Fighting Chicago’s 37% low-literacy rate: What does it take?

The Chicago Literary Scene Examiner calls it “the most beautiful bookstore in Chicago.” But the storefront is just the beginning. Open Books is a dynamic, community-based organization that is creatively combating illiteracy.

While the organization has a storefront stocked with tens of thousands of used books, there’s more. Open Books partners with other literacy organizations in Chicago and holds workshops for students of all ages through their Reading Buddies and Adventures in Creative Writing programs. In 2008, the organization worked with 850 students. They plan to work with more than 1500 students in the 2009-2010 school year.

We contacted Anna Piepmeyer, Program Coordinator for Open Books’ Literacy Department, about the store’s grand opening last weekend and what the organization plans to do next. Piepmeyer started working with Open Books as an intern, and says that “It’s been an incredible journey to get the chance to intern and then work for such a dynamic organization.

What is the most intriguing element of your work?

By far, the best part of my job is working with students. … I especially enjoy our Adventures in Creative Writing workshops. During these two hours, students from all over Chicago visit our office to write prose and poetry about their lives. 

Many of our students have never had anyone tell them they their story IS important, that the tapestry of their experiences needs to be written and shared. When you give students a safe place to work, they produce amazing things. We have had students tell stories about family vacations and practical jokes. We’ve also heard pieces about violence, death, and trauma. I consider it no small triumph that the students who visit Open Books leave not only with renewed confidence about their writing ability, but with the courage to use their voices. 

Why is illiteracy still a big issue?

Illiteracy is tied to unemployment, self esteem, public health, crime, and countless other societal problems.  At Open Books, we always say that literacy skills are life skills.  You can’t fully participate in society without your voice, and you can’t properly use your voice if you can’t read or write.  In Chicago alone, 37% of adults have low or limited literacy skills. That’s more than 1 in 3 people in this city who are functioning without the basic skill set that many of us take for granted.

The problem with literacy as a cause is a problem of visibility.  You can’t tell by looking at a person that he or she may be unable to read.  In fact, there is such a deep and profound sigma attached to illiteracy that many people who really need help will never be able to ask for it.  They come up with remarkable coping techniques, like always ordering the special at a restaurant, or taking the same route on the CTA every day.

And how can people combat it?
You really only need two things: 1) a place for people who need help to go to, and 2) enthusiastic coaches. Open Books has a volunteer corps of over 2,000 individuals who are passionate about literacy. These folks don’t need special training or expertise, they are just enthusiastic readers who want to help other people.  As for a place to go, well, the Open Books Store and newly expanded Literacy Center is not only the culmination of our dream as an organization, but a new and much-needed haven for literacy in Chicago. 

How can people get involved?
What Open Books offers is a way for every kind of person to get involved. You can visit the Open Books store and purchase a great used book: the money you spend helps keep our programs running. You can donate books, which we’ll sell to raise money. You can donate your time as a volunteer. You can make a financial donation. You can come into the store and read about illiteracy in Chicago.  There really are countless ways to join the cause.

2009, Open Books


Claudia L.
Claudia L8 years ago

This is great. I think destigmatising low-literacy problems would be a big step forward if we can

GreenseasKat C.
kathryn cook8 years ago

go bookstores!!!!
ty for this post

Teresa Wlosowicz
Teresa W8 years ago

I'm shocked to find out that the U.S., the leading world power, has such a high percentage of illiterate people.

Carol H.
Past Member 8 years ago

It is beautiful article but I think the biggest problem is computers. Children don't understand that reading a book is just as exciting as computers even more so.

Another thing they are adicted to these computer games that are so violent and they are raised with them so they like to do what they see and they don't realize that dead is dead not a game.

Anna P.
Anna P.8 years ago

Open Books certainly has a website! Please check it out!

Denise L.
Denise L8 years ago

Isn't it great to see people taking intiative to really impact the world? Does Open Books have a website so people from all over can donate?

Lilith Graves
Lilith Graves8 years ago

Thanks for the info.

Lynn Miller
Lynn M8 years ago

Literacy is a problem across much of America today. Kudos to Chicago for getting a jump on the problem. Most people equate illiteracy with poverty and oppression. It would surprise them to know that there are CEOs in big business and finance this very day that are indeed illiterate themselves. Don't believe it...It's true. Dateline and 20/20 both have done shows on this topic.Help end this stigma today-open a book and help someone today.

Mimi Li
Ellis Adhams8 years ago

37%! Wow...and the first time I read it, I thought the numbers were in mixed up order; even a 73% seems low.

At least people are dedicated in educating others. It's not that the community is allowing themselves to have a plummeting literacy rate; they seem determined.

Whaddaya know Chicago, when you can dream it, you can acheive it!

Anne F.
Anne F8 years ago

Wonderful community action that encourages people to think!