By the light of local knowledge
Linda Shohet, Director, Centre for Literacy, Dawson College, reviews a valuable new book about literacy and emphasizes the impact of its findings for "Reading The Museum" and similar community-based initiatives. The following article was adapted from Literacy Across the Curriculumedia Focus, Vol. 13, No. 4, and is reprinted with permission.
Local Literacies, Reading and Writing in One Community
by David Barton and Mary Hamilton, Routtedge: London, New York, 1998, 299 pp. ISBN 0-415-17150-4
Local Literacies is one of the most readable academic studies of literacy to appear since Shirley Brice Heath's Ways with Words, and should have as great an impact in shaping future thought (and, dare one hope, a greater impact in shaping practice?).
Based on a longitudinal ethnographic study in Lancaster England in the 1990s, David Barton and Mary Hamilton set out to "offer a detailed, specific description of literacy practices in one local community at one point in time" and to show how literacy is linked to other social practices. Recognizing that this account "is often at odds with the public image of literacy.. in the media and much current policy discourse," they wish to "offer an alternative public discourse which foregrounds the role of literacy as a communal resource contributing to the quality of local life."
This concept of local literacies has implications for cultural institutions, such as museums, trying to reach segments of the community which have not traditionally seen themselves either welcomed or reflected in places of "high culture." Starting from the premise that ordinary people have rich inner lives and multiple talents, Barton and Hamilton implicitly challenge cultural institutions to stop categorizing or labelling users by levels of education or literacy. They use case studies to illustrate their point.
These studies look closely at the lives of four individuals -Harry, a retired fireman trying to write his war memoirs; Shirley, a housewife with strong convictions on many social issues and a commitment to her children's education; June, a part-time market worker, who keeps careful household accounts; and talkative Cliff, a man who has held many jobs from hairdresser to shop steward, who loves the race track and enjoys writing. But we also look at their social networks and local organizations. Beyond the data from interviews, questionnaires, observations and analyses, it is the fullness of the lives, the richness of experience and the variety of social practices that engage our attention.
Harry, Shirley, June and Cliff share their sense of themselves, and their perceptions about being educated or "uneducated." Their lives take us beyond functionality as the authors hoped they would. Barton and Hamilton began with an "approach.... strongly shaped by the insistent voices of practitioners and adult students in community-based adult education who reject definitions of literacy in terms of skills, functions and levels which do not fit their experience...." (5)
If I had to choose one book to explain literacy today to someone unfamiliar with the field, I would pick Local Literacies. Beside the study itself, the authors have incorporated a brief history of literacy studies, a discussion of different theoretical perspectives, definitions of complicated terms such as "literacy event" and "literacy practice," and exploration of seemingly uncomplicated terms such as "community" and "network"' [See sidebar]. They include questions for further study and a comprehensive bibliography.
In one of several appendices, they also connect theory to practice, although that was not an original goal of the book. Here they argue that these new views of literacy can be applied in nursery, primary, secondary and post-secondary education as well as adult education. They link adult basic students learning to write and university students learning to write in new ways. Policy implications touch on institutional frameworks for literacy as well as government policy directions. Finally, there are connections with everyday life, from home support for schools to interactions with government and legal systems. They also note a need for critical examination of media representation of literacy issues.
Considering these findings, institutions have the possibility of breaking out of the box of conventional typecasting and engaging nontraditional users without patronizing them. A number of the projects carried out by the "Reading the Museum" program in the past few years have done this to great effect. The challenge is to move beyond projects and embed this type of programming as a standard function.