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Reading Is in Decline: If Not You, Then Who?

by on January 20, 2017

If you were all fired up over Bob Dylan receiving the Nobel Prize for Literature last fall, you were not alone. Amid congratulatory accolades for Dylan, there arose a sentiment of wonder and woe questioning the Nobel committee for not selecting an author of literary stock. If that wasn’t enough to provoke the ire of librarians, statistics and surveys show a decline in reading:

  • Results published in August from the National Endowment for the Art’s Annual Arts Basic Survey cited a decline in reading for pleasure.[1]
  • Only 51 percent of children said they love or like reading books for fun, compared to 58 percent in 2012 and 60 percent in 2010, and reading enjoyment declines sharply after age eight, according to Scholastic’s The State of Kids & Reading.[3]

Statistical reports are further distributed through secondary sources with pointed headlines like:

As disappointed as librarians might be, we must realize there are opportunities and challenges for us. Opportunities exist because we know there is much good in reading for everyone. Reading has many benefits—many of which are documented in scientific studies: reducing stress, improving sleep, increasing vocabulary, fostering empathy, increasing concentration, improving memory, and engaging the brain.

As public libraries have rebranded themselves as centers of learning and technology, are they still doing the book thing? Storytime, summer reading, book displays, early literacy programs, and book discussions are still offered in libraries. One of the greatest challenges we face, however, is that our relationship with a patron is not as mandatory as it is with school librarians.  The job we have in front of us becomes even more difficult when school libraries in our community close or they are not adequately staff by certified, degreed librarians. A child is required to attend school, but they are not required to visit the public library. That is why reaching the child requires us to reach the parent.

To foster a long-lasting love of reading in a child, it is critical to get their parents’ involvement. By taking a two-generation approach, libraries can provide opportunities for meeting the needs of children and their parents.

Programs like Every Child Ready to Read supports parents and caregivers with the early literacy development of their children birth to age five. Librarians should also look out in their community to network with other local literacy efforts. Some may be national organizations with local chapters such as Reach Out and Read, an evidence-based program which builds on the unique relationship between parents and medical providers to develop critical early reading skills in children. Books for Babies, an initiative with ALA’s United for Libraries, is a great outreach program to new parents who may not know the many benefits of reading to their newborns.

Public librarians must focus their efforts on early child literacy to foster the love of reading in their communities. If you can reach the parent, you can reach the child. There may be many places where your patrons can get free Wi-Fi, but where are they going to learn to be good readers? If not you, then who?


[1]Arts Data Profile #10 (August 2016) – Results from the Annual Arts Basic Survey (AABS): 2013-2015,” National Endowment for the Arts, August 29, 2016.

[2] Jim Milliot, “Pew Survey Shows Adult Reading in Decline,” Publishers Weekly, October 23, 2016.

[3]Kids & Family Reading Report, 5th Edition,” Scholastic, 2015.

[4] Christopher Ingraham, “The long, steady decline of literary reading,” Washington Post, September 7, 2016.

[5] Charlotte Alter, “Study: The Number of Teens Reading for Fun Keeps Declining,” Time, May 12, 2014.

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