Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Copyright © 2004, Emerald Group Publishing Limited
Reading and Reader Development is a book jointly authored by three UK‐based academics. Broadly it is about the importance of reading in the lives of individuals. The book addresses reading not primarily as a means of learning or knowledge/information gathering, but as a crucial source of personal growth and emotional development. It describes and investigates reading as being – among other things – an important form of socialisation; a tool for developing political awareness; an aid to the formation of mature critical faculties; a stimulant for creative thinking, and as a pleasurable leisure activity.
The particular focus of the nine chapters, however, is on the comparatively recent implementation of reader development programs in public libraries. Reader development is described as the area of professional practice which “focuses on the reading experience itself”, as distinct from reading development which “focuses on the acquisition of reading skills” (p. 34). In other words, reader development is the next step beyond literacy, and is concerned with the fostering of reading habits.
After the opening chapters on establishing the importance of reading to individuals and the growth in reader development programs in recent years, subsequent chapters look at support for reading and reader‐related research in the UK and internationally; the importance of reading for persons with special needs; the capacity of ICT to enhance the reading experience; and the importance of ongoing research to the future effectiveness of reader development programs. The book is concluded by a chapter speculating on the future of reading and reader development.
A book dealing with the central place of reading in the lives of thinking, imaginative and politically/socially aware adults is certain to attract a readership among librarians – and, it could be suggested, public librarians in particular. Indeed it is important that books such as this are written and read as a means of reaffirming the commitment to the act of reading as being a core value of the profession.
While the importance of reading has not been openly questioned in the profession, there is little doubt that it has been subtly denigrated in other ways. The reasons for this are quite apparent, and to some extent they also prove a difficult hurdle for the authors of this book to clear. That is, the real benefits of reading are difficult to observe and impossible to quantify, to the extent that most librarians have retreated from the attempt. Driven by the incessant demands to justify services in terms of measurable outcomes, librarians have embraced the concept of “information” as being units of data by which they can measure and meet their accountability requirements. At worst this can lead to a belief that the primary professional obligation is simply to act as a point of transfer between the user and a required nugget of information, at the expense of the richer concept of librarians being the champions of literacy and its related accomplishments.
The authors are well aware of the need to substantiate the importance of reading as opposed to information gathering. In her opening chapter (“The reader”) Judith Elkin compiles a range of testimonies (a number of which are sourced from Alberto Manguel's A History of Reading) regarding the crucial part played by reading in the lives of individuals. This may be impressive – in so far as it goes – but unfortunately it does very little to provide conclusive evidence as to the value to be attained from either reading, or reader development and similar programs. Elkin's intentions are also undermined in that these testimonies are largely derived from the demonstrably literate. That is, most are authors, librarians and academics whom one would expect to be heavily sensitised to the power of the written word and the act of reading. The central tenet of the book, however, is that reading can potentially have a transformative effect on the lives of all users of public library collections. Unfortunately, their testimonies are largely absent from this chapter.
The need for the gathering of harder evidence supporting the importance of reading is not, however, overlooked entirely. In the chapter “Reading and reader development research: the argument for quality”, Briony Train presents a cogent argument for the need for verifiable forms of qualitative research into the reading experience and reader development programs in particular. Although very few outcomes of research projects conducted to date are included in this chapter – or indeed the book as a whole – Train does provide an adequate introduction to some of the available methodologies.
Unfortunately, at other points in the book the need for evidence is bypassed in favour of fairly glib assumptions. For example, Debbie Denham's assertion that the UK is undergoing a “reading renaissance” based on the “growing interest in book prizes” (p. 60) and the increased public participation in prizes, may have as much to do with celebrity culture as it does with more interest in “reading” as an activity. Indeed it could be argued that the very notion of prizes and celebrity authorship undermines the aims of reader development in that it transfers the emphasis from the relationship between reader and text to the author him/herself.
A further questionable argument presented concerns the nature of the material chosen for reading and the role of the librarian in this process. It is stated that “reader development is concerned with… moving away from the concept of the literary canon” (p. 60). While the concept of a canon is now correctly treated with caution, the authors make a questionable leap in logic to claim that reader development “regards each person and his or her choice of reading as equally important, and makes no value judgements” (p. 50). For while it is reasonable to treat individuals' reading choices as being equally important, it does not necessarily follow that the librarian should adopt a value free approach to their role. This rather odd thinking results in a passage in which Train argues that while it is appropriate for a readers’ advisory librarian to “suggest” titles, it is inappropriate for them to “recommend” (p. 36). If reading is to have its value maximised and recognised – surely the point of reader development – and if librarians are to have their expert role valued, then the notion of the quality of the text remains crucial. It would be difficult to imagine any other expert group so readily disassociating issues of quality from their service. What value would wine writers deliver, for example, if they argued that the quality of what you drink is secondary to the fact that you drink as much as possible?
Nonetheless, despite some misgivings this book does make a necessary contribution. It is important for librarians – public and otherwise – to remain convinced of the importance of reading to individuals, and to encourage the development of quality reading practices. For those who need to be recommit themselves to this task, or who need to acquire some ideas on how to go about it, Reading and Reader Development will be a very useful book.