Global Literacy at the Local School Library

Farmer: Global Literacy

As today’s students access information from around the world and interact with increasingly diverse populations, they need to become globally literate. The phrase “information is contextual” gains additional significance when applied to international settings. Misunderstood statements, value-laden connotations, ignorance of socioeconomic differences all can lead to disastrous results. On the other hand, knowledge about cultural assumptions and global interdependence can lead to mutually beneficial outcomes, both in economic and social terms.

School libraries are well positioned to help students become globally literate because of their cross-curricular information competence. School librarians also need to model global literacy for the entire school community.


Surprisingly, the term “global literacy” can be difficult to define clearly and implement meaningfully. Sometimes global literacy is applied to the concept of literacy for everyone. Sometimes “global citizenship” is used instead of global literacy to emphasize the civic responsibility thereof. Sometimes “cultural competence” is used to describe global literacy. However, the latter term has a slightly different connotation. First, though, the concept of culture itself must be clarified.

When people form together into stable groups with sustained shared value and belief systems and act according to normative expectations, they comprise a culture. UNESCO (2002) defined culture as “the set of distinctive spiritual, material, intellectual, and emotional features of society or a social group, and that it encompasses, in addition to art and literature, lifestyles, ways of living together, value systems, traditions and beliefs” (4). In education, cultural issues apply to the learner, the instructor, the intended learning environment, and the content of learning itself. Rich and varied cross-cultural interactions can be experienced within a single geographic region.

At its simplest form, cultural competence means the ability and habit of being open to learning about other cultures and sharing one’s own culture, the ability to change personal perspectives, and the ability to communicate effectively across cultures. The Association of College and Research Libraries (ACRL) established standards of cultural competence based on the definition developed by the National Association of Social Workers (2001):

A congruent set of behaviors, attitudes, and policies that enable a person or group to work effectively in cross-cultural situations; the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities, and protects and preserves the dignity of each (1).

Global literacy emphasizes the interconnectedness of societies worldwide. In 2009 the Oregon Department of Education defined global literacy as the ability to “demonstrate knowledge of diverse cultural, linguistic, and artistic expressions; and apply a global perspective to analyze contemporary and historical issues” (King & Thorpe 127).

Carnegie Mellon University faculty operationalized global literacy into the following components (Nair et al. 60):

  • Knowledge: Analyze global issues contextually, describe global systems, trace global connections, explain and predict global trends, evaluate policies with global implications, explore diverse cultural perspectives before framing or solving problems.
  • Social/cultural competencies: Identify interaction patterns in unfamiliar contexts, listen and communicate respectfully across cultures, work productively in diverse teams, adapt flexibly.
  • Ethical dispositions: Recognize shared interests, develop informed ethical stances about global issues, model global responsibility.


Technology has substantially changed the face of societies. First, technology significantly expands and speeds up access to the world of information. Telecommunications has collapsed time and space. People potentially have more access, more quickly, to information around the world. Moreover, people can respond to each other and share group information much more easily than in the past.

The intersection of technology and globalization has led to more intense and pluralistic interactions across societies. At the same time, that interaction can result in cultural clashes. Because information’s meaning and impact are contextualized, shared knowledge and understanding can be harder to achieve. In a world scarred with political turmoil and terrorism, information and technology literacy have never been so important. On a political conscious awareness level, the Alliance of Civilizations (Douglass 2006) contended, “Teaching viewers and listeners to recognize rhetorical and psychological techniques employed to persuade, to demonize, and to incite violence or intolerance provides significant defense against violent ideologies of many types” (15). Thus, technology literacy alone does not suffice. People need to be critical users of technology, both in evaluating information that they encounter as well as in producing civic messages (Journell 2009). To that end, digital citizenship education is needed because users of information in all its forms need to act civically (Ribble 2011).


By its nature, global literacy serves as a catalyst to cross-curricular and cultural boundaries to engage in authentic analysis of global systems and their impact on society. Because school libraries serve all students and provide resources and learning activities for the entire curriculum, they are well positioned to spearhead global literacy efforts. In collaboration with classroom teachers, school librarians can map the school’s curriculum in light of global literacy to identify current practice and areas for authentic incorporation. Likewise, school librarians can examine the library’s collection—and access to digital resources—to identify those materials that support global literacy. The entire school community can also participate in professional development on global literacy and design curricular and co-curricular means to foster global literacy.

