Curling up with a book stays popular, even in TV era. Still, improving the literacy rate is high on the agenda of US libraries

Some Americans would rather curl up with a newspaper or magazine these days than a good book. But the fact that they're still reading the printed page in the television and computer age is good news, according to Beverly Lynch and her fellow librarians.

``There was a lot of concern in the '50s and '60s that television was going to take over people's leisure time, but there is a great deal of reading going on,'' says Dr. Lynch, who will become president of the American Library Association (ALA) at the close of the group's conference here today. ``I think we feel very `up' about that aspect of public library support.''

Despite a number of reports lately documenting the decline in reading and the rise in illiteracy in this country, a recently published survey by the Book Industry Study Group, a nonprofit corporation of librarians and publishers, indicates 94 percent of all Americans over 16 are readers.

About half of these regular readers read books and spend close to 15 hours a week on that hobby. That is almost as much time as the average adult watches TV, according to the same survey.

The Study Group, which published a similar survey in 1978, found that the number of readers stayed about the same. But more, particularly blue-collar workers, 16-to-20 year olds and those over 50, have been shifting from books to periodicals.

Concern about the current state of reading and the inability of many Americans to understand the written word has led the nation's libraries in recent years to join the fight against illiteracy.

Dr. Lynch, who is the university librarian at the Chicago campus of the University of Illinois, notes that the ALA has been training tutors since 1979. She says the ALA recently organized a coalition of 11 groups, which is in the midst of an intensive three-year public education effort.

``The promotion of literacy is very high on our agenda,'' says Lynch, who notes that many librarians hope such efforts may help reach urban minorities. In recent years libraries have begun to offer borrowers everything from sewing machines and cameras to garden tools and electric typewriters. But that may be a passing phenomenon, Lynch says. ``Most of it is a public-relations attempt to get people to realize there's more in libraries than dust,'' she says.

The computer, too, has opened up information in many libraries, making information quickly available to most users. Lynch says most libraries will have automated their card catalogs within the next 10 years.

Beyond that, many libraries can now do a ``free search'' of topics from a variety of sources, improving the customer's access to all library resources. Many libraries are still struggling with the question of whether or not and how much to charge customers for use of this sophisticated indexing service. Vendors do charge libraries for access to the computer file. ``It's a real dilemma,'' she says.

Dr. Lynch says it is not just more data, but the right kind that people need most from libraries.

``People say they want more information to make research decisions but they really don't,'' she says. ``Some people are absolutely paralyzed by too much information. There is so much information coming in at you that you have to use some system of values or something else to decide what you'll use. And the whole question of value judgments in providing information is a very critical one for libraries.''

Other dilemmas librarians and library boards face these days, she says, include questions of professional ethics and a rising number of censorship challenges.

There has been a threefold increase in censorship challenges since 1979, largely in elementary and secondary school libraries. Judy Blume, a writer of books for teenagers, is an author whose works are frequently challenged. One common result is that a book remains on the shelf, but is moved to a different grade level, she says.

Librarians and their clerical help are also increasingly under pressure these days to tell who has checked out a particular book so the borrower can speed things along, she says. ``It may sound like a simple ethical question . . . but when the head of the chemistry department in a university library is screaming at you, it's not.''

One piece of good news: For many public libraries the great budget crunch of a few years ago has eased. Both operating hours and funds to buy materials have increased. Lynch predicts many libraries will turn increasingly to private fund raising for supplementary funds.

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