Sunday 16 March 2014

Reading Changes Lives conference

I recently attended the Booktrust “Reading Changes Lives” conference in London. Two pieces of research were presented, by DJS Research and the University of Sheffield, which showed that there were significant minorities of adults with negative attitudes towards reading, those who did not read had lower literacy levels, and were more likely to be from disadvantaged backgrounds and lower socio-economic groups. The research also highlighted that a person’s reading history impacted on their habits and attitudes. The reports can be found here:

This research hasn’t really told us anything new; studies by the National Literacy Trust have said much the same thing as have enquiries from the US, Canada and Australia, although I guess it’s good to have UK-based results that are up-to-date and that have been established using a higher sample of the population than previously.

But I have to admit that my immediate response was “what next?” Because it seems to me that it’s a bit pointless and a waste of both time and money if nothing is done, if no-one utilises the results to inform policy regarding libraries and if all they lead to is lots of well-meaning conversations.

The presentations were followed by a panel discussion with Children’s Laureate, Malorie Blackman; the Commissioner of Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Anne Marie Carrie; former Education Secretary, Alan Johnson MP; NIACE Director of Research and Development, Carol Taylor; and Liam Fox MP. This started off well with all of the panellists singing the praises of libraries and telling us how they used them when younger and what differences they’d made to their lives. But as the conversation progressed, I found myself having to bite my tongue at some of the comments made – I didn’t dare put my hand up to respond for fear of not being about to stop the tirade!

For example, the suggestion made by Liam Fox that perhaps it would be cheaper to order everyone books from Amazon rather than have a public library system. Putting aside the fact that a library is NOT just about books, what would people do when they’ve finished with them? They could hardly just pile them up on the coffee table as they’d soon run out of room (and yes, I know my coffee table not to mention three bookcases and several random places around the house have huge piles of books filling them but I think librarians are an exception) so I guess we’d have to organise some sort of swapping arrangement, whereby they could bring their books and exchange them for something else. Oh … hang on … isn’t that what people do in a library?

Liam then suggested that we could give every child an e-reader instead of access to a range of books! Despite the fact that not every book is available as an e-book, that a physical library gives children contact with a much larger number of books than can be stored on an e-reader, that you would lose the wonderful art of browsing and self-discovery, and that somebody would have to select the books (and I dread to think what would be chosen if the Government were involved … Mr Gove’s 50 books comes to mind … shudder!). This comment from a man who only minutes before had told us how he’d benefited personally from libraries. Malorie Blackman was her usual magnificent self, the voice of reason amongst this lunacy, supporting books and libraries, both school and public.

Research shows that people with low literacy levels are at a disadvantage both socially and economically; research shows that reading increases literacy levels; research shows that access to libraries increases reading. If the decision-makers are really concerned about literacy, then they would invest in public libraries and not close them, and they would ensure that every child has access to a school library managed by a professional librarian. When is someone going to join the dots?