The Power of Partnerships: Adult Literacy and Libraries with Kristin LaHurd and Gwenn Weaver

Join us tomorrow, May 29, 2019 as we discuss the benefits of partnerships between adult literacy education programs and public libraries. Guest leaders, Kristen Lahurd and Gwenn Weaver will share the partnership between the American Library Association and ProLiteracy as they highlight the role of public libraries in helping meet the adult literacy need by establishing and expanding their services for adult learners. Throughout this single day asynchronous conversation, participants will discover a variety of resources beneficial for both library staff and literacy practioners. Ask your questions and discover models of success. 

Kathy Tracey



We see libraries and adult education programs as natural partners. First, libraries' core values of equity of access and lifelong learning align well with the goals of the adult education system.

As we note in our Open Door Collective paper, “Why Public Libraries and Adult Basic Education Programs Should Advocate for and Partner with Each Other,” both systems are concerned with meeting the needs of adult community members, including reading print and digital text; using digital devices and the Internet to access, evaluate, and use information; advancing in work; and meeting other individual and family needs.

(If you're not familiar with the Open Door Collective and its mission to help adult basic skills advocates make common cause with advocates for other issues, such as health, incarceration, libraries, in order to build an integrated approach to ending poverty, please visit

At the same time, libraries are community anchors, with a responsibility and a role in creating inclusive services and outreach to their communities and to underserved populations, including adult basic skills learners. Similarly, adult education helps strengthen communities—more education leads to higher incomes, greater civic engagement (voting is correlated to educational attainment), and lower rates of incarceration.

Partnerships between libraries and adult education programs have the potential to better meet the adult literacy need and to leverage key resources. Libraries bring a unique set of resources: connections with the community, location, space, information resources, dedicated and knowledgeable staff.

I can share an additional resource on adult literacy and libraries. The American Library Association recently updated our toolkit, “Literacy for All: Adult Literacy through Libraries,” to help library workers add, expand, and advocate for adult literacy services.The toolkit includes model library literacy programs and ideas for library partnerships.

This is great information. I agree that the mission of libraries and adult education programs intersect as we all strive to create equitable access to services. As you have discussed these benefits, what key recommendations do you have for adult education and libraries to build, or sustain, relationships. What does a full partnership look like?

These are important questions, and I think we're still learning about keys to sustaining partnerships and programs.

I would first point people to Adult Literacy through Libraries (ALL): an Action Agenda. This resource was published in 2014 through a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and a partnership among the American Library Association (ALA), ProLiteracy, the Onondaga County Public Library, and a community of practice of library literacy leaders. The agenda responds to the need to increase and expand adult literacy services in public libraries.

The agenda outlines key outcomes and recommendations across seven priority areas, two of which are “Collaboration and Strategic Partnerships” and “Sustainability.” The action recommendations in these areas help libraries and their partners build sustainable programs. For example, one recommendation is for libraries and adult instruction programs to expand their network to include community agencies that don’t normally provide literacy instruction but serve adults with literacy needs, such as healthcare providers and fair housing organizations.

I like to highlight a program at Azusa City Library in California as illustrative of such a network. The library’s adult literacy staff established Health Literacy Learning, a partnership among the library, the Azusa Neighborhood Wellness Center, and the Azusa Pacific University TESOL Department. The program is grounded in the belief that literacy is “a catalyst to transform lives.” Through twice-a-week sessions over eight weeks, participants develop skills in English language learning while also gaining literacy in health-related topics such as nutrition, exercise, and disease prevention. Nursing students answer participants’ questions, monitor participants’ blood pressure, and track exercise through pedometers given to each participant. 

In the second phase of the ALA-ProLiteracy partnership, again with funding from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, we created a free online course. We saw the need and opportunity to provide professional development around this tool of the Action Agenda, to make the recommendations more actionable, which meant designing a course with supporting resources that would walk users through implementing their own adult literacy action plans. The course is available through ProLiteracy’s Education Network; you don’t need to be a ProLiteracy member but do need to register to take the course. It is self-paced and interactive.

