Literature in the workplace

When launching the Year of Reading 2010, the Ministry of Culture decided that adults who are not regular readers should be the main target group. Libraries thereby received a golden opportunity to promote their services to a section of the population that rarely makes use of them. To reach out to as many adults as possible, workplaces were chosen as the main arena for the Year of Reading project.

The idea for the Year of Reading 2010 was launched by the Norwegian Library Association (NLA) and the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). The objective was to reach out to adults who read very infrequently, and to use their workplaces as an arena. Many adults have such poor reading skills that they have difficulty in functioning adequately in the contemporary labour market and in social life. One of the key actors was the Association Read (an idealistic association aiming to generate enthusiasm for reading in the entire population), where I worked as project director for the Year of Reading 2010. The association had already initiated a project called “Read to me, daddy!”, the main purpose of which was to encourage adults (men) to read to their children, and to motivate men (fathers) to become positive reading role models. Through the project Read to me, daddy! reading agents were recruited from the library sector all over the country. These agents have undertaken the dissemination of literature and lectured on the value of reading at meetings with parents in schools and day-care centres. The Association Read also produced the anthology Read to me, daddy for free distribution to stimulate the enthusiasm of would-be readers.

The main objective of the project Read to me, daddy! was well suited to the purpose of the Year of Reading 2010, and we chose to develop this project further during that year. In cooperation with the Norwegian Archive, Library and Museum Authority, Association Read and Norwegian Writers’ Centre implemented a promotional project that offered visits by authors and reading agents to businesses free of charge. Instead of waiting for busy adults to discover or rediscover the joy of reading books and then visiting the library on their own initiative, the librarians emerged from their accustomed environment and entered the workplaces accompanied by an author. Doubts about the unfamiliar were absolutely tangible on both sides. The library employees found it somewhat scary to intrude into somebody else’s working hours. Many businesses also failed to see the value of using working time for this purpose. However, as these visits increased in number and positive feedback flowed in, the ball really started rolling. Many reading agents received a boost to their confidence from a successful business visit or two, and were inspired to contact further enterprises. Many welcomed the visits by the authors as a break from their daily routine, and a number of adults, who would not normally go to cultural events, got a chance to do so in their own workplace. The Association Read compiled the anthology Clean text intended to appeal to adult employees, and the books were distributed free of charge during the  business visits. The objective was to provide samples of the best and most recent books available on the market, and thereby to inspire people to enjoy reading.

Promotion of reading under the auspices of the trade union movement

The trade union movement also chose to make authors’ visits a main undertaking. Workplaces all over the country from all conceivable industries have since made use of the offer. In addition to the authors’ visits, the unions have distributed packages of books, so that workplaces can have their own libraries. The packages contained a varied selection of fiction for adults, documentary literature, comics and books for children and adolescents. In addition, all the packages contained the anthologies Clean text and Read to me, daddy! The books were strategically placed in canteens and similar locations. Many employees read all the books in the package, and called for new ones as replacements. This direct access to books has been a popular easy-access opportunity. This is almost reminiscent of advertising: the more you are reminded of a need you are not initially aware of having, the more pressing this need gradually becomes!

Success factors

Facilitation provided by the workplaces in finding suitable premises and informing the employees of the event has been crucial to the authors’ visits.  Contributions by enthusiastic shop  stewards or managers have served to ensure the success of the visits. In businesses where the working day involves very repetitive tasks, the experience of a somewhat different working day has been positive. Not all visits have been equally successful, but this may have been because the choice of date was unsuitable. In other businesses the management was unwilling to let the visit take place in working hours, so that it had to be scheduled for the lunch break. An under- standing of the potential positive effects of cultural input during working hours has therefore been essential. Not least, the reading agents have obtained a unique opportunity to promote the services of the libraries to a group with a minimal borrowing frequency. They could provide information on the national library card and the opportunity toborrow other types of items, such as films and games, as well as promote local events at the library to adults who may not have visited it before. The threshold for visiting the library has been lowered, in that they now know a librarian who works there, and they also have information about its location and opening hours. Several workplaces have later arranged return visits to the library.

The library – a place to go

Through my year as project director for the Year of Reading 2010 in The Association Read I was really reminded of the unique service that libraries provide to our society. In recent years libraries have undergone modernization, in terms of premises as well as services, and the librarians whom I met through the project were highly innovative people who embrace social media and other technological innovations with great zeal. Like many others, I was a frequent user of the library in my childhood and youth, but my visits became gradually less frequent as I got older and got a job, a husband and children. The problem was not that I had started to dislike the library, I had only in a sense forgotten how much I used to like it. I have the impression that many other adults feel the same.

In the meanwhile, libraries across the country have transformed themselves into quite different places than the rather dusty spaces with subdued sounds and strict ladies who eyed us sharply when we children giggled a little too noisily. Some cities have allocated modern and elegant premises to their libraries, and this has in itself added to their attraction. However, this is not enough to induce adults who are not regular readers to use the library. In order to reach this group, the librarians must meet them in other places than just the library. The libraries vie for attention in a society where many others wish to make demands on our time, and they therefore face a major task in showcasing themselves.

We need to advertise the fact that the library remains one of the last few value-neutral meeting places left in contemporary society. Such places are worth taking care of, since most public squares are left deserted in favour of large shopping centres driven by market-based interests. The library also remains one of the few public institutions open to joint activities by several generations. The Year of Reading 2010 has been a golden opportunity to promote this to a wider audience, by inducing people to discover the joy of reading and present this opportunity to people in their own environment, namely their workplace.

The road ahead

The intention was that the Year of Reading 2010 should constitute the start of a four-year reading promotion campaign for the entire nation and the entire population. Unfortunately, no new grant has been forthcoming for the project for literature dissemination at the workplaces, and it will be difficult to continue the work we started in 2010. Creating something new in a new arena is not easy, and the project took time to find its final form. Many are entrenched in old notions of what libraries are. If we want these barriers to be broken down, the libraries must demonstrate what they are and make themselves visible, not only within the libraries themselves, but also in other arenas of society. I believe that the record number of visitors to Norwegian libraries registered in 2010 is no coincidence.

Sigrid Westeng Odden
Project Leader, Year of Reading 2010
Sigrid.odden AT
Translated by Akasie språktjenester AS

Project Leader, Year of Reading 2010