The Fight for Literacy

Secretary Edgar also became a foremost advocate of literacy. Despite its well-funded library network and school systems, Illinois was laggard in terms of literacy. It was estimated that 2 million Illinoisans could not read above a fifth-grade level.820

Literacy was also a national issue at the time. The U.S. Department of Education reported that over 25 million Americans could not read, while another 45 million were only marginally literate. Governor James Thompson was well aware of the problem within Illinois. In May 1984, he established the Illinois Literacy Council and appointed Secretary Edgar as chairman in his capacity as State Librarian. The council was directed to bring individuals and organizations together to address the problem of adult illiteracy. Thirty-six individuals from diverse cultural, social, and geographic backgrounds were named to the council, which included five subcommittees to deal with various aspects of literacy. The State Library provided staff and funding to support the council.821

By the fall of 1984, regular meetings were being held across Illinois to increase public awareness of illiteracy in Illinois. Hearings collected data and determined if illiteracy existed in all geographic areas of the state (which it did). Two large “Partnerships for Literacy” conferences were held in 1985, jointly sponsored by the State Library and the Illinois State Board of Education. A statewide multi-media campaign promoted the issue, including public service announcements, print materials, and bus placards. The Literacy Office of the State Library published a monthly newsletter, Passing the Word, as another public-relations tool. As part of a national cooperative effort between ABC and PBS, Edgar brought television and radio representatives of both networks to Springfield in March 1986, resulting in large quantities of prepared news stories, documentaries, and taped panel discussions.822

Recognizing a need for a contact point for volunteers and students, a toll-free Illinois Literacy Hotline was established in early 1985. In August 1987, a Business and Labor Literacy Advisory Committee was established to encourage the development of workplace literacy programs. The comprehensive effort created a well-organized network with a clearly defined mission at both the regional and local levels. By 1989, there were 150 “community coalitions” in the fight against illiteracy.823

In October 1984, the State Library began soliciting proposals from Illinois libraries for grants to develop or support local literacy. Edgar then went to work securing the money, requesting a $2 million appropriation for local literacy programs that was approved by the General Assembly in June 1985. The Literacy Grant Program marked the first time that state funds became available for all types of literacy programs from a single source. The program was also the first of its kind in any state. Subsequently, a Literacy Advisory Board was created to review grant proposals for local literacy efforts. In that first fiscal year, 67 grants were awarded. With $890,000 in LSCA funds allocated by the Illinois State Library and $1.1 million in funding from the Illinois State Board of Education, the new literacy efforts were off to a rousing start. The following year, appropriation for the Secretary of State’s Literacy Grant Program was doubled to $4 million.824

The literacy effort established the State Library as a national model in the fight against adult illiteracy. It also vaulted Edgar into national prominence in the field. On June 29, 1986, the Secretary received the prestigious American Library Trustee Association Literacy Award at the annual American Library Association conference in New York. In 1992, the Illinois Literacy Council became a statutory body under state law. By that time, over $35 million had been distributed to programs that served over 100,000 adults.825

The literacy program was just one of Secretary Edgar’s many projects related to reading. To celebrate the Year of the Reader in 1987, Edgar asked Illinoisans to write his office and tell him about the books that were the most important to them. The campaign kicked off with a press ceremony in Chicago in which several leading Illinoisans, including Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, discussed books that meant the most to them. The “Books That Made a Difference” program captured the imagination of the state. Response forms were distributed through ILLINET, and many libraries, corporations, and booksellers participated in promotion. The Chicago Tribune printed a “Year of the Reader” calendar in each Sunday edition, and banners commemorating the yearlong celebration adorned Chicago’s Michigan Avenue.826

By mid-March 1987, dozens of responses had already flowed into the Secretary’s office. The Bible was mentioned the most, although such classics as Catcher in the Rye and Gone with the Wind received multiple mentions. Illinois Libraries reported that the responses “illustrate the interest and enthusiasm readers have for books.” Among the responses were:

All Things Bright and Beautiful, by James Heriot: “Whenever I feel depressed I pick up one of his books and read one or two stories. What a great feeling I get. I wish he would keep on writing forever.” – Shirley Gachi, Morton Grove

When I Was Young in the Mountains, by Cynthia Rylant: “A book about my childhood, our culture, and heritage. Very touching.” – Phyllis Brodley, Shawneetown

Huckleberry Finn, by Mark Twain: “It is a book for the ages. At age 12, the book thrilled me, and now at age 71, I still find it just great.” – Milton Worcester, Western Springs827

With his keen interest in reading and his devotion to library development, Jim Edgar was leaving an unprecedented impression on the State Library. “He had so many wonderful ideas,” said Bridget Lamont, who succeeded Kay Gesterfield as State Library Director in 1983. “Those years were exhilarating, exciting, and showed the endless potential of the Illinois State Library.”828