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Reading At Risk

Prime Time Brain Drain

By Sue Cauthen

The widespread furor over a National Endowment for the Arts study which found that book reading is seriously in decline continues to build momentum. The prestigious philanthropic think tank predicts a "dire" future for America's cultural heritage if the trend is not reversed.

No wonder then that its "Reading at Risk" survey has attracted more press commentary 300 at last count than anything the NEA has done in the past decade. The Endowment commissioned the Census Bureau to study reading habits of 17,000 adults and found a "distressing" 14% drop in reading of novels, plays, and poetry over a 10-year period. What is perhaps even more disturbing is that NEA found a 7% decline in those who had read any book, including political analysis, biography, and history.

Convinced that the intellectual fabric of American society is in peril, the NEA is meeting with educators, writers, journalists, and publishers across the US to sound the alarm. The reaction of the California Reading & Literature Project, for example, was swift and satisfying. "We've got to get back to literary reading," said Carol Jago, director of the influential teacher training group. She is spearheading a program to support English language learners and promote literacy and love of literature.

But one segment of the educational community has remained strangely unmoved: librarians. Denial and indifference is a pervasive response, both nationwide and in San Francisco. In comparison to other groups, "librarians react defensively," said Mark Bauerlein, director of research at NEA. "It's almost as if they think they're going to be blamed." 

A National Emergency

The Endowment links the reading gap to the massive shift toward electronic media and calls the result "a national emergency that is being ignored." Literary skills foster good thinking patterns, which in turn produce informed and engaged citizens, says Bauerlein. Reading is an active pursuit, requiring concentration, contemplation, and involvement. And the fact is that these literary skills are being lost.

San Francisco Public Library, for one, is in the forefront of the trend. Over the last 10 years, there has been increasing emphasis on providing computer access and audio-visual entertainment. Faced with scarce space, especially in neighborhood branches, and the constant push to increase circulation and library use, SFPL has systematically reduced its book supply in favor of crowd-pleasing goodies like videos, DVDs, and CDs. This occurs despite surveys showing that patrons want more books.

Concurrently, library administrators are using a $106 million bond issue to double and triple the number of computers in the branches, even in neighborhoods where there is broad computer ownership in the home. This inordinate emphasis on technology and a focus on quantity of check-outs rather than quality has led to a benign neglect of libraries' critical role in drawing people to literature. This is a mindset that favors converting libraries into community centers where books battle video games for students' attention. .

Former San Francisco city librarian Susan Hildreth's plan was to turn branch libraries into "meeting places," replete with conference rooms, lounges, and separate areas for teens, adults, and children. But some neighborhoods balked at losing book-centered libraries and SFPL modified its stance somewhat. Now that Hildreth is state librarian, her focus has broadened to embrace books and reading as ends in themselves.

Make no mistake, however. The "community center" ethos is alive and well at the upper echelons of SFPL. It is up to the Newsom administration to decide whether to perpetuate it. Room 200 at City Hall has the final say on who is San Francisco's new head librarian. It is also the mayor's prerogative to select a Library Commission that is knowledgeable, committed and capable of providing creative solutions to the complex issues facing the 21st-century library.

Sensible Coexistence

There is another way. Respected library systems like those in Seattle and San Jose are widely praised for building new main libraries and branches that significantly increase book collections and improve internet access as well. Books and computers co-exist amicably in Marin County's libraries, with the focus comfortably on the former.

Clearly, computer technology is essential in providing quick and easy access to information. But books provide knowledge and it is this function that some but decidedly not all metropolitan libraries are downgrading. The causal relationship is one source of the raw material that produced the National Endowment for the Arts' "Reading at Risk" study.

It is a wakeup call for educators and legislators, one that continues to provoke massive media attention. A Public Broadcasting System panel dissected the implications in a "Forum" broadcast last month. Despite the many odes to the book, to literature and literacy, there was a nervous celebration of the status quo blended with a desire to do better. "We're taking this on," said the head of the State Department of Education, noting that the Schwarzenegger regime is pumping $500 million into textbooks and school supplies.   

"We have to remain relevant," former SFPL head librarian Susan Hildreth told the PBS panel, praising the California Center for the Book but noting that on-line reading is a different method of obtaining information. Interestingly, since she has taken over as state librarian in Sacramento, Hildreth has broadened her view. "We were too focused on technology," she said. "Now we're reengaging with reading." But are they really?

Librarians say that circulation is up, said NEA literature director Cliff Becker, but that could be part of the problem. The question is what people are checking out. Is it books, or videos? Do people visit libraries for information, entertainment, or knowledge? Are librarians reflecting cultural shifts rather than shaping them?

Role of the Library

Or has the function of libraries changed, asks Becker. "Have they stopped being the house of the book and started being the house of something else?" He and his NEA colleagues have called on libraries to release information on what people are borrowing.

"We hope libraries will look at their statistics on check-outs and define them by category," said Keith Stephens, senior policy analyst at NEA. "They could use the Dewey Decimal System or the Library of Congress system." This would give educators a sample of what books people are reading and what other media they are borrowing. For example, a breakdown of fiction and non-fiction reading would be an invaluable trend-spotter. "We want to know what libraries base their circulation figures on."

The end product is what reading books means for society. The NEA study found that literary readers play a more active role in community life, from volunteerism to philanthropy to politics. Or as Endowment director Dana Gioia puts it: The long-term implications of the decline in book reading presage "a retreat from civic and cultural life."

Just as there is more than one cause for the current situation, there is more than solution. It will take an effort from legislators, educators, librarians, publishers, and writers to preserve our literary heritage. The NEA is working to jump-start a national debate to promote awareness and action. It is important to understand, says Gioia, that "America can no longer take active and engaged literacy for granted."

Reading is a specific intellectual skill, he notes. A print culture develops concentration and "irreplaceable forms of focused attention and contemplation that make complex insights possible." As more Americans lose these abilities, active and independent participation languishes. "These are not qualities a free, innovative, or productive society can afford to lose."


Sue Cauthen. Cauthen is chair of the Neighborhood Library Coalition and a former English teacher.