October 14, 2013

Libraries as ‘Sponsors of Literacies’: Diving Deep to Expose Narratives & Metanarratives

Categories: Digital Citizenship, Educational Practice
underwater photograph of scuba diver

In my last post “Literacies and Fallacies,” I introduced Deborah Brandt’s conceptual approach of sponsors of literacy that connects individual literacy development to the economic development of literacy.  I also shared a rationale for why libraries should use this critical interpretive lens and offered an initial list of questions as focal points of inquiry to consider.  As I recently finished Natasha Trethewey’s brilliant and deeply moving Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I saw parallels between the narratives in Trethewey’s work and Brandt’s ethnographic research examining sponsors of literacy.  In this collection of poems, prose, and letters, Trethewey examines how the economic, cultural, and physical landscape of the Mississippi Gulf Coast has been constructed and re-constructed over time and consequently, how the collective and individual histories and narratives have been lost or privileged by hegemonic structures of power informed by politics, race, class, and gender.  As these narratives have risen and disappeared much like the geographic and cultural ecologies of the region, I am reminded of Deborah Brandt’s assertion that “…forms of literacy can now rise and recede many times within a single life span…this phenomenon is what makes today’s literacy feel so advanced and, at the same time, so destabilized” (Sponsors of Literacy 16).  As Trethewey traces the ways Katrina has altered life for those whose lives were touched in direct and indirect ways by the storm and its aftermath, she reflects, “I wonder at the competing narratives:  What will be remembered, what forgotten?  What dominant narrative is now emerging” (Location 125)?  As school, academic, and public libraries strive to redefine the ways they create opportunities for multiple forms of literacy and learning experiences, I share the same wonderings – what narratives of literacy learning and practices will libraries value, and how will they decide which narratives of learning to sanction and enfranchise?

As public, academic, and school libraries consider how to align their services and literacy practices to community aspirations, needs, and desires in a time in which ideological tensions exist within and outside the profession about the best ways to serve our communities, it is imperative libraries trace the ways we serve sponsors of multiple forms of literacy for our communities to better situate our work in the context of the “economies of literacy and their effects” (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 3).  By exploring “who or what underwrites occasions of literacy learning and use” (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 2), librarians are much better positioned to better understand and contextualize these three key issues identified by Brandt (6):

1.  How the access, organization, and privileging of literacy opportunities are impacted by issues related to race, class, and gender.
2.  How literacy sponsors contribute to what Brandt defines as the literacy crisis:  the perceived gap between rising standards for achievement and people’s ability to meet them.
3.  How might sponsors of literacy interpret their ability to provide resources and opportunities that help people transform their uses of literacy that facilitate identity development, agency and social mobility?

Looking at our work through a lens of sponsors of literacy also provides librarians the opportunity to unpack and examine our own “ideological freight”( Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 4) that informs our philosophical principles about what qualifies as legitimate forms of literacy practices in libraries.  While we like to think of libraries as neutral institutions, it is impossible for them to be void of larger cultural, economic, educational forces, and causes that shape what gets valued and privileged.  While it is impossible to situate our work from an unbiased stance, we can have greater awareness and sensitivity to critically interrogate our practices and policies if we analyze how we as libraries and librarians (and for that matter, library organizations at state and national levels) function as sponsors of literacy.  By deconstructing the ideas and power relations that influence the ways we reinforce and distribute specific literacies and literacy practices, libraries can understand our role as sponsors of literacy in our communities in a more nuanced and robust way.  It is through this ongoing critique we can more thoughtfully address the simple yet profound question, “Why are we doing this?” when we unpack the influences that shape how we act as sponsors of literacy and to see ourselves as co-learners in a participatory community of learning who can collaboratively construct the possibilities of print, digital, information, and new literacies – rather than being a paternalistic sponsor that deliberately and/or unintentionally marginalizes the experiences and literacy histories of the people we serve.

