A revival in the promotion of literature to young people

The promotion of literature to young people in Norway has received increased attention in recent years. The disturbing situation revealed by surveys of literacy among Norwegian youngsters has led the politicians to react. National initiatives have been launched in order to strengthen the position of literature among young people and new interdisciplinary networks have been developed.

National plans for art and literature
In the course of the last few years two important national projects have been established aimed at protecting and strengthening the place of culture in schools, including literature. These are the National Programme for Arts and Culture in Education (Den kulturelle skolesekken) and ‘Make Room for Reading’. During the coming years these initiatives will be evaluated and the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority is especially interested in defining the role of libraries. Where and how do public libraries find their place in relation to government initiatives and new partners with which to cooperate?

The National Programme for Arts and Culture in Education (Den kulturelle skolesekken)
The aim of the Ministry of Culture and Church Affairs in establishing this programme is to offer school pupils valuable, regular contact with art and culture. Public libraries have used the programme as a means of extending arrangements already long available to schools in the form of book-talks, visits by authors, etc. At the same time the programme’s requirements with regard to innovation and greater quality have brought about an alternative and different presentation of literature in schools. County libraries now offer ‘literary productions’, combining literature with other art forms such as music, rapping, dance and drama. (See SPLQ, Volume 37, No.1.2004)

Make Room for Reading (Gi rom for lesing)
The Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), which revealed the poor reading standards of children and young people, provided the impetus for the project ‘Make Room for Reading’ (2003-2007). The aim of the scheme is to improve pupils’ reading skills, stimulate an interest in books, strengthen and support school libraries and further develop cooperation between school libraries and public libraries. (See SPLQ, Volume 37, No.1.2004)

The Magic of Words (Troll i ord)
This initiative was a three-year, national ‘signal’ project aimed at trying out new ways of presenting literature in order to foster a greater interest in reading among children and young people. At the end of the project, a catalogue of the ideas produced was posted on the Internet for the benefit of those working with literature in kindergartens, schools and libraries.

One of the most successful initiatives consisted of engaging upper secondary school pupils to introduce literature to pupils in the lower grades. In 2002- 2003 this idea was further developed into the ‘Reading Relay’, a nation-wide scheme which progressed from one region to another with the county libraries playing an active and coordinating role. The county library in Troms continues to operate the scheme as a local initiative.

Network creation
If a reading campaign is to succeed, close cooperation is required between a variety of people and many organisations involved. Librarians, booksellers, publishers, authors, artists and teachers all have an important part to play.We must get to know each other better, listen to each other and find common ground in our individual strengths, knowledge and experience. Together we can develop new ways of presenting literature, such as the ‘Book Openers’ project in the county of Aust-Agder, where teachers and librarians have cooperated to offer a service promoting knowledge of literature and reading for pleasure.

Are young readers omnivorous?
We have many preconceptions regarding young people and their reading habits. Two recent surveys have shed light on the significance of libraries for youngsters between the ages of 11 and 17.

In 2004 a number of Norwegian libraries carried out a quantitative study called ‘Free Choice’ in order to determine what books young people actually borrow. The results showed that the image of young people as literary drop-outs is misleading and that behind the statistics there are in fact significant variations. It was also discovered that the pattern of borrowing reflected a considerable variety of interests covering a broad range of genres, subjects, titles and types of media.

The myth that boys are only interested in easy-to-read fantasy literature was also shown to be without foundation.

A follow-up survey employed a qualitative approach involving boys aged 11 to 17 being interviewed in depth as to their views on books, literature and libraries. One result was the discovery that school appears to be the most significant arena for stimulating the urge to read, more so even than the library or reading at home. ‘Free choice’ concluded that libraries represent one of the most important leisure activities for young people and that cooperation with schools offered the best way to introduce them to the world of literature.

Although these surveys provided a few answers, they also raised a greater number of questions. Clearly we require further studies along these lines to determine the relation between young people, reading and the use of libraries.

Problems requiring further investigation

Reading for pleasure or for improvement?
The question of reading as a pastime or in order to acquire knowledge is still a topic of discussion. Some people feel that the National Programme for Arts and Culture in Education focuses on literature as an art form, while ‘Make Room for Reading’ concentrates only on improving reading ability. Others emphasise that the two approaches are not divisible, but complement each other.

How to get young people to read more?
The figures show that young adolescents read less than they did as children. Does it matter? What do young people do instead of reading? Should libraries focus mainly upon those who already have an interest in reading? Will a closer study of those who read make them more visible and perhaps reveal a more varied picture than expected? Can we make use of new and different approaches to reach young people? Do we see in the project ‘Opening a book’ a user philosophy that could perhaps serve as an example worth following?

What do libraries have to offer young boys?
When asked what they do for young boys as a target group, most libraries answer that they have boys in mind in their daily activities, but that they have no special initiatives directed specifically towards them. It would appear that libraries have taken to heart the project report Leave boys to read in peace, which concluded that putting pressure on boys to read can only make the situation worse.Where does the ‘myth’ come from that if boys read at all, they only read fantasy literature? Is this a self-fulfilling prophecy? Do boys find for themselves the literature they want?

How can we make libraries more attractive to young people?
Do libraries and their services get through to young people? Do libraries offer the type of literature and media which interest young people? How do libraries present their services and collections? Do libraries have anything to offer young people independent of the initiatives aimed at schools, such as ‘Make Room for Reading’ and the National Programme for Arts and Culture in Education?

What is the effect of national reading campaigns?
Do national reading campaigns provide a boost to the promotion of literature at a local level? Do these campaigns complement local efforts? Or is it rather the private and regular contact between reader and literature, often in a library, which gives genuine results?

What is the role of the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority?
The work carried out by the Authority in promoting literature and the pleasure of reading is part of the effort being made to strengthen the ability of the public library sector to bring literature to the people. Among the means at the Authority’s disposal is the financing of projects. Libraries can apply direct for financial support of this nature. The Authority also initiates its own projects, often in cooperation with others.

Examples of such projects include ‘Boktrass’, which encourages the establishment of branch libraries in kindergartens and promotes reading as a means of avoiding language problems among kindergarten children, ‘Whichbook’, an adaptation of the English language literature database to suit Norwegian requirements, with particular focus on the literary preferences of the reader and ‘Leseravner’, which arranges for the use of volunteers in bringing literature to the people.

The Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority houses the secretariat for the National Programme for Arts and Culture in Education and has a representative in the reference group for ‘Make Room for Reading’. The Authority is an active partner in all government initiatives concerned with literacy.

Translated by Eric Deverill Photo by courtesy of iStock photo

adviser Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority
Adviser, Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority and project leader for ‘Ønskebok’ in its development phase