Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Catching up on the news

Now that I'm back at work I did a quick news search on literacy. Three pieces of interest in the last week. First off, a Calgary family won the "Robert Munsch might come to your house" contest for Family Literacy Day. There was also a nice profile in yesterday's Ottawa Citizen about the importance of libraries. Finally, another piece on the need for Canada to focus more on basic skills and literacy training.


PUBLICATION: The Calgary Sun
DATE: 2006.01.10


Celebrated Canadian children's book author Robert Munsch will make a stop in Calgary this month to visit with a local family in celebration of the national Family Literacy Day.

Munsch will visit Trevor and Rachelle Lee and their kids Nicholas, 9, Kieran, 6, and one-year-old Simon on Jan. 21 for their Family Literacy Day party.

The Lee family won the Munsch visit through a contest run by ABC Canada Literacy Foundation -- a national charity dedicated to promoting literacy across the country.

"Having Robert Munsch visit our children is very exciting," said mom Rachelle. "They hope to create their own story, and I think Robert's imagination and enthusiasm help children realize their own abilities to dream and to be creative."

ABC Canada has staged Family Literacy Day the last eight years and Munsch is honorary chair of ABC Canada-promoted Family Literacy Day events. More on the ABC Canada Literacy Foundation can be found online at www.abc-canada.org.

PUBLICATION: The Ottawa Citizen
DATE: 2006.01.09
BYLINE: Daniel Drolet
SOURCE: The Ottawa Citizen

A 21st-century gathering place: Modern libraries, while still about books, are about so much more, the chief librarian at the Ottawa Public Library tells Daniel Drolet.

Give chief librarian Barbara Clubb a magic wand and, no surprise, she'd conjure up a spanking new main branch for the Ottawa Public Library, with more books and more facilities.

But it would be more than just a library in the traditional sense, and it would offer more than just printed material. One hundred years after the original Ottawa Public Library was built, the role of the institution has evolved, and is continuing to evolve. A library today is a community centre, a literacy centre, a learning centre, a gathering place, an Internet access centre -- even sometimes a drop-in centre.

While books are still its main business, the library today is more about information and community.

"Now, it's got a whole series of roles," says Ms. Clubb, who has been the city's chief librarian since 1995. "We see it as one of the core services in recreation and culture."

Ms. Clubb says the library is a gathering place for children, families, Internet users who don't have computers at home, people who want to hold meetings, and people seeking shelter.

For example, visit the main branch on any given day and you will see a number of homeless, jobless or otherwise marginalized people spending a lot of time there reading, surfing the Net, and, occasionally sleeping, though the library does have a rule against dozing.

Ms. Clubb says that's par for the course in most downtown libraries in Canada -- and for the most part she is OK with that.

"This is a place where people can come and they don't have to buy anything and they can feel part of humanity," she said. "It's a place where they can feel safe."

In fact, the library is one of the designated places in the city where people can seek shelter from temperature extremes.

David Daubney, chairman of the board of directors of the Ottawa Public Library Foundation, calls it "one of the most inclusive institutions in our city."

"When you go to a branch like Elmvale Acres, where there are a lot of immigrant families, and you go after school, it's full of kids doing their homework," he said. "A lot of them don't have a good place to go to do their homework, and the openness and inclusiveness of this thing is so heart-warming to me.

"We used to, in the old city, talk about it being the largest club in the city. And in way, it is -- except there's no blackballing of potential members."

And it's about a lot more than books.

Alan Roberts, manager of community partnerships and programming, says one of the main jobs of a library these days is to help people make sense of all the information out there.

"Libraries are like traffic cops on the information highway," he says.

Ms. Clubb adds that a lot of information that is available electronically is not necessarily free; by buying that information themselves, libraries can make that material available to the public.

And a lot of library information is now available online. For example, in addition to searching back issues of magazines, users can browse the library catalogue online, reserve a book, and have it delivered to any branch in the city.

She said that as people realize this, and as they become more and more comfortable using the Internet, information-seeking habits are changing.

With municipal amalgamation in 2000, the main library, on Metcalfe Street, became the hub of a vast crosstown network, as libraries from Ottawa's constituent cities were combined into one.

Built in 1973 to serve a much smaller Ottawa, the main branch is too cramped for today's purposes.

"A nice main library is an indicator of a city's respect for itself," says Ms. Clubb.

