Libraries play a crucial role as the framework for dialogue between different groups of people in the local community. In the project ‘Bookstart’ librarians look in on potential users in their own homes, bringing book gifts for the children and an invitation to visit the library. Libraries play a crucial role as the framework for dialogue between different groups of people in the local community. In the project ‘Bookstart’ librarians look in on potential users in their own homes, bringing book gifts for the children and an invitation to visit the library.

Today Denmark has a quite unacceptable large group of youngsters who cannot read when they leave the Folkeskole. The Pisa Study talks in terms of 16-17 %, and the dramatic drop-out figures at the youth educations clearly indicate that the problem is not just academic – and not just a problem related to immigrants. No single measure can solve this social problem. But one initiative has proved successful in relation to the reading problem and that is an early offer of books taken right into the children’s homes. It has been happening in a number of countries, England leading the way with the so-called ‘Bookstart’ programmes where health care staff or librarians visit families in their homes bringing a book gift for the children three-four times before they actually start school. The book gifts are supplemented with offers of activities for the children and their families at the local library and in the residential areas, typically rhymes and jingles and story-telling.

The Danish Agency for Libraries and Media has just launched a project with book gifts for children when they are 6, 12, 18 and 36 months old. The book gifts are followed by other offers and initiatives to encourage language stimulation. The programme runs initially for four years and for this period includes children from disadvantaged residential areas, as the programme is funded by government means earmarked for vulnerable citizens. In the longer term the aim is to extend the concept so as to reach all children in Denmark.

The project stresses the perspectives of a broadening of the library’s role in the local community: In disadvantaged residential areas the library can make a difference on a par with health visitors, job counselling and ‘friend visitors’. The results from a number of projects in Denmark indicate that the library is a good frame when being introduced into the community, and by starting already when the children are only six months old the chances are that this will leave a deep impression on the child’s access to knowledge and books.

The Language Portal – an inspiration

The inspiration for Bookstart comes as mentioned primarily from England, but also the Swedish Markaryd model has been a source of inspiration, as indeed has the Danish pilot project ‘Language Portal’. The Language Portal mediates the libraries’ offers and creates a contact to families with an ethnic background other than Danish. The aim is to improve children’s language and turn them into good readers.

Copenhagen Libraries have launched the project, which includes selected residential areas with many residents of a different ethnic background. The encouraging results so far mean that the project is now being extended to several parts of Copenhagen.

The library visits the families in the area to give the child a book gift and talk to the parents about the importance of reading and talking to their child. The family is encouraged to visit the library and be introduced to the many possibilities for borrowing, playing and cultural activities. Each family is visited three times. The first visit takes place immediately following the child’s birth, while the last one is made just before the child starts school. The library works closely with the local players, i.a. health care, residents’ committee and the local school.

The Language Portal also ‘follows’ the children at school. The library visits the classes and attends parents’ meetings. By seeking out children and parents directly via the school, the library is given the opportunity to present the many offers of experiences and informal learning that are available. The intention is to support children in their reading and to widen their Danish conceptual world and thereby increase their academic level.

A means of change

There are many obvious advantages in launching a Bookstart programme. Basically Bookstart is about mediation of children’s literature, but at the same time it suggests that literature can be used actively as an instrument for early learning and social change. The project has many ‘side effects’ which each can be scaled down or emphasized according to the overall objectives.

These might be concerned with breaking negative social heritage, supporting parents in taking responsibility for the children’s learning, giving children early literacy compe- tences to ‘read’, decode text and pictures and understand a narrative sequence. It might also be a question of inviting the children into a (Danish) ‘Bildung’ culture or wanting to provide the child with rich literary and aesthetical experiences right from birth.

These and many more objectives have been taken into consideration when discussing which essential values the Danish Bookstart programme should promote.

When all is said and done, the utility value must be given highest priority: Is it going to be used? The programme must first of all appeal to the families to whom it is offered, and the families must see Bookstart as a worthy and meaningful offer.

The book parcels must in fact be useful in the home, and finally the programme must develop the libraries’ role as inclusive and integrating institutions. In order to examine the utility value and effect of Bookstart, a PhD position is attached to the programme at the Danish School of Education, Aarhus University.

A ‘playing approach’ to literature

The message of Bookstart is that one does not need any special knowledge to motivate and stimulate small children to read books. The most important thing that the libraries can pass on is that when parents read with their children they must exude enthusiasm. Willing hands make light work – so the saying goes – and the crucial thing is that the children are willing and ready to experience the books, touch them, chew them and examine them. It is the being together and having a good time that gives infant literature its strength and opens up an opportunity to use the langue, to describe in words and to make noises. Another important point is that it does not matter very much which language you are speaking. Language stimulation is not about learning to speak one language only, but rather of using one’s language, whether it be babble language, nonsense language, Danish, Arabic or Chinese.

The children who participate in the entire programme get a total of 16 different books including CDs with music and reading. The materials are chosen by a panel of experts on toddlers, children’s literature and mediation. Some criticism has been voiced in the press as to one of the titles included in the programme. This was a picture book with photos from a Danish family home with interiors that would hardly ring any bells with the Somali immigrants. They should have had pictures from their own culture, according to the critics who suggest that it is a reflection of an ethnocentric attitude to give immigrant children in Denmark pictures of Danish children. It is certainly an interesting discussion! However, the Bookstart programme is not initially an integration project, but a language stimulation project and the materials are therefore not chosen primarily on the basis of ethnicity. The book committee’s attitude is that as a reader one can easily identify with persons even though they have a different coloured skin or live in a different environment. On a superior level literature is also about the exact opposite, namely meeting and being confronted with different worlds. Having said this, it is to be wished that more books were published that reflect Denmark as it looks today, that is to say a multi-cultural society where children of many different ethnicities live.

The library is also an important part of integration work, says John Andersen, professor of urban studies at Roskilde University. In vulnerable residential areas the library makes a difference on a par with health visitors, job counselling and ‘friend visitors’. In the library the residents get more contacts and experiences in their daily lives. Examples from Vollsmose in Odense and Gellerup in Århus show that the library is a good frame within which to be introduced to society, and the social function will be completely neglected, when libraries are closed down, says sociologist Sara Lea Rosenmeier.

The Bookstart programme starts delivering books to the homes from March 2009. When the programme finishes in 2012 about 20,000 children will have experienced Bookstart. Bookstart operates in 20 different residential areas in 15 municipalities spread across Denmark.

Anna Enemark

New project manager Bookstart:
Kamma Kirk Sørensen

kks AT

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield

New project manager Bookstart: Kamma Kirk Sørensen