I was born deaf. The first few years of my life were lived in silence. Thankfully, a combination of nature and medical assistance restored my hearing when I was nearly 4 years old. I can remember the first thing I ever heard. I went to see my sister at a swimming gala. My first ‘hearing memory’ is that extraordinary, unique sound of the inside of a swimming pool – the squeals and squeaks, the splashing and underneath it all the roar of machinery. It was as though I discovered an entirely new dimension to the world that had previously been hidden. It was magical. It kindled in me a love of words, of sounds, of communication that has sustained and nourished me throughout my whole life.
In later life, my love of words drew me to study linguistics at University. My postgraduate studies were in aphasia – defined as ‘an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of speech and the ability to read or write following a brain injury’. To spend time with sufferers of aphasia is to realise how language infuses every aspect of who we are and how we navigate the world. It makes you understand how it feels when your brain starts to betray your ability to communicate, leaving you literally lost for words. As Diane Ackermann noted in her book ‘One Hundred Names for Love’, ‘It’s like having a head full of holes, in which the perfect repository of words have shamed themselves.’
The ability to communicate is a defining characteristic of what it means to be human. It is, in every sense, extraordinary. That one person is able to connect ideas in a way that has never happened before in human history and to encode and transmit those ideas like a virus to millions of other people, that as a species we will happily spend hours of our lives staring at marks on a sheet of wood pulp, hallucinating vividly, as long as there is coffee and a comfortable chair.
If we write words down in a particular order, we can use them to inspire millions of people to acts of immense kindness or tremendous cruelty over hundreds of years. As the National Literacy Trust definition tells us, ‘Literacy is the ability to read, write, speak and listen in a way that lets us communicate effectively and make sense of the world.’
In a world that is made of knowledge, information and ideas, language is power. To be literate is to be empowered to take control of and shape the world around us. As Chuck Palahniuk, the author of ‘Fight Club’, writes;
‘The first step – especially for young people with energy and drive and talent, but not money – the first step to controlling your world is to control your culture. To model and demonstrate the kind of world you demand to live in. To write the books. Make the music. Shoot the films. Paint the art.’
So literacy is about empowerment. And if we believe in a fair and just society, in which everybody has the equal right and opportunity to progress based on their ability, then it follows that we should demand the right to literacy for every single person in our society. I love the section from Joy Court’s fantastic book ‘Reading By Right’ in which she says, ‘Poor literacy is frequently passed on down the generations: parents with lower literacy skills often lack the confidence and skills to help their children with reading and writing, which reinforces the cycle of disadvantage.’
And both in the UK and globally, we know that huge strides have been achieved in the past two centuries. In 1740, the earliest date from which a census of literacy was taken, roughly half of men and fewer than a third of women were literate. By the mid-1900’s, this was nearer to 80% for both sexes.
And yet, we know that not everybody in our society is empowered – again to quote the National Literacy Trust, ‘in 2015, the OECD conducted its Survey of Adult Skills, known as PIAAC (Programme for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies). This survey found that 16.4% (or 1 in 6) of adults in England, and 17.9% (or 1 in 5) adults in Northern Ireland, have literacy levels at or below Level 1, which is considered to be ‘very poor literacy skills’.
It is no coincidence that according to figures published by the Shannon Trust in 2017, nearly half of the UK adult prison population were functionally illiterate. In the US, 60% of the prison population can’t read, and 85% can’t understand the verdict that saw them incarcerated.
And the impact of poor levels of literacy reverberates throughout every aspect of a person’s life. A recent study into health literacy by the NHS found that between 40-60% of UK adults routinely misunderstand health information. Examples cited in the study of the impact of poor literacy included a man referred under the two-week cancer wait process who failed to turn up for his screening appointment because he didn’t know that Radiology and X-ray were the same thing and was too embarrassed to ask. Or the significant proportion of adults who cannot understand the dosage instructions on a box of child’s paracetamol.
So, literacy should matter fundamentally to anyone who cares about people’s quality of life, their social and economic mobility, their equality of opportunity, their health and their wellbeing.
And thankfully there is a panoply of organisations, authors, campaigners and activists fighting to secure the right to read for everyone, many of whom are represented here today. The Reading Agency, whose central belief in the reader – that you can tackle many of life’s big challenges through the proven power of reading – has led them to create pioneering programmes like Chatterbooks, Reading Well or the Summer Reading Challenge.
We at CILIP are playing our part through 3 initiatives, which I wanted to share with you– the ‘Building a Nation of Readers’ campaign, our leadership with the CILIP Youth Libraries Group of the ‘Carnegie Greenaway Awards for Children’s Books and Illustration’ and of course the ‘Great School Libraries’ campaign.
Our vision to how we can work together to build a nation of readers, drawing on the work of the Reading Agency and others, is of a thriving ecosystem in which authors can write, readers can read, publishers can publish, bookshops can sell and libraries can lend – and that we can all afford to pay the bills.
So starting with a book trade event on the 2nd May, we are looking to bring together a broad coalition of book industry partners and representative organisations to focus on how we work together to focus on the two things in which we all have a shared interest: readership and securing the availability of fantastic, diverse books. In developing this collaborative vision across the book industry, we would like to focus on three areas where we think librarians have a unique role to play.
The first is our role in kindling that spark that becomes a love of reading, which creates reading cultures and empowers people to become readers who read for pleasure. Libraries build readers. I have also been told by many authors that they build writers too, so we have an essential role to play in creating a nation of people who proactively seek out the opportunity to read.
The second role is around recommendation. We often describe Librarians, particularly school librarians as a ‘search engine with a heart’. I would like to extend this to see librarians as the most powerful recommendation engine there is. We know books and we know readers, and we must never underestimate the unique value of connecting the reader with the right book at the right point in their development. I want to encourage publishers, retailers and distributors to understand and engage with the power of the librarian as a recommender of books.
