‘You’ve changed my life’, a teenager told a librarian. The cause of his claim? A summer holiday library reading campaign. This article explores the role of libraries in supporting young people’s reading, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
The context for this piece is to be found in a number of recent reports. Broke, Not Broken: Tackling Youth Poverty and the Aspiration Gap1 highlights the impact of poverty on young people’s lives. Material poverty in young adulthood is strongly linked to poverty of expectations and life-chances. Additionally, the report shows that one in three 16-24 year-olds from poor backgrounds were rarely or never read to by their parents; more than a quarter had few or no books in their homes. These things matter. National Literacy Trust research demonstrates a clear relationship between young people’s access to books at home and their reading ability and attitudes to reading.2 We know from analysis of PISA data that social mobility in England has a strong correlation with book ownership and reading enjoyment.3 The National Literacy Trust and the School Library Commission have proved clear links between public and school library use and reading attainment and positive attitudes to reading.4,5
Libraries are helping daily to bridge the gap that exists between many teenagers and reading, making interventions that have a particularly profound effect on those teenagers dealt a less than privileged hand: for example looked-after teenagers, teenage mothers and teenage carers, teenagers with learning difficulties, excluded pupils, teenage refugees and asylum seekers, young offenders. They are reaching teenagers who in many cases have never before found any relevance in reading, let alone any enjoyment. Even relatively privileged teenagers experience barriers to reading. A new OFCOM report tells us that teenagers are less likely to read books if they own smartphones.6 Books often compete unsuccessfully with computers and computer games, television and young people’s social lives. Schools can inadvertently themselves create barriers to reading. A teenage girl told a seminar I recently co-ran that she had so much school work that she had no time for reading, a view replicated in 2010 Kids & Family Reading Report: Turning the Page in the Digital Age,7 an interesting American report. The barriers are much higher among those who are not committed readers.
That seminar I mentioned was entitled Public Libraries and Social Justice,8 and my session was on promoting reading to young people. We explored ways that libraries can impact on young people’s reading and in turn their life-chances. Four teenagers spoke eloquently about the catalysts for their reading, and the role that their local library service in the London Borough of Barnet had played. I especially liked the name Barnet’s young people chose for their book groups: Me Myshelf and I, and the title Barnet’s Futureversity Manga-tastic group gave to a collaborative comic book they published. Mangas and Bash depicts a fantasy world of angels and vampires, illustrated in a manga style.9 Importantly, they also talked about their involvement in informing Barnet libraries’ offer to young people, as members of a library advisory board, and as volunteers on reading promotions such as the Summer Reading Challenge.10 Good library services are excellent at engaging young people in decision processes, and that makes a huge difference to perceptions of both libraries and reading. Up and down the country, teenagers are helping libraries and librarians with resource selection, library design, library displays, reading promotions and more. Barnet Libraries’ innovative range of activities for young people have produced significant increases in library membership, library use and library loans.
Freedom of choice is one of the most fundamental ways in which libraries support and encourage teenage reading. Teenagers hate being told what to read, although surveys show that they value help in choosing what to read.11,12 Nobody knows teenage books better than library staff. Providing appropriate reading materials, and making sure that young people can access them easily, is crucial. For libraries to appeal to teenagers they must reflect their reading interests and tastes. Teenagers’ favourite reading is online and magazines.13 The best libraries are responding to this. Many consult with teenagers over which magazines titles to stock. Many use the internet very creatively to promote reading. E-books are becoming an increasingly significant part of many libraries’ collections. As one of the students at that recent seminar pointed out, there is a huge value to the anonymity that e-reading confers: no-one else needs to know that you are reading to discover your sexuality for example. E-reading is more accessible than the printed page to many teenagers with reading difficulties. They also need books with a high interest level combined with a low reading age. Lots of teenagers like books they do not have to read cover-to-cover and lots like comic books, but there is a big appetite for serious teenage fiction and non-fiction too, and for adult reading. How important it is that library staff never make assumptions about teenagers’ reading, and that they listen to what teenagers want. A librarian on a course I gave told everyone about a group of looked-after teenagers she was working with. When she asked what they wanted to read, her expectation was that they would request escapism. No, they requested books that would help them break out of the cycle of deprivation. A librarian told me about a project he was involved in with a local young offenders institution. He talked to the inmates about what they would like to read. Again the response was unexpected: love poetry. They wanted to send love poems to their girlfriends. (They did so, changing ‘thou’ to ‘you’.) Both these examples also highlight the importance of library outreach in bringing the reading message to teenagers who have not yet discovered reading’s value. The current cuts to library budgets threaten this valuable work, along with so much else that libraries are doing to change young people’s attitudes to reading.14
For many teenagers reading is too boring, too old-fashioned, too passive and too solitary. The best libraries and librarians are making reading interesting, fun, relevant, collaborative and active. They know the importance of peer recommendation for teenagers and encourage the booklovers among them to spread the word about favourite books through blogs, twitter, texts and indeed talk. They host great reading clubs for teenagers - groups that value all teenage reading, and do not disparage magazines and other reading materials that matter to them. I know of a library Discworld group started and run by young people that attracts teenagers who want earnest discussions about the intricacies of Pratchett’s fantasy world, teenagers who want to explore his graphic novels together, and teenagers who like painting miniature Discworld figures. I know a number of thriving school and public library manga clubs.
Lots of libraries - school, college and public - promote teenage reading through creative activities: collaborative online book-writing, drama, story-boarding, making computer animations of favourite books. Lots bring in story-tellers, authors, poets and graphic novelists to run reading and writing workshops. I was delighted recently to hear crime writer Ann Cleeves talk about her workshops. She uses scene-of-crime tape from a friend in the police force to mark out a mock murder site, whips up students’ interest and then gets them writing their own crime stories. (Though some schools’ approaches to creative writing appal her. One English teacher went from table to table criticising students’ punctuation, and instructing them to write longer sentences. When Cleeves remonstrated, pointing out that crime writing needs to be pacey, so short sentences are absolutely appropriate, the teacher responded that students had to demonstrate the ability to write with linked clauses. Hardly the way to encourage either writing or reading.)
I attended a library Warhammer workshop15 not long ago and watched dozens of teenage boys, that demographic often perceived as the most resistant to reading, crowd into the library to create fantasy figures and to play elaborate war games. A huge amount of reading went on, as they consulted an array of sophisticated books and manuals.
Adversity and recession need not spell the end of successful initiatives. Collaborative and creative activities do not have to be expensive. At the cheaper end of the spectrum, lots of libraries offer popular quizzes, competitions and games. Extreme ironing has become well known. I love it when school libraries run extreme reading challenges: students have pictures taken of themselves as they read in unlikely places - a great source of inspirational photos for the library. Teenagers need reading role models.16 What a great way to provide them.17
And of course crucially library staff are themselves excellent role models and ambassadors for reading. They can indeed change teenagers’ lives. I will end with the words of a teenage boy about the impact on him of an inspirational librarian I know:
I never used to pick up a book, only occasionally if I liked the cover, but I would hardly ever read it. Then the librarian gave me Skellig and I’ve not stopped reading since. I’m seriously addicted now. If books were food, I would be seriously overweight.
Libraries: purveyors of an entirely benevolent form of obesity to teenagers.
1 Broke, not Broken: Tackling Youth Poverty and the Aspiration Gap, Prince’s Trust, 2011, www.princes-trust.org.uk/pdf/PovertyReport_170511.pdf