The 1970s and 1980s

First in the Nation

Two women look at computer screen togetherThe California Literacy Campaign was created in 1984 to help reduce the high level of illiteracy in California and connect more Californians with public libraries.

The Campaign was the first statewide public library adult literacy service in the United States. It was designed to reach and support English-speaking adults with low literacy skills who had not succeeded in the classroom environment. The Campaign led the nation in developing new readers, learner leaders, and learner-centered instruction in public libraries.

Since 1984, over a quarter of a million learners and their families have benefited from library literacy services.

High Levels of Low Literacy

The Campaign was developed in response to emerging research on literacy levels in the United States. In 1975, the University of Texas’ landmark Adult Performance Study reported that 22 percent (21 million) of American adults were functionally illiterate, drawing attention to an issue that had previously been invisible. In 1983, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 46 million more adults functioned only at marginal literacy levels.

Libraries Respond

two women smiling while looking at paperWith the American Library Association taking the lead, librarians across the country convened to discuss how public libraries could address illiteracy. In September 1983, President Reagan announced the Adult Literacy Initiative, which was designed to identify model literacy programs and develop and test new literacy materials.

In 1984, California State Librarian Gary Strong established the California Literacy Campaign. At this time, following the passage of Proposition 13, California libraries were struggling with a 62 percent loss of funding. Strong believed that harnessing library resources to address adult literacy needs would not only benefit adult learners, their families, and their communities, it would increase libraries’ visibility, raise awareness of library services, and generate public support.

The first 27 libraries to participate in the Campaign were supported by federal Library Services and Technology Act funds that were administered by the California State Library. In 1985, noting the successes achieved by these libraries, the California legislature established support for the program through the California Library Services Act. In 1988, the legislature funded the Families for Literacy Initiative to help libraries reach and serve the children of adult literacy learners.

1990 to the Present

Two men work together on paperIn 1990, California became the first state to enact ongoing legislative support for library literacy services. In 1998, California’s Mobile Library Literacy Services program started with a $2.1 million grant from the California Children and Families Commission, now known as First 5 California.

In 2000, the English Language and Literacy Intensive was created and funded by the State Legislature to help libraries work with schools to improve the literacy skills and test scores of California schoolchildren who struggle to learn English.

And in 2002, the Campaign’s name was officially changed to California Library Literacy Services, acknowledging that adult literacy instruction is an ongoing public library service and not a temporary campaign,

Today, California Library Literacy Services is governed by the California Library Literacy and English Acquisition Service Program and 105 California public library jurisdictions participate in it.

Highlights from the First Twenty Years

CLLS – Twenty Years of California Library Literacy Services 1984-2004  (PDF file)

Discovering the Role for Literacy in Libraries

Former State Librarian Gary Strong (1980-1994), founder of California Library Literacy Services, describes his vision for literacy and libraries and how he came to create the program.

Recorded at the 2007 Public Library Association Spring Symposium in San José, California. (19:05)