Reading projects and the joy of reading

A large number of reading projects have seen the light in Nordic children’s libraries over the past few years. Have there in fact been so many that a surfeit has occurred? What happens to the inducement to read if the librarian gets a bit weary and retreats to concentrate on her ‘real work’? Has the time then come to draw on the experiences from such projects both in the ordinary library activities and in the co-operation with schools?

These questions pop up when I look back on both my own and other people’s reading projects. Is running a project the one and only possibility for stimulating children and young people to read? And how does one, in that case, find energy and resources to start a new project time after time? Or would it be possible to provide the libraries with the necessary resources for working on a long-term basis with reading stimulation as a fixed part of activities in the departments for children and the young? How do we move on from here?

In the 1980s and 1990s the libraries were computerised at high speed. It required enormous resources on behalf of the staff, not least in terms of further training and reorganisation of tasks and routines. Most of both time and interest was focused partly on computerisation and partly on incorporating the new media into the library service. One talked about the importance of information mediation, specially the electronic one, while there was neither the time nor the interest for working on the book collections and opening them up to the readers, for encouraging a love of reading. Once the computerisation had been completed, the librarians began to realise that something had to be done to re-awaken the interest in books and reading.Many people, teachers amongst them, worried about children and the young reading less and less, and particularly the boys’ apparent lack of enthusiasm for reading gave rise to concern. In order to stop this downward trend, recapture people’s interest in books and encourage new readers, all kinds of reading projects, campaigns and PR were launched.

One reason for so many reading activities being carried out as projects is that generally speaking there is not enough money available in the libraries’ budgets for this kind of activity. The only possibility is to start a project or a campaign by applying for external financing from some suitable fund. There has no doubt always been a lot of effort directed at encouraging a love of reading even without it being called a project or having the status as such. Children’s librarians read fairytales to young children, talk about books to pupils both at schools and in the library, compile booklists and arrange exhibitions of books, collect books to send to day-care institutions and schools, and daily give their advice on suitable books to children, parents, teachers and daycarers. This is a job done on insufficient resources, is taken for granted and consequently does not have the news value that a particular project will obtain. But it is nevertheless important for the continuity of the whole process.

A project may not provide continuity
A project often tends to be ephemeral, even though it is important for the generating of new ideas and for the exchange of new management and working methods.With a project one can make isolated and particular efforts and encourage the love of reading when necessary. The project gives the librarians and anyone else involved the chance to exchange expertise and to carry the project through to its conclusion. It may at best release the kind of energy that stretches far beyond the initial project idea.

Projects are born and carried out by fiery souls, who have been graced with a richness of ideas, creativity, energy, courage and a great capacity for work. How does one make sure that we put their enormous contribution to best effect? When is a reading project deemed successful? To be successful the project has to have a clearly formulated goal and a defined target group. If the project gets local anchorage, if the emphasis is on co-operation and networking and on there being time enough before, during and after the project, the prospects are good. And, of course, the funding has to be sufficient to last to the very end.

All the key persons in a project must have the same clearly defined objective and it is up to the project manager to make sure that this is kept alive and adhered to.What is it exactly that we want with this project? What do the children really want? What do we want them to get out of the project? What can we do to improve the reading and the interest? When defining the target groups, one has to decide which age group the project should be concerned about, as children of different ages have different reading abilities and the books they are interested in consequently vary a great deal. It is not enough to have a general idea of wanting to cater for children and the young.When planning a reading project for children, one does not only have to think of how to get to the child – all the adults who are part of the child’s everyday life must be included. The project has to be aimed at them as well.

When the target group has been defined, it is of course also necessary to anchor the project locally and geographically in a certain region, part of town, school or day-care institution – more than anything else where the child lives its active life. There, at the child’s level, is where the project must be anchored, the books should be available and the activities unfold.

My own experience with reading projects is that very rarely do they have a sufficiently large number of people or organisations involved. On the contrary, the projects are often launched by a very enthusiastic person who does not realise quite how much manpower it really takes. A project which in the early stages builds on co-operation and networking has a far greater chance to succeed. Project managers have not got either the knowledge, the time or the contacts on their own to take their project through to a happy conclusion. It comes as a surprise how much planning has to be done and working out a time schedule is also something which often has to be learned along the way. One learns that each phase, from planning to realisation and through to the follow-up, takes time, is a process in itself. An important prerequisite is therefore that anyone involved in a reading project is given the chance as far as possible to relinquish his ordinary duties.

A reading project’s very essential purpose must be to instil a love of reading. So how do we in a project really see to it that the child’s interest is stimulated, that it is given the opportunity to see how wonderful it is to read? It is essential never to lose sight of who you are doing this for, what the project is really about. It is not a desk-work job, closeness to the child and positive awareness is essential. Basically, it is a question of awakening an interest, a love of reading, to provide the books and give the child peace and quiet to read, the chance to be influenced by its friends and support from the adults. Anything else could be called decoration.

We find ourselves at the moment in the wake of many reading projects and campaigns. I feel we have reached a point where we should be looking at the long-term prospect while keeping firmly in mind what we have learned and the experiences we have inevitably gained. Time is ripe for focusing more on continuity and development, to provide the resources for a very determined effort in stimulating a love of reading in our children and young people.We must now seriously take to heart what we have learned from both our own and other people’s projects and carry this with us into our daily work. In many ways we have already succeeded.

Completing a project is demanding in many ways, but also necessary in order to develop and exchange ideas. If all the hard work does not seem to bear fruit, it can be extremely disappointing for those involved.We ought to think hard on how to prepare for a continuation. Who is going to take responsibility for the interest in reading that we have awakened in children and the young? How to accept responsibility for future generations and their reading? What kind of resources do we have? Have we got sufficient time, manpower and materials? How are we by way of results from our projects able to persuade the decision-makers that resources are also vital for stimulating a love of reading?

About Susanne Ahlroth

  • Great experience from a large number of reading projects and campaigns
  • Organiser of visits by authors to schools and libraries
  • Working groups: Svenska gruppen and Lasko (children’s libraries group) at Helsinki City Library; Finland’s representative in the network for Nordic children’s libraries and culture; BITTIS – the library in the school, a project aimed at developing the school library and the co-operation between the libraries and the Finnish/Swedish schools
  • Main aspects of Susanne’s work: co-operation with schools, above all giving talks on books in schools and at the library (to about 1,000 pupils annually), library tuition and instruction to classes and groups of pupils in searching the library system.

Translated by Vibeke Cranfield Portrait by Chris Gurney

Senior Adviser Regional State Administrative Agencies in Finland