How Public Libraries Cultivate A Love of Reading
Literacy is one of the most important social challenges facing England today. According to a 2016 OECD report there are more than 9 million working-age adults in England with low literacy skills, numeracy skills, or both. Digital literacy is also an issue, with an estimated 12 per cent of the adult population never having used the internet. Indeed, with an estimated 35 per cent of jobs in the UK at risk of being replaced by automation in the next twenty years, a 2015 House of Lords report identified digital literacy as being as important an educational priority as traditional literacy and numeracy. Even though educational opportunities have expanded in recent years, low basic skills are more common among young people in England than in many other countries.
This has a profound negative impact on future productivity and employability, contributes to social exclusion and can even erode citizenship by limiting one’s ability to understand and participate in government. While addressing the problems of low literacy, numeracy, and digital literacy requires a comprehensive educational approach involving multiple agencies, public libraries can help foster these literacies by cultivating a love for reading and learning among every age group.
Not only is reading the foundation for building strong literacy skills, but recreational reading can be beneficial in its own right. Public libraries in conjunction with the Reading Agency have seen great success with its Reading Well programme, with studies showing that reading for pleasure or empowerment can reduce depression and improve wellbeing. Also, recreational reading can increase empathy and build relationships with other people. Public libraries help cultivate literacy by offering reading programmes such as storytime and book discussion groups; they also participate in nation-wide initiatives promoted by the Reading Agency— including the annual Summer Reading Challenge— and loan short works of fiction published as part of the Reading Agency’s popular Quick Reads series (which was briefly discontinued in 2018 but has recently obtained funding for three additional years thanks to the generosity of best-selling author Jojo Moyes). It is not surprising that the Reading Agency has partnered with libraries to help promote literacy, as libraries provide free access to books and literature to everyone regardless of age, disability, wealth or education. Furthermore, librarians serve as trusted guides to navigating the multiplicity of reading options available to the public, curating lists of books on a variety of topics and themes and providing individual reading recommendations as well.
Literacy extends not just to reading and print materials but encompasses media literacy, digital literacy, and transliteracy as well. Public libraries were among the first cultural institutions to embrace other forms of media such as graphic novels, comics, anime and manga, adding them to their collections as well as providing librarians’ expertise and guidance in understanding and exploring these materials. Librarians today are also just as fluent in technology as they are with books. Transliteracy requires the ability to read, create and interact across a range of platforms— both analog and digital— as well as the faculty to critically evaluate various forms of content, where it is a book, movie, YouTube video or social media posting. In a time where media seamlessly flows back and forth from electronic to print format and vice versa, public libraries serve as a conduit between the physical and virtual worlds and help people bridge the digital gap. Similarly, in an era of so-called “fake news” librarians can furnish people with the skills desperately needed to help discern fact from fiction in both commercial media and public discourse so as to become more educated consumers and more informed participants in their own government.
While libraries and literacy go hand in hand, libraries can also boost numeracy and scientific literacy skills. A recent article in the journal Social Science Research suggests that growing up in a house full of books— whether they are bought or borrowed from the library— provides a major boost to both literacy and numeracy skills. Public libraries also offer various STEM or Makerspace activities that promote scientific literacy and numeracy. For example, the Hull Central Library recently featured a programme where children created, investigated and developed magic tricks, which involve scientific principles and maths. Makerspaces, hackerspaces, and fab labs offer to both children and adults a variety of STEM and STEAM programmes which feature coding, robotics and engineering, all of which reinforce numeracy skills. For example, 3-d printing requires an understanding of ratios and proportions, while coding and robotics foster the development of logical thinking. Even library gaming programs help players assess probabilities and risk as well as teach the importance of trial and error to science and iterative design to engineering. Libraries also organize Adult Literacy and Numeracy support groups and feature speakers who help demystify science and technology and make it accessible to the public through informative lectures.
The basic notion of literacy has changed significantly over the years as society has grown more fluid and complex. Multiple literacies— including digital literacy, media literacy, transliteracy, scientific literacy and numeracy— are now just as important to England’s future as traditional print-based literacy. Public libraries can help foster these new literacies as they have with cultivating a love for reading, by collecting and curating materials in a variety of formats, offering programmes and activities which encourage people to engage in active learning and partnering with other organisations such as the Reading Agency to coordinate their efforts so to maximize their overall potential impact.