"We need a new central library. We need an investment program for our existing facilities. And over the next 10 to 15 years, we need the capacity to meet the demands of our new neighbourhoods."

But just as the library struggled with funding issues a century ago, so it does today. It depends for the vast majority of its income on grants from the city, but Mr. Daubney says the time is coming when we will not be able to take the library for granted anymore.

"That's the challenge," he said. "To make the citizens understand that we can't just rely on the tax money to provide that. There's going to have to be public education about the need to think about the library the same way we now think of hospitals."

PUBLICATION: The Chronicle-Herald
DATE: 2006.01.03
COLUMN: David Crane

Least-skilled Canadians need to become a higher priority

One of our most important challenges we face is how we best position Canadians to succeed in an intensely competitive global economy, best symbolized by the growing economic achievements of China and India.

Among the most threatened Canadians are those with few skills, little education and low levels of literacy.

They face a tough time advancing into the knowledge-based economy as low-cost labour in the developing world eliminates jobs requiring simpler skills in Canada.

As an example, Quebec economist Pierre Fortin points out the Quebec clothing industry has lost 20,000 of its 50,000 jobs over the past 24 months.

What should be of great concern is that 42 per cent of Canadians of working age lack the basic literacy and numeracy skills to participate in the modern economy.

And even though high-school dropout rates are falling and attendance in post-secondary colleges and universities is increasing, 35 per cent of Canadians age 16 to 25 lack the literacy and numeracy skills for the 21st century economy.

There are certain things we know that are relevant: First, with an aging society and a prospective shortage of workers with many different kinds of skills, we cannot afford to have such a large percentage of Canadians who are effectively sidelined in the economy.

Second, if we raise the skill levels of more Canadians, not only will they be better off, we will all be better off because our economy overall will be more productive and we will be sharing a larger gross domestic product.

Third, by enabling more Canadians to participate at a higher level, we will also achieve the social goal of reducing the growing inequality we see among Canadians.

So one of the most important challenges is how to improve the life chances of the least-skilled members of our society.

This includes finding ways to eliminate the tax and other barriers that discourage people from moving from social assistance to the workplace.

Andrew Jackson, chief economist for the Canadian Labour Congress, argues that one of the biggest problems is that Canadians in what he calls the bottom third of the workforce have the least access to training and skills upgrading opportunities.

In an article in the latest edition of the Productivity Monitor, published by the Centre for the Study of Living Standards, Jackson points out that only 10 per cent of working Canadians who lack a post-secondary education participate in employer-based training programs.

""Participation is even lower for the less-educated in small firms, while the growing ranks of contract workers and own account self-employed are almost entirely excluded from workplace-based training,"" Jackson says. This lack of access to training, Jackson argues, ""means that the working poor are trapped in low productivity jobs.""

His solution is to promote training leaves funded through the Employment Insurance system so low-skilled Canadians can participate in formal workplace-related skills advancement programs.

This is already done for apprentices in the classroom part of their training.

William Scarth of McMaster University argues that employment subsidies can also lower unemployment and raise productivity at the same time.

He notes, approvingly, a plan outlined in Finance Minister Ralph Goodale 's recent fiscal update for a Working Income Tax Benefit, starting in 2008, to help low-income Canadians keep more of their income as they move from social welfare to paid employment.

Today, social welfare recipients who move to paid employment may end up worse off as a result.

""They may lose thousands of dollars in social assistance and related benefits such as access to subsidized prescription drugs and housing.

"" They must also incur work-related expenses, pay income taxes, Employment Insurance premiums and Canada Pension Plan/Quebec Pension Plan contributions and, if they have children, find affordable child care,"" Goodale said.

Goodale has also promised to negotiate Labour Market Partnership Agreements with the provinces to focus on apprenticeships, literacy and essential skills, workplace skills development, integrating arriving immigrants into the workforce, and increasing the participation of native people and the disabled in the workforce.

""Our foremost priority,"" Fortin argues, ""should be to raise average labour productivity not as much by encouraging our already productive workforce to become even more productive as by bringing the low-productivity segment of our workforce closer to the median. ""This is not an argument to neglect our universities. But for too long we have neglected those who don't graduate from high school or barely get through. We cannot afford to do this any longer for both economic and social reasons.

David Crane is Canadian economics writer.


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