What is functional literacy? According to the widely used UNESCO definition from 1978 functional literacy means:
“A person is functionally literate who can engage in all those activities which literacy is required for effective functioning of his [or her] group or community and also for enabling him [her] to continue to use reading, writing and calculation for his [or her] own and the community’s development” (Education for All Global Monitoring Report 2006, p. 30).
The concept is not unproblematic. In UNESCOs Second Global Report on Adult Learning and Education: Rethinking Literacy (2013) following critique is put forward:
“The notion of “functional literacy” has been heavily criticised as instrumental and biased towards economic activity. However, literacy is always “functional”, since it equips people with skills that allow them to function, so there is no need for such a qualifier. These definitions have been framed within education statistics, so they are mostly operational definitions for measurement purposes” (2013, p. 20).
However, we find the concept useful in the sense of contextualising reading and writing. Even though the definition may seem instrumental, the concept has the benefit of separating different aspects of literacy, and put forward a concept of literacy useful in rethinking public library work with regard to democratic participation and social inclusion. It asks fundamental questions about what kind of texts and reading that is valued in society as well as in public libraries.