Children a constant challenge – also to the library

When Danish public libraries in the mid-eighties started offering access to computers, children were very eager to come and use them. Boys literally fought to get a seat in front of the screen.Many soon followed the example of the front running libraries, and computers in children’s libraries became an absolute hit. In the period from late eighties and till mid-nineties official library statistics show a marked growth in children’s use of libraries. But from the second half of the nineties and to the present day, we witness a constant decline. From 1998 to 2004 the group of most frequent library users among children has halved the number of visits. The public libraries in Denmark still have close contact with 9 out of 10 children, but their visits are becoming more random. The most obvious consequence is that the number of book loans is declining, while use of other media seems to be more stable.

Can we find any reasons for this dramatic change? A possible answer is that the rise and fall in the number of users is due to the same cause: Computers. The rise in the early nineties could thus be explained by the power of attraction of computers in the libraries, and the fall in the new century could be due to the fact that the majority of Danish children have access to a computer, not only in their home, but even in their own room. An average Danish child’s room has over the last years been transformed into a minor media centre – and many, many children’s libraries still look as they did twenty years ago. Did we fail to find new attractions for the children? Did we fail – in our own fascination by the new digital media – to take proper care of a task of basic importance?

Statistics illustrate very clearly this development. Children visit libraries less, read fewer books, even watch fewer television programmes. On the other hand they spend the time saved using the Internet more and playing yet more computer games.

Is this a problem? Maybe not. You may argue that we are talking of modern edutainment and the smart kids certainly learn a lot. But a growing number of less smart kids are becoming losers. When leaving school after nine years they are not able to read well and some of them not at all. The number of functional illiterates is growing. Different surveys of teenagers show somewhat different figures, but the figures are always high. It is one out of four or one out of five or six who are not able to read easily and fluently, depending on the area and the method used in the survey.

The ability to read is a necessary cultural competence.Without good reading skills your position on the job market will be a lousy one, and you will lose control over your life. A huge number of fellow citizens in that position is a disgrace for a wealthy society and the risk of social tensions is evident.

One of the reasons for the unhappy situation is that children read less. You will never ever become a good reader if you only read what you must read in school. So the work that libraries, teachers and parents do to encourage and inspire children to read books is more important than ever.

So let’s face the challenge: Children must become better readers, and book reading is the safest way.We must continue to run campaigns and reading contests, tell stories, read aloud, establish writing workshops and many other well-known activities that truly support reading. But we must also invent new activities and services.We must create the children’s library of the 21. century, and it should be different from that of the age of industrialism.We don’t know in detail how it will develop, we need many more experiments and projects, but I see two particularly exciting challenges. One is to change the traditional library space into an interactive playing-learning-knowledge space. How can this be done? We are dealing with that question. The other is to concentrate much more intensively on the user’s needs. This means that the librarian must invest much more energy outside the library space – in clubs, in schools, in youth centres. It is not an easy job, but it is necessary.

Jens Thorhauge Thorhauge Consulting, independent advisor