children who had dyslexia, autism spectrum disorder, and children who were hard of hearing. In Kenya, the vast majority of students with disabilities have never used or even been exposed to technology; therefore, severely lacking digital skills. With broadband and Wi-Fi scarce throughout the country, another challenge faced by these students was slow internet connection or a complete lack of internet access. Some students also experienced inadequate equipment or devices that addressed their needs. As a result of his library’s work teaching digital literacy to students with disabilities, Richard recommended “libraries should lobby the government and partners to increase funding toward technological innovation to invest in more devices and faster internet connection.”
How does the United States compare? According to the latest FCC, there are significant parts of Alaska and two islands of Hawaii that lack residential broadband providers. That said, the United States is fortunate to have broadband providers servicing the majority of the rest of our country. Our communities do not have to lobby our government to provide our communities with internet access. And while funding and resources certainly vary from state to state, the amount of internet users in this country continues to grow, with three quarters of the U.S. population accessing the internet in 2016.
It was clear the scope of Richard’s work and role was much more expansive than my own. As a librarian in Kenya, his role seemed to encompass both the role of a public librarian and a school librarian, teaching information literacy and digital literacy skills one-on-one to students. The issues facing Richard’s library were far different and far more dire than my own, especially with regard to access to technology and equipment that adequately supports the needs of his students. Taking a moment to stop, listen, and reflect about the role of a librarian working on another continent proved to be an extremely sobering and humbling experience.
We are more alike than we know.
It’s true; all of the presenters were vastly different. Still, every one of us shared something in common. We all possessed the same passion for inclusion, striving to improve library access for all–including and especially youth with disabilities. This may be a simple idea, but it’s one of the most striking takeaways I had. This was especially clear for me when I listened to Aya Makino talk about libraries in Japan.
During her presentation, Aya talked about Japan’s long history of supporting access for all. As she explained, every single public library in her home country of Japan has a notice displayed on every library building, which reads “It is the most important responsibility of libraries to offer collected materials and library facilities to the people who have the Right to Know as one of their fundamental human rights.” She went on, explaining that this fundamental human right explicitly and intentionally includes those with disabilities, and that librarians in Japan work towards universal design every day.
This common theme was repeated multiple times throughout the presentations. Maria Alekseeva from the Russian State Library for Young Adults in Moscow, Russia stated “The Russian State Library for Young Adults sees one of its primary missions in inspiring even small city and rural libraries of Russia to become an accessible environment and self-fulfillment space for young people with special needs. Inclusion is our main approach. People with special needs are welcome at all library’s activities along with other patrons.”
Regardless of what country we came from, it was reassuring and empowering to know that there were people from countries all across the world with shared values and principles working towards a common goal. This commonality connected us, even if we all spoke different languages and were born in different countries. It was this realization that re-energized my passion and conviction for this work, and rekindled my hope for humanity.
This post addresses the following ALSC Core Competencies: II. Reference and User Services, V. Outreach and Advocacy, and VII. Professionalism and