In terms of learning activities that build global literacy, here are some ideas to start with in middle and high school settings:

  • Locate and analyze news coverage from different countries about the same event (e.g., Arab Spring, Prince William’s wedding, the World Cup).
  • Discuss the cultural, social, economic, and political impact of Ebola.
  • Start with family histories to discuss the impact of immigration in the United States.
  • Trace food and manufacturing production and distribution around the world.
  • Examine fashion examples to identify cultural design adaptations.
  • Study the impact of colonialism.
  • Study the impact of diasporas.
  • Compare roles of men and women in different cultures, and find out the basis for these role assignments.
  • Research the changes in the roles of men and women in the United States over the last 100 years. What part have cross-cultural experiences played in that change?
  • Research disaster aid efforts across different countries.
  • Research how international companies (e.g., IBM/Lenovo, Walmart, Coca-Cola, Apple) operate in different countries. How do their companies impact the local situation?
  • Research the impact of outsourcing.
  • Compare the functions of media and information systems in different kinds of governmental systems (e.g., democracy, dictatorship).
  • Compare educational systems in different countries, and try to identify the resources, teacher training, educational philosophies, and social norms that impact those systems.
  • Compare the rights of children and women in different countries, and try to identify the resources and social norms that impact those rights.
  • Follow United Nations debates from the perspectives of different countries.
  • Participate in Model United Nations.


To specifically address school librarians’ global literacy, the teacher-librarian program at California State University Long Beach (CSULB) offered a graduate online course on international and comparative school librarianship for summer 2014. The enrolled students were current and former students of the CSULB teacher library program. One of the students began working in the Dominican Republic during the course and applied her new understanding immediately.

In the course, students explored how school libraries differ around the world in terms of education, roles, staffing, resources, and services. They examined the role of school libraries as a universal construct and in the context of their countries and cultures. Students analyzed information technologies and media issues of politics, equity, bias, and impact. They also examined national and international school library professional associations, practiced cultural competence, and addressed information needs of international students through the school library program. To make the course more engaging and authentic, students communicated in real time with school librarians in several representative countries: Canada, Jamaica, Costa Rica, South Africa, India, Australia, and Malaysia. The speakers were all professional colleagues of the instructor, mainly through the International Association of School Librarianship.

Here are a few representative student comments:

  • “As teacher-librarians in a global community it is our job to help disseminate [information] and support our fellows in other countries.”
  • “This class allowed me to step out of my comfort zone and see what [it] is like to be a librarian in other parts of the world. One of the biggest take-aways of the class is that despite the cultural differences, we have similar struggles (facilities, budget, staffing) and strive for the same goals (love of reading, literacy—information and digital, access to information and resources, and critical thinking).”
  • “It allowed me to see how fortunate we are and that people make it happen with so much less.”

The course’s teacher-librarians applied their knowledge in developing ways to deal with their schools’ own international students.

  • Get to know those students and their prior school and library experiences.
  • Find out how students and their families are accustomed to dealing with librarians and classroom teachers, and help them transition to the current school culture.
  • Enlist the help of cultural “gatekeepers” who are familiar with the relevant cultures and norms to serve as a buffer and help bridge cultural gaps.
  • Identify and address language barriers, and provide materials in simpler English as well as visual resources. Collaborate with English language learners/instructors and teachers of world languages.
  • Provide library and technology glossaries in relevant languages.
  • If students are fluent in another language, provide resources in that language.
  • Provide current information about their home country and culture (e.g.,
  • Review the existing library collection for possible cultural biases and outdated information.
  • Provide opportunities for students to share materials in their own language—both within the school community (including families) and the community at large.
  • Determine students’ experiences with technology and give them support (e.g., library aide buddies, training in English language courses) to help them get onto an equitable footing with other students.
  • Invite speakers, including students’ family members or international college students, to talk about their cultures and their experiences interacting with different cultures.
  • Collaborate with classroom teachers to develop learning activities that incorporate the experiences and perspectives of international students.

As learners straddle two or more cultures, they need to interpret information in light of differing perspectives and negotiate the relevant application of such information to their daily lives. Particularly if the school ethos contradicts familial values, learners might artificially separate those two worlds, try to integrate the two, or reject one set of values. Librarians should take care to respect each student’s cultural stance while noting the importance of learning about the social climate to be experienced as a potential employee. Furthermore, teacher-librarians would do well to contextualize content in terms of students’ local reality or at least build on those realities as students need to assimilate new cultural understandings (McMahon & Bruce 2002).


Building on academic subject matter, incorporating global aspects facilitates the transfer of skills and knowledge across cultural settings. Cultural heritage as content matter helps learners understand the values and belief systems that drive expectations and behaviors of people of different cultures. This knowledge aids in communicating effectively and working together toward mutual goals. At the same time, global literacy can affirm each person’s identity and empower him or her to feel more comfortable about tackling new experiences in novel settings. In sum, information in itself does not impact humanity; it is the relationship between information and humanity that gives it value and impacts society.


Originally published in Library Media Connection 33, no. 5 (March-April 2015)

Lesley S. J. Farmer

Lesley S. J. Farmer

MLA Citation

Farmer, Lesley S. J. "Global Literacy at the Local School Library." ABC-CLIO Solutions, ABC-CLIO, 2022, Accessed 8 Dec. 2022.

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