The most recent National Center for Education Statistics (2006) showed that 22 percent of Philadelphians, ages 16 and above, lack basic literacy skills and according to the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy there are 550,000 adult Philadelphians who are unable to meet the reading requirements for post-secondary education or to get a job. An inspired group of librarians is challenging the city’s literacy problem by taking a new path to connect with young readers using a predecessor of hip hop music: urban literature.
Even before artists like Tupac Shakur, Russell Simmons and LL Cool J were telling the story of growing up in poor, urban environments through their music, writers like Iceberg Slim and Claude Brown were describing life on the streets in books that spawned the literary genre known as urban fiction or “street lit.” Stories that ring true, spare no gritty detail and tend to be set in a city or urban landscape have been around for quite a while – Daniel Dafoe’s Moll Flanders (1722), Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist (1838), Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets (1893) are prime examples – but recent titles are helping teachers and libraries engage a new generation of readers.
By day, Dr. Vanessa Irvin Morris, a professor in Drexel’s iSchool – College of Information Science and Technology, teaches classes about web design, social media for information professionals and theories of information use by young adults; by night, she is the preeminent authority on urban fiction and leads an educational outreach group of community librarians. Now, she is combining these two passions to help improve youth literacy in Philadelphia.
“Hip hop music is about storytelling, street lit is just an extension of those stories. Readers, young and old, can identify with situations in the books they’re reading because it either reflects their real life experiences or it sheds light on observed experiences that they now can more fully understand,” Morris said.
Morris, who literally wrote the book on urban fiction: The Readers Advisory Guide to Street Literature, is teaching community librarians how to incorporate the genre on their shelves in hopes of bringing lost readers back to the library.
“The biggest challenge urban libraries face is getting young readers to understand that there is something in there for them and street literature can help do that. However, it is just as important to have the librarians read and understand the genre also, so that they can offer knowledgeable customer service to patrons seeking to read.”
Morris believes that well-trained and prepared librarians are one of the most fundamental ways to make inroads toward reducing these numbers – starting by getting youth excited about reading again.
“To get residents engaged as readers, it requires librarians who read what their patrons read, thus are unbiased in their approach and recommendations for books that readers can readily relate to,” Morris said. “Research shows that when people read what they can relate to, they seek to read more.”
As part of this effort, Morris leads a monthly book club for local librarians that has been meeting since 2009. The group chooses its books based on what they observe their patrons reading or looking for and what is going on in popular culture.
The titles range from street lit classics, like Teri Woods’ True to the Game; to New York Times best-sellers, like Malcolm Gladwell’s The Outliers; to topical pieces like Joy Degruy Leary’s Post Traumatic Slave Syndrome: America’s Legacy of Enduring Injury and Healing.
The discussion focuses on how their understanding of the books and reactions to them can help guide their interactions with library patrons. This could include being able to make better book recommendations, more interesting displays or hosting events that will be useful to the community.
“Through reading about what we understand -or seek to understand- about ourselves, we gain the reading habit to continue reading beyond our own understandings,” Morris said. “Street lit has proven to be a meaningful gateway through which people become dedicated readers.”