Reading At Risk
Prime Time Brain Drain
By Sue Cauthen
The widespread furor over a National Endowment for
study which found that book reading is seriously in decline continues
to build momentum. The prestigious philanthropic think tank predicts a
"dire" future for America's cultural heritage if the trend is not
No wonder then that its "Reading at Risk" survey has
attracted more press commentary — 300 at last count — than anything the
NEA has done in the past decade. The Endowment commissioned the Census
Bureau to study reading habits of 17,000 adults and found a "distressing"
14% drop in reading of novels, plays, and poetry over a 10-year period.
What is perhaps even more disturbing is that NEA found a 7% decline in
those who had read any book, including political analysis,
biography, and history.
Convinced that the intellectual fabric of American
society is in peril, the NEA is meeting with educators, writers,
journalists, and publishers across the US to sound the alarm. The reaction
of the California Reading & Literature Project, for example, was swift and
satisfying. "We've got to get back to literary reading," said Carol Jago,
director of the influential teacher training group. She is spearheading a
program to support English language learners and promote literacy and love
But one segment of the educational community has
remained strangely unmoved: librarians. Denial and indifference is a
pervasive response, both nationwide and in San Francisco. In comparison to
other groups, "librarians react defensively," said Mark Bauerlein,
director of research at NEA. "It's almost as if they think they're going
to be blamed."
A National Emergency
The Endowment links the reading gap to the massive
shift toward electronic media and calls the result "a national emergency
that is being ignored." Literary skills foster good thinking patterns,
which in turn produce informed and engaged citizens, says Bauerlein.
Reading is an active pursuit, requiring concentration, contemplation, and
involvement. And the fact is that these literary skills are being lost.
San Francisco Public Library, for one, is in the
forefront of the trend. Over the last 10 years, there has been increasing
emphasis on providing computer access and audio-visual entertainment.
Faced with scarce space, especially in neighborhood branches, and the
constant push to increase circulation and library use, SFPL has
systematically reduced its book supply in favor of crowd-pleasing goodies
like videos, DVDs, and CDs. This occurs despite surveys showing that
patrons want more books.
Concurrently, library administrators are using a $106
million bond issue to double and triple the number of computers in the
branches, even in neighborhoods where there is broad computer ownership in
the home. This inordinate emphasis on technology and a focus on quantity
of check-outs rather than quality has led to a benign neglect of
libraries' critical role in drawing people to literature. This is a
mindset that favors converting libraries into community centers where
books battle video games for students' attention. .
Former San Francisco city librarian Susan Hildreth's
plan was to turn branch libraries into "meeting places," replete with
conference rooms, lounges, and separate areas for teens, adults, and
children. But some neighborhoods balked at losing book-centered libraries
and SFPL modified its stance somewhat. Now that Hildreth is state
librarian, her focus has broadened to embrace books and reading as ends in
Make no mistake, however. The "community center"
ethos is alive and well at the upper echelons of SFPL. It is up to the
Newsom administration to decide whether to perpetuate it. Room 200 at City
Hall has the final say on who is San Francisco's new head librarian. It is
also the mayor's prerogative to select a Library Commission that is
knowledgeable, committed and capable of providing creative solutions to
the complex issues facing the 21st-century library.
There is another way. Respected library systems like
those in Seattle and San Jose are widely praised for building new main
libraries and branches that significantly increase book collections and
improve internet access as well. Books and computers co-exist amicably in
Marin County's libraries, with the focus comfortably on the former.
Clearly, computer technology is essential in
providing quick and easy access to information. But books provide
knowledge and it is this function that some — but decidedly not all —
metropolitan libraries are downgrading. The causal relationship is one
source of the raw material that produced the National Endowment for the
Arts' "Reading at Risk" study.
It is a wakeup call for educators and legislators,
one that continues to provoke massive media attention. A Public
Broadcasting System panel dissected the implications in a "Forum"
broadcast last month. Despite the many odes to the book, to literature and
literacy, there was a nervous celebration of the status quo blended with a
desire to do better. "We're taking this on," said the head of the State
Department of Education, noting that the Schwarzenegger regime is pumping
$500 million into textbooks and school supplies.
"We have to remain relevant," former SFPL head
librarian Susan Hildreth told the PBS panel, praising the California
Center for the Book but noting that on-line reading is a different method
of obtaining information. Interestingly, since she has taken over as state
librarian in Sacramento, Hildreth has broadened her view. "We were too
focused on technology," she said. "Now we're reengaging with reading." But
are they really?
Librarians say that circulation is up, said NEA
literature director Cliff Becker, but that could be part of the problem.
The question is what people are checking out. Is it books, or videos? Do
people visit libraries for information, entertainment, or knowledge? Are
librarians reflecting cultural shifts rather than shaping them?
Role of the Library
Or has the function of libraries changed, asks
Becker. "Have they stopped being the house of the book and started being
the house of something else?" He and his NEA colleagues have called on
libraries to release information on what people are borrowing.
"We hope libraries will look at their statistics on
check-outs and define them by category," said Keith Stephens, senior
policy analyst at NEA. "They could use the Dewey Decimal System or the
Library of Congress system." This would give educators a sample of what
books people are reading and what other media they are borrowing. For
example, a breakdown of fiction and non-fiction reading would be an
invaluable trend-spotter. "We want to know what libraries base their
circulation figures on."
The end product is what reading books means for
society. The NEA study found that literary readers play a more active role
in community life, from volunteerism to philanthropy to politics. Or as
Endowment director Dana Gioia puts it: The long-term implications of the
decline in book reading presage "a retreat from civic and cultural life."
Just as there is more than one cause for the current
situation, there is more than solution. It will take an effort from
legislators, educators, librarians, publishers, and writers to preserve
our literary heritage. The NEA is working to jump-start a national debate
to promote awareness and action. It is important to understand, says Gioia,
that "America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted."
Reading is a specific intellectual skill, he notes. A
print culture develops concentration and "irreplaceable forms of focused
attention and contemplation that make complex insights possible." As more
Americans lose these abilities, active and independent participation
languishes. "These are not qualities a free, innovative, or productive
society can afford to lose."
Cauthen. Cauthen is chair of the Neighborhood Library
Coalition and a former English teacher.