The third role is around data. Every sector we work with today is focusing on becoming data-driven – harnessing the power of data and insight to improve their services. Most major publishers are investing almost as much in harnessing data as they are in content. As ethical information professionals, we librarians are ideally placed to ensure that this data-driven world respects the reader’s right to privacy and confidentiality while opening up real insights not into what books people buy, but into what they read.
Alongside this work to promote readership, we want to lend our support to the tremendous efforts already underway to deliver a much broader selection of fantastic, diverse books – both in terms of authorship and in representation. Last week, I was at the London Book Fair, where it was hugely exciting to see the range of conversations going on about re-coding the machinery of publishing to deliver a much more diverse, inclusive and representative range of books.
I was particularly struck by the brilliant work done by CLPE with the support of the Arts Council England for their Reflecting Realities research, a comprehensive and compelling study of ethnic representation in children’s literature. To quote some of their figures:
– There were 9115 children’s books published in the UK in 2017
– Of these only 391 featured BAME characters
– Only 4% of the children’s books published in 2017 featured BAME characters
– Only 1% of the children’s books published in the UK in 2017 had a BAME main character
We know how important it is for children and young people to see themselves represented in the art, culture and literature that surrounds them. While there are no simple answers, ‘Reflecting Realities’ sets us a challenge as stakeholders in the world of books and reading to do better, to demand more, to continually make the case for better, more diverse representation in the books we recommend.
Our second major focus at the moment is in partnership with the CILIP Youth Libraries Group in the development of the Carnegie Greenaway Awards – the best-established prize celebrating children’s books and illustration. We take our custodianship of the Carnegie Greenaway Awards very seriously indeed – for nearly 80 years, Carnegie books have inspired generations of readers, so when we were challenged to do better through the Awards in terms of diversity and representation, we wanted to face that challenge full-on.
The resulting Diversity Review was a turning point for CILIP as an organisation. It helped us to understand our role in creating a fairer, more open and inclusive world for both authors and readers. My colleague Natalie, working with the Working Party and our Review Chair Margaret Casely-Hayford, created a new vision and forward plan for the awards which recognises that diversity and quality are synonymous. It has been inspiring working with the judges and Working Party, and with organisations like Inclusive Minds, to develop our awards process and criteria so that they actively promote this principle. I am also delighted to announce that following this action plan, we will be launching a new magazine focused on children’s books and diversity, to be launched in May.
In turn, the lessons learned from the Diversity Review have led us to refocus our entire strategy and purpose around a new proposed mission for CILIP ‘to become an activist organisation, inspiring librarians and information professionals to change lives’.
It has led us to reconnect with the fundamental values of our profession, as defined by our new Ethical Principles – ‘Human rights, equalities and diversity, preservation of access to knowledge, public benefit, intellectual freedom, impartiality & confidentiality’. It has also led us to put forward a new vision for our sector of ‘Inclusive, participatory and socially-engaged information services and libraries at the heart of their communities’.
And finally, Great School Libraries. I think everyone should be allowed at least one passion project in their work and this is mine. I am shameless in my love and admiration for school librarians. Every single day, in schools up and down the country school librarians or librarians attached to School Library Services are literally transforming lives. Whether it is developing the reading culture of their school, providing a trusted, welcoming and empathic place, helping students to develop their digital and critical thinking skills, helping fellow educators to enhance and extend their curriculum-based teaching, the impact of a school librarian is truly transformative for the culture of their school.
Given this, you would think that school librarians would be exalted and celebrated. And indeed, that every head teacher would be falling over themselves to show prospective parents their wonderful library. And yet we all know that is not where we are in this country. Every week, I am asked to intervene to stop a school from employing a librarian on a salary equivalent to unskilled, non-professional support staff. Every week, I hear from another school that has decided it can do without a professional, dedicated librarian. Every week, I hear some uninformed bureaucrat tell me that its all digital now. As if the digital nature of our society hadn’t made ethical trustworthy librarians more important than ever!
But the real story is one of inequality. There are thousands of schools that wouldn’t dream of being without their library or their librarian. I have been hugely heartened to hear from teachers and heads about how much they treasure their ‘in-house expert’ in curriculum-based instruction. The problem is that we don’t have the data to know whether these are the exception or the rule. Which is why I am delighted that Peters and the Foyle Foundation have funded us to undertake the first comprehensive mapping of school library provision in the UK.
Using the data from this research project, led by Barbara Band jointly with our colleagues from the CILIP School Libraries Group and the School Libraries Association, we will focus on 3 connected activities through the campaign.
Firstly, we are actively lobbying OFSTED through their current consultation to recognise the role of the school librarian, both in terms of reading for pleasure and in terms of helping to build digital and information literacy, in their 2019 Inspection Framework.
Secondly, we will be working with school librarians across the country to share their impact stories with teachers, Heads, Governors and the Department for Education – including at this year’s Festival of Education, where I will be speaking about the campaign.
Thirdly, we will be working with the Libraries All Party Parliamentary Group to make the case for a comprehensive National Strategy for School Libraries, similar to the one in Scotland, with funding support to ensure that every school child can benefit from a great school library.
I believe that there is a battle for literacy in the UK, and despite the fact that it doesn’t always feel like it, I believe we are winning. With so many of us now coming together to raise our voices to say that not only do we love literacy, we demand it on behalf of every single person in our society, with so many people so eloquently making the case for reading for pleasure, for a wider understanding of reading, for the role that communication plays in our daily lives, I think this is becoming an unstoppable force for good.
 Clark, G. (2008). A farewell to alms: a brief economic history of the world. Princeton University Press.