(Picture, Welwyn Garden City Library, © 2013 David Hartnup)
The following is an excerpt from the speech Miranda McKearney made at the LGA annual culture, tourism and sport conference - Going for growth: boosting the economy through culture, tourism and sport on Friday 8 March. A full version of the speech can also be downloaded.
Investing in culture
Sometimes it feels as if we're making too narrow an argument about how culture produces economic growth - talking just about how investing in the arts and culture creates jobs.
Investing in culture makes sense not only because it results in jobs and regeneration but also growth which results in the kind of places we want to live in, and the fully realised lives we want everyone to live - democratised, sustainable and socially harmonious growth rooted in a society which will distribute its benefits equally. This kind of growth can only happen if we support the development of an educated, cultured, literate population able to participate fully in democracy; enterprising and resilient people more likely to be able to understand and weather the changes necessary to produce growth in a post-industrial, increasingly digital world.
All of us close up to working with culture in communities know how profoundly it can make people happy and feel better.
Reading, literature and libraries
We work with reading, literacy and libraries. These areas have such profound implications for producing this kind of growth.
Reading is so often missed out of the picture when talking about the arts and culture but it's such a huge participative art form; 70% of us read for pleasure. And because the reading process is such a hugely creative one, activating our imaginations, and stimulating our learning like nothing else.
There are those who read and love it, and those who can't and don't, with dire social consequences. If you struggle with reading you can't participate fully in education, employment, democracy or community life. Employers complain regularly about the lack of literacy skills. In England alone 5.1 million working aged people have inadequate literacy skills; 48% of the prison population has skills below those expected of an 11 year old. If we could blow those terrible statistics out of the water we would do so much for growth.
Libraries have a crucial role to play here, giving everyone free access to reading materials, inspiring the enjoyment of reading so crucial to literacy acquisition, and helping people build and practice their reading skills. They are a potent symbol of people power, a massive part of our cultural fabric with their 4000+ branches and extremely well used by all generations. New Carnegie Trust research shows, for instance, that 55% of England's 15-24 year olds use libraries. Libraries act as a gateway to information to support adult learning and have an increasingly important role in building the digital literacy skills without which we can't build a Digital Britain. (Picture, Welwyn Garden City Library, © 2013 David Hartnup)
We now reach roughly 1 million people a year and research shows that our programmes increase people's reading enjoyment, motivation, confidence and skills. Those terrible literacy stats won't shift unless people enjoy reading and are therefore motivated to do more of it - it's incredibly important to literacy acquisition.
The reach and impact of our programmes is growing. Our Summer Reading Challenge runs in 98% of UK libraries and helps prevent the summer holiday dip in literacy skills. Our adult literacy Six Book Challenge programme runs in 60% of library authorities in addition to 100 prisons and a quarter of the college network. This work is helping drive growth by increasing social mobility and getting people work ready.
We are proud to have worked with the Society of Chief Librarians to create a new strategic framework called the Universal Reading Offer. The framework includes a digital innovation strand, through which we paired 10 library authorities with 14 publishers in a digital skills sharing initiative. Libraries are driving social change through a much more creative, digital, social offer. The sharpest focus for this work has been children, and it is no accident that children's book borrowing has risen for eight years running.
In January we worked with the SCL to announce a new Reading Well Books on Prescription scheme which will launch across English libraries in May. It will see English libraries combining forces to save money and make more impact with one big shared scheme which for the first time is formally backed by major health partners, and also incorporates creative reading opportunities; a perfect example of how to sweat library assets, developing libraries' information and reading roles to improve public health and an example of collective working to lever in both national and local investment.
And finally to an audience we're particularly passionate about - young people. It's an anxious time for them, with UK youth unemployment standing at 1 million. Our Reading Activists programme aims to get 11-24 year olds enjoying reading. Research shows that for 16 year olds, reading for pleasure is demonstrably linked to securing a better job. Reading Activists gets them creating reading hubs in libraries, volunteering and building skills to help them get ready for work.
We'd like to talk to people who are interested in that idea or others for driving innovation and growth, and our model to support both cost reduction and lever in investment. And most of all, I hope that together we can help more and more people develop a life changing love of that alchemical, powerful engine for growth, reading. Email Miranda on Miranda.McKearney@readingagency.org.uk.
Download the full speech.