Julia Gillard, Terry Deary and the cultural problems with libraries

26 February 2013

On Sunday Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new 'Reading Blitz' program for primary school students.

As I read the Prime Minister's media release (thanks @latikambourke) I was struck by the difference between the Prime Minister's rhetoric and the ABC radio interview of Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings just three days earlier. In response to a question about why Tasmania's literacy and numeracy results are so poor compared to the rest of Australia and the OECD, Giddings stated that

It's true to say we have a lower socio-economic community here in Tasmania and some cultural problems with the value of education. That's why we're concentrating on the early years, that's why we're investing in getting mothers – pregnant mothers – into the class and school environment again so it's not so threatening.

Having grown up in Tasmania I understand what Giddings is getting at. I was lucky to be raised in a family where reading for pleasure and valuing education both went back multiple generations. This was not, however, universal. I went to school with plenty of children who were raised in families where neither education nor reading were particularly prized, encouraged or modelled. My final year of school included students who achieved a perfect score for English and those who were, quite literally, barely able to read. Given that we all went to the same school it seems clear that the problem was not simply a lack of effort or testing from our teachers.

Giddings' delicate phrasing suggesting “some cultural problems with the value of education” deserves more attention. Governments can throw all the money they like at testing schoolchildren's literacy and browbeating teachers, but unless they deal with the underlying problem it won't make any difference. Literacy and learning need to be something to which children aspire. Not because they want to keep out of trouble at school, but because the culture in which they are raised visibly values these things. Because the adults they look up to visibly value and enjoy reading. Because it is just what everyone around them does. What gets kids interested in reading is not the books they are assigned to read by their teachers, but the things they read when they are supposed to be doing something else.

Which brings us to libraries, and Terry Deary.

Dear old Terry sent the library world into a tizz with his recent comments that libraries are no longer needed and simply serve to rip off starving authors of their hard-earned gruel. There have been many impassioned responses to this, but perhaps the most succinct came from Twitter user @aflaminghalo:

@craicmonkey @EPLdotCA @doctorow AKA; I'm rich; fuck the poor. — aflaminghalo (@aflaminghalo) February 14, 2013

Deary's comments raise interesting questions about libraries and the library profession when read together with the Australian Government's Reading Blitz announcement. Deary's argument was that public libraries exist to 'allow the impoverished access to literature' and that this is no longer necessary because 'we pay for compulsory schooling to do that'. On the face of it, the Reading Blitz statement seems to suggest that the Australian Government agrees. The reading blitz announcement was big on talk about standards, measurement and school funding. Whilst the media release mentions funding for programs aimed at parents, and sharing a love of reading with students, these seem to be afterthoughts.

There is something troubling about this reading blitz – there seems to be no place in it for libraries. Teachers, students, parents and volunteers were all mentioned, but not libraries – not even school libraries. Yet the role of libraries and librarians is crucial to the success of something like a 'national reading blitz'. If governments are serious about improving literacy, they need to look beyond what happens in classrooms and deal with the broader environment. They need to deal with the “cultural problems with the value of education”, as Giddings puts it.

The Better Beginnings program in Western Australia recognises this reality. Better Beginnings is aimed at parents rather than children, and provides them with a small number of picture books (to keep), training and support. Better Beginnings calls this a “universal family literacy program”. The program aims to encourage the whole family to engage in literacy activities rather than focussing solely on children. It's no coincidence that Better Beginnings is primarily run through local public library networks – public libraries have been involved in “universal family literacy” since they were first established.

We don't have to get all Hilary Clinton to recognise that the broader social environment affects children's learning as much as anything they do at school. When the Queensland Government decides to end the Premier's Literary Awards, this sends a signal to children about the value of literature. When Melbourne University decides against replacing its Professor of Australian Literature when she resigns, that sends a signal to children about Australia's place in the world of letters. When Terry Deary equates books with music and television as interchangeable pop entertainment, that tells children something too.

It is for these reasons I was profoundly saddened as I read about the Prime Minister's latest 'crusade'. If ever there was a time for libraries to be front of mind among Australia's leaders it is now, with a focus on improving literacy rates and the opportunities of a super-fast national broadband network. Yet just a few months after ALIA's National Year of Reading finished, the Prime Minister can announce a 'national reading blitz' without mentioning libraries at all.

This is the true failure of libraries. Libraries have not 'had their day' as Deary claims. On the contrary, the times suit libraries and librarians. Where the library profession has failed is in ensuring a shared vision of what librarianship is and what libraries should be, and failed even more so to sell our vision to the people who matter. That's why we need professional organisations that do more than simply talk to librarians. That's why we need to aim higher than merely justifying our existence and avoiding budget cuts. That's why I ask annoying questions of ALIA Board of Directors nominees about how they plan to raise ALIA's profile.

I'll be posting those questions and the answers I received in another post next week as voting opens. Because when the Prime Minister can talk about reading and literacy without talking about libraries, it's our own fault.