During this second phase we worked with three pilot libraries to help us shape the course and the process of creating and implementing an adult literacy action plan. A few recommendations for sustainability that came out of the pilot phase:

  • Make adult literacy a clear strategic priority, spelled out in the organization’s strategic plan, and not tied to an individual agenda or a single staff function. This was key. More than one pilot site experienced staff turnover, and in the site in which adult literacy was an organization- and community-wide priority, the programs and partnerships were sustained through the transition. The responsibility was shared by more than one person, and they maintained comprehensive shared files.  
  • Establish a literacy action plan in coordination with your partners. This includes realistic outcomes and timeframes. What do you have the capacity and budget to accomplish?
  • Draw up a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with each partner organization to clarify and formalize mutual expectations and help ensure the accountability and sustainability of joint activities.

An action plan template, sample MoU, and budget spreadsheet are available as supporting resources on ProLiteracy’s Education Network.

Hello Kristin and Gwenn,

One kind of partnership between adult basic skills (including ESOL/ESL) programs and public libraries that I have seen in Boston, where I live, and elsewhere is to improve computer access and digital literacy skills training for low-income and/or older adults. As  you are aware, as part of the U.S. Department of Commerce's Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) many public libraries received grants to provide digital skills training, and some of these grants supported centers that focused on helping adult basic skills learners. There may be some new possibilities for public library and adult basic skills digital literacy partnerships if Senator Patty Murray's proposed Digital Equity Act becomes law. I wonder if either or both of you would like to comment on that potential for library and adult basic skills program partnerships, and tell us where we can find more information on that.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

LINCS CoP Integrating Technology group

Thanks, David. I can suggest the National Digital Inclusion Alliance’s website on the Digital Equity Act as a helpful source for more information.    

As you suggest, there’s real potential here for leveraging library and adult basic skills partnerships to increase digital literacy and make access to technologies and broadband more equitable. Libraries are the leading source of free public access to the Internet, wifi, computers and other devices, and technology training. They are especially crucial to providing access for the 24 million Americans without high-speed Internet at home.

Senator Murray wrote about a recent visit to the Tacoma Public Library and seeing their digital inclusion efforts firsthand.   

Thank you David for bringing the integration of libraries, adult education, and digital literacy. I'd love to learn more. Additionally, Kristin and Gwenn, can you provide some insight into library partnerships specifically for English Language Learners? What considerations need to be made for library / ESL partnerships? Can you share any model programs?

My best resource for library partnerships for English Language Learners is the American Dream Literacy Initiative, which is a partnership between the American Library Association and the Dollar General Literacy Foundation. The program awards one-time grants to public libraries to expand services for adult English language learners or adults in need of basic education and workforce development.

When we marked the 10th anniversary of the program last year, we published a retrospective report, which includes profiles of some of the grantee libraries and findings from a multi-year impact study. Through the impact study, we learned the main reasons why English Language Learners access the library:

  • employment
  • to support their children in school
  • language acquisition
  • to use computers and the Internet
  • education beyond language acquisition
  • citizenship services

With all of these reasons—and resources—for which learners access the library, we see the potential for partnerships with other organizations in providing referrals, leveraging libraries’ outreach in the community, and sharing resources, such as libraries’ space and technology. We can also see some prospective partners for libraries: employers, school systems, non-profits focused on citizenship and civic engagement, etc.

A statistically-significant finding of the study was that libraries that developed partnerships were seven times more likely to have sustainable English language learner services. This is perhaps intuitive, that partnering, sharing resources, and amplifying each other’s efforts would help library literacy programs reach farther and last longer than they would alone. But seeing the data reveal such a strong correlation between partnerships and sustainability was illuminating.

One program that exemplifies the power of partnerships is at Sioux Center Public Library in rural Sioux Center, Iowa. The community has had an influx of immigrants from Central and South America and a high demand for ESOL courses. The library referred community members to classes at Northwest Iowa Community College, but the college is 30 miles away with no public transit option. The distance was a barrier, and residents often didn’t complete the registration. Librarian Ruth Mahaffy, who’s a Spanish speaker, worked with the College to simplify the registration process, which increased enrollment and convinced the College of the need for satellite courses. (The college said they would teach a course at the library if Ruth could get 5 people to sign up; 24 signed up.)

They now offer classes 30 hours/week at the library and doubled the number of classes they initially offered. The College sends a teacher to the library, where they use the meeting room and computer lab, and grants cover the teacher’s salary and the testing fees. Ruth also garnered enough interest in the Spanish GED to convince the college to teach those courses at the library. It’s been a success for the students, as well: Several former students have gone on to get their associate’s degree through the Community College.