Julia Gillard, Terry Deary and the cultural problems with libraries

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:

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.

6 thoughts on “Julia Gillard, Terry Deary and the cultural problems with libraries

  1. Pingback: Julia Gillard, Terry Deary and the cultural problems with libraries | Libraries thru time | Scoop.it

  2. There is this funny thing I’ve noticed a number of times before: people who use public libraries have them front and centre in their consciousnesses and value them deeply; people who FUND libraries, including or particularly public libraries, don’t seem to use them so don’t understand their value. maybe it’s that libraries are hidden in broad daylight. or maybe it’s also because libraries don’t seem to fit easily into any single public service activity – education? culture? recreation? They get shunted around

    Or maybe the lack of mention in libraries in this crusade is due to other reasons or to more than only a failing on the part of librarians. Jacqueline Kent in her biography of Julia Gillard quotes her as saying she is too busy to read outside the confines of her job, except perhaps for ten minutes of a detective novel when she gets into bed; ie the head crusader doesn’t just not use libraries, maybe she doesn’t read much either. Maybe this crusade is the latest, quickly created, product of an election campaign that’s going to have a string of such products. maybe the absence is partly due to a lack of self-promotion but I doubt that’s the only cause.

    BTW, Hugh, what do you think the non-librarians reading your blog will make of your apparent tendency to pillory libraries/librarians totally for every setback? Do you think you might be unintentionally whiteanting the very institutions you seem to champion?

    Okay, libraries have been left out. What can be done about it? Maybe this is an opportunity for ALIA and public libraries and State and Territory Libraries to piggy back on to a campaign they haven’t had to devise themselves but through which they can promote themselves like mad. All the synergies are there and it’s an easier option than getting out the sackcloth and ashes – or planning and undertaking a lobbying campaign to pollies and funders and bureaucrats etc.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful comments Fiona.

      I don’t think its fair to say that I pillory librarians, or that I’m white-anting libraries. A profession that is incapable of self-reflection and improvement is no profession at all. It is however true that if you want an uncritical ‘three cheers for libraries” pick-me-up this probably isn’t the place to come. I aim to trigger and respond to thoughful discussions about what librarianship is and should be. Libraries are an information institution and we’re in the middle of an information revolution. Institutions tend to change or be destroyed in revolutions, and it would be a tragedy for libraries to be destroyed. It won’t be active and honest discussion among librarians that causes that destruction, but complacency.

      As for Gillard’s reading habits, they’re not particularly relevant. She has a Minister for School Education, and both his and her own departments full of advisors. The idea that the Prime Minister is solely responsible for everything governments do is a modern fiction. I’m not blaming librarians for the specifics of the Reading Blitz policy. It is clearly part of a suite of school funding initiatives aimed at winning the politics of the day. My argument is that librarians and particularly our professional organisations (who represent us) should not just busy ourselves with running libraries, but also need to be active in public discussions about reading, about education and about information. Clearly we haven’t done that as well as we could.

      • Fiona, I’m a ‘non-librarian’ that regularly reads Hugh’s blog. What he says makes me excited about the possibilities for libraries. When he criticises libraries I think he is fair. I totally agree with Hugh’s comment concerning institutions being either changed or destroyed in revolutions. If libraries and librarians do not transform their thinking I can see no reason why public funding of libraries would continue in the long term. The debates stimulated by Hugh and other thinking librarians are vital if libraries are going to survive and thrive in the future.

  3. Thanks Hugh for the very interesting blog. Do public and school libraries show their collections and their trained professional staff teach literacy via “evidence based strategies”? I think there is a lot of potential for research to show evidence of the value of libraries of all types. Beyond the (obvious to librarians) idea that kids who like to read and who use the library will become better readers, we should be proving that through research. Proving the value of libraries would then fund libraries, (and improve their profiles) who could then fund better reading programmes and fund their marketing.

    I’m reminded by recent comments made by politicians in NZ when voting on a public libraries funding bill, which, among other things, would have legislated free book lending in NZ libraries. It came down to, libraries are nice but we are rolling out broadband so that should be enough, don’t want to tell local councils what to do, nanny state, etc. We didn’t get to get into the specifics of the bill, as it was voted down. The basic ideas about libraries held by the Government were revealed and it was sad.

    • Australian state-based public library associations have recently done some great work on quantifying libraries’ value in various terms ($, social equality etc). For me the biggest problem is getting the message out before there is a crisis rather than as a response to something. I’d love to see some joint research projects with educators, health researchers and others showing what effect libraries can have on a diverse range of areas.

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