Additionally, this lens of critical literacy can serve as a provocation for libraries to consider how their own efforts to position themselves from a greater stance of power in their communities may conflict with their larger mission of improving society “through facilitating knowledge creation in their communities” (Lankes).  Because sponsors of literacy always stand to somehow gain from the explicit as well as hidden ways they enable, silence, manipulate, and validate a specific form of literacy (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 2), it is imperative libraries engage in greater self-awareness of the external pressures and relations that shape our work as literacy sponsors, if we genuinely aspire to be champions of civic engagement and address issues of equity that are exacerbated when we reinforce technologies, practices, policies, and initiatives that value literacy as an economic commodity rather than a form of civil rights (Brandt, Literacy in American Lives 206).  As libraries engage in advocacy efforts to justify their worth and existence to their communities, looking at the ways we operate as local sponsors of literacy can help us better evaluate whether aligning our work with local, state, and federal literacy initiatives compromises our mission of helping people acquire and use literacy in ways that are not limited to narrow discourses and perceptions of literacies driven by economic interests and a “lingering presence of literacy’s conservative history” (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy  20).  Libraries may be reluctant to push back against definitions, strategies, and precepts endorsed by other institutions and partners, but we can function as more effective and positive sponsors of literacy in more equitable, democratic ways if we are asking critical questions about who stands to benefit from specific initiatives as well as the data that foregrounds the beliefs embedded in those causes, campaigns, and programs.

While it is uncomfortable to think of the position power libraries may wield, we must be critically attuned to the “competition to harness…to manage, measure, teach and exploit [literacy]”( Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy  2).  As sponsors of literacy who always function against a larger backdrop of political and economic spheres, we must cultivate a greater self-awareness of how this competition impacts the ways we may deliberately or unintentionally offer “incentives and barriers (including uneven distributions of opportunity) that greet literacy learners in any particular time and place” (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 5).  An awareness of the ways this competition fuels the complicated and rapidly evolving landscape of traditional and emerging literacies to be more critical and discerning in the precepts of literacy they subscribe to as well as pedagogy for facilitating those forms of literacy.  If libraries are to disrupt the participation gaps that arise from this competition of what counts as literacy, we must always be aware of our roles as a sponsor of literacy and consider how we inhabit those roles to recast the possibilities and paths to learning and literacy to help people re-appropriate and employ literacies across a variety of formal and informal learning spaces.  Examining the ways we function as sponsors of literacy and either facilitate or deny diverse access points for learning is also critical to understanding the reasons that create and reinforce participation gaps (see Connected Learning: An Agenda for Research and Design, 2013).

In thinking about how libraries can take this theory of sponsors of literacy and translate it into practice, several lines of inquiry come to mind.  How might a library engage in a closer self-examination to see the larger patterns of their literacy sponsorship?  How might an analysis of these patterns and trajectories of literacy learning help libraries see beyond what Brandt identifies as the “shorthand of socioeconomic status” that may blind us to less visible histories of our communities and other literacy sponsors that have either enabled or denied equitable literacy opportunities?  (The Sponsors of Literacy 9).  How might libraries then go beyond a mere “cataloging” of opportunities, programs, services, community partnerships, technologies, and collections to “expose the deeply textured history that lies within the literacy practices of institutions” that ultimately impact an individual’s literacy learning (Brandt, The Sponsors of Literacy 15)?  In my next post, I will explore technologies, assessment practices, and ethnographic research methods that might help libraries – school, public, and academic – process and understand these dynamics of sponsorship.  As I begin to identify and interpret the way my high school library is functioning as a sponsor of literacy, the factors that shape our sponsorship, and other sponsors of literacy at work in the lives of our students and faculty, I’ll share the challenges and insights I believe will come from this action and reflection.

Banner image credit: Erin Khoo http://www.flickr.com/photos/23563020@N08/3226793667/


Brandt, Deborah. Literacy in American Lives. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2001. Print.

Brandt, Deborah. The Sponsors of Literacy. Rep. no. 7.12. National Research Center on English Learning & Achievement, 1997. Web. 7 Oct. 2013.

Lankes, David. “Welcome.” The Atlas of New Librarianship. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Oct. 2013.

Trethewey, Natasha D. Beyond Katrina: A Meditation on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Athens: University of Georgia, 2010. Kindle.