Library of Congress Literacy Awards Event

The Library of Congress: imposing any day as it faces the Capitol. But especially impressive on November 4, 2013, when I entered its Jefferson Building to celebrate the literacy awards being recognized that day.

2013 is a special year for several reasons, but in particular, it is the year that the Library of Congress Literacy Awards were launched, through the generosity of David M Rubenstein: The Carlyle Group co-founder and major donor to the Library of Congress. The $50,000 American Prize honors a project implemented successfully to combat illiteracy. The $50,000 International Prize honors the work of an organization in a specific country or region. The $150,000 David M. Rubenstein Prizes honors a groundbreaking or sustain record of advancement of literacy by any entity worldwide. John Cole, Director of the Library of Congress Center for the Book,  coordinated this tremendous effort.

I was fortunate to be selected as a member of the Advisory Board for these awards, and spearheaded the American Prize selection committee. Along with Susan Hilbreth, Institute of Museum and Library Services Director, and Benita Somerfield, UNESCO Institute for Lifelong Learning Governing Board Member, I culled the nearly two hundred applications for these three awards.  The rest of the advisory board narrowed the selection to a handful of projects from which Library of Congress Librarian Dr. James Billington chose the three winners. Being a member of the Advisory Board was itself a great honor; other members included Loriene Roy, Robert Wedgeworth, Lynda Bird Johnson Robb, Caroline Kennedy, David Baldacci, James Patterson, as well as other leaders: National Catholic Education Association former President Karen Ristau, Salvation Army USA Planning Coordinator Carol Seiler, Nemours BrightStart! Executive Director Laura Bailey, World Bank Senior Specialist Michael Trucano, National Library Board of Singapore Chief Executive Officer Elaine Ng, Author Maryanne Wolf, Harvard Language and Literacy Program Director Pamela Mason, former Literacy Network of Greater LA Chair Steven Koltai, Scholastic CEO Richard Robinson, Candlewick Press President Karen Lotz, and Honorary Chair Laura Bush.

On the morning of November 4, the award winners and semi-finalists, along with the advisory board and Library of Congress representatives , met to discuss the lessons learned from this first year. As one of three panelists, I talked about the need for more publicity and leveraging of these significant awards and projects. After a lovely lunch, David Baldacci spoke in the Coolidge Auditorium about literacy needs and his efforts (including providing books in food banks to nourish the soul). The three prizes were presented: the American Prize for 826 National (a storefront program that focuses on writing workshops), the International Prize for India’s PlanetRead (which uses Bollywood songs with closed captioning to motivate reading), and the Rubenstein Prize for Reach Out and Read (which encourages early childhood reading through pediatrician-parent relationships). The winners’ presentations were each uniquely inspiring. James Patterson provided the finale with a heartwarming talk about reading. Attendees then toured the building, and enjoyed a sumptuous dinner in the library great hall.

The advisory board met on the 5th as well to discuss future directions and logistics. 2014 plans to be just as productive as this year. It should be noted that another valuable result of the process was the production of a booklist on best practices, which was made public at the celebration. The booklet will be available for downloading in the near future.

I am proud of both the process and the products, and learned much from my estimable colleagues. I will be conducting research on the applications to discern patterns of success, which can be leveraged by literacy initiatives.

Dr. Lesley Farmer, California State University Long Beach

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