Public Libraries, Literacy, and (Re)Building a Nation of Readers

Libraries in England serve as a bridge between publishers, education, and reading for pleasure, with librarians serving as trusted guides to help communities discover new voices.

Reading for pleasure is a time-honoured pastime dating back to the Georgian period, when books became widely available to the general public for the first time via industrial mass publication and the advent of lending libraries. With a focus on literacy as a tool for both moral and social improvement, England soon thereafter became a nation of readers, bolstered by the official establishment of public libraries in 1852.

Although reading for pleasure has been associated with myriad benefits including improved educational outcomes and better overall wellness, a 2017 study by the National Literacy Trust indicates that reading for pleasure is in a state of deep decline— especially among English youth, with only ⅓ of teenage boys in the UK reporting that they enjoy reading. To combat this alarming trend, CILIP has recently allied itself with Nielsen Book to launch its Building a Nation of Readers campaign, a long-term partnership among authors, publishers, booksellers, distributors and libraries towards the goal of a “vibrant, sustainable library, book and e-book ecosystem, promoting readership and diversity for all ages.”

While the practical utility of literacy has long been appreciated and incentivised in the UK and helped lead to the creation of public libraries in England, educational and social welfare institutions have only just begun to realise the importance of reading for pleasure as well. Not only does reading for pleasure build empathy, wellbeing and understanding, but it has been shown to correlate with increased lifetime earnings, improved attainment, and even better physical and mental health. In fact, people who read regularly are less likely to experience depressive symptoms than those who do not read. Recognizing these salutary benefits, The Reading Agency has created the Reading Well programme, which consists of reading lists which have been curated for people living with specific health conditions such as dementia and mental health, or other long-term medical conditions. There is also a separate list of recommended books for youth who are struggling with depression, bullying and anxiety. Rather than sending people to the chemist, physicians are increasingly prescribing books to their patients, as reading can help promote overall wellness in a way that drugs cannot.

According to a 2013/14 report, England ranks 23rd out of 23 OECD nations for teenage literacy and is the only OECD nation where the literacy rate for 16-24 year olds is lower than the rate for 55-65 year olds. Yet at the same time however both the 2017 study and a follow-up in 2019 by the National Literacy Trust show that 78.6% of children in the UK aged 5-8 enjoy reading even as fewer and fewer of them read for pleasure on a daily basis. So while there is undeniably a reading crisis among English youth, there is at the same time a clear opportunity to foster children’s early love of reading and cultivate a nation of lifelong readers. Although the UK publishing industry is not quite at the record highs achieved in 2016, sales of digital books continue to rise fueled in part by interest in books driven by celebrity “blockbuster” authors. CILIP’s Building a Nation of Readers campaign seeks to capture this momentum and build on it through a series of strategic partnerships between readers and publishers, utilizing libraries, booksellers, community groups and authors. 

Building— or perhaps more accurately “re-building”— a nation of readers first and foremost requires a commitment to literacy at the national level. Too often we allow public policy to be determined by the current mood of the electorate and the invisible hand of commerce, but literacy for all in England should not be a point of negotiation or compromise. Furthermore, the publishing industry needs to embrace a true diversity of ideas and voices. Although the demographic composition of England is changing rapidly, publishers have been slow to reflect these shifts with a wider selection of women and underrepresented minority authors. Representation matters, especially when attempting to engage an increasingly-diverse English youth whose attention is also being zealously courted by screen and social media advertisers. 

Effecting this kind of transformation within the publishing industry will entail greater democratisation of the book supply chain, eschewing the antiquated, hierarchical system of gatekeepers and 20th century industrial modes of literary production in favor of a more flexible and dynamic system which allows for multiple points of entry to new and emerging authors. Although publishers continue to consolidate their wealth and profits, authors themselves are making less money every year. According to a 2018 study by the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society, earnings from writing in the UK have fallen by 15% since 2013 (and a staggering 43% since 2005!), even as the creative industries in the UK have grown at twice the rate of the rest of the economy as a whole. Building a nation of readers requires a new publishing ecosystem where more authors are able to make a living wage, thus ensuring a broader representation of books for English readers.

How do public libraries fit into this picture? Libraries serve as a bridge between publishers, education, and reading for pleasure, with librarians serving as trusted guides to help communities discover new voices. Libraries also directly support authors by holding public readings and speaking engagements, book discussion clubs, and of course purchasing multiple copies of their books. Public libraries promote local authors and independent booksellers and can even participate as partners in the publication process by providing assistance, support, and community to self-published authors. Simply by virtue of being safe and welcoming spaces which are open to all, libraries foster a diversity of both readers and content, which is the very cornerstone upon which we can build a new nation of readers. 

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