Tag Archives: reading

Library Stat of the Week #36: Where there are more school libraries, children enjoy reading more

The Gates Foundation’s Goalkeepers 2020 report, published earlier this week, highlights the risk that literacy could suffer as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic.

It presents different projections, suggesting that the share of children finishing primary school with the ability to read and understand a basic text could fall back to 2015, or even 2010 levels.

This has important knock-on effects, with children then struggling to engage with other subjects at school, achieving less, and finding it harder to integrate into the labour market later in life.

A key determinant of literacy, as underlined in the OECD’s Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) is enjoyment of reading outside of school. In turn, a key argument made in library advocacy is that our institutions – both public, and embedded in schools, can help build a love of reading.

There have been a good number of studies exploring the connection between school libraries and reading performance at the local level. But what does the data say at the global level?

To explore this, we have brought together information from the IFLA Library Map of the World, as well as OECD PISA data, which used surveys of students alongside tests to find out about habits related to reading.

Graph 1, as a first step, looks at average levels of enjoyment of reading among 15 year olds in participating countries, based on data for 2018. The higher (more positive) a bar is, the more children in the country, on average, report enjoying reading.

Graph 1: Enjoyment of Reading (OECD PISA)

This underlines strong variation between countries, with 15 year olds in Turkey, Kazakhstan, Peru and Indonesia displaying the highest level of enjoyment of reading, while those in Denmark, Croatia and Sweden were less keen.

It is worth noting that total figures, as displayed here, cover varying levels of enjoyment within populations (and indeed, it is on this basis that the OECD can show links between enjoyment and literacy).

Graph 2 turns to the number of school libraries per student. Combining UNESCO Institute for Statistics data with that from the IFLA Library Map of the World data, we can work out how many school libraries there are for every 1000 children enrolled in primary or secondary schools.

Graph 2: School Libraries per 1000 students

For countries for which we have data, there are an average of 1.81 school libraries per 1000 students. Within this, there is strong variation, with the largest number of school libraries per student being found in Poland, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

Graph 3 brings this data together, with numbers of school libraries per 1000 students on the horizontal (X) axis, and the enjoyment of reading index on the vertical (y) axis.

Graph 3: School Libraries per 1000 Students and Enjoyment of Reading

This indicates a positive correlation between numbers of school libraries and enjoyment of reading, demonstrated by the gently rising line. This indicates that in general, where there are more school libraries, enjoyment of reading.

Clearly, however, there are limitations to this finding. First of all, not all countries operate with school libraries, with public libraries taking up their role. And of course, having more school libraries may be part of a wider strategy to promote reading, including through different techniques for promoting this.

They may also organise schools differently, with larger or smaller institutions, which will affect the number of libraries per student. Finally, data on school library workers is limited, meaning that is it not possible to carry out analysis using this.

Future editions of Library Stat of the Week will dig deeper into the available data on school (and public) libraries, and results from OECD’s work on reading habits and performance among children.


Find out more on the Library Map of the World, where you can download key library data in order to carry out your own analysis! See our other Library Stats of the Week! We are happy to share the data that supported this analysis on request.

Buy, Borrow or Both? What the Boersenverein’s Survey of eLending Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

Last year, the German book industry organisation – the Boersenverein – published research commissioned from GfK on library eLending, including comparative analysis between physical and eBook buyers and borrowers as regards their age, situation, and habits.

This has been promoted by the Boersenverein as evidence that library eLending harms publishing, and that there is no need to expand the offer of eBooks in libraries. It has started to be used internationally as well as a counter-argument to library efforts to improve eLending terms and offers.

But is this really what the evidence presented says? This blog looks at the data, both from the fuller German and shorter English editions.


Who Borrows?

The study aims to provide extensive figures about the people who borrow physical books and eBooks, providing a breakdown between people who only borrow one type, and those who borrow both.

This finds that less than 10% of library users only borrow eBooks – an estimated 900 000 according to the analysis. Three quarters only borrow physical books and the rest – around 1.2 million – combine.

Library use for borrowing physical books is most common among people with higher incomes, and with more education (although a higher share of people with only a high-school education use libraries than those with a university education).

There is a similar story for eBooks (although obviously we are talking about small numbers), except in that use of eLending is highest among the richest and the poorest income groups, with only those in the middle borrowing less.

Finally, the study looks in particular at age groups, finding that borrowers both of physical and eBooks tend to be younger than buyers. 29% of physical book borrowers and 27% of eBook borrowers are under 30, while the figures for buyers are 20% in both categories. The trend is reversed for the over-60s.

The analysis leaps to the conclusion that that library users can pay for books, and implies that they shouldn’t be borrowing. Yet this does not hold water. There has been extensive research into the role of library lending in helping people discover new books, and indeed trying a book out before they choose to buy, while the results of the analysis imply that younger borrowers turn into older buyers.

Put simply, the only thing that the survey really shows is that book buying and borrowing go together – something that has been known for a long time.


Borrow or Buy?

The research then looks into the behaviour of physical and eBook borrowers in Germany. The headline identified by the Boersenverein is the suggestion that 43% of users of library eLending have reduced or stopped altogether their buying of eBooks since they could start borrowing.

This would be a strong argument, except for the fact that in the following question – what would users of the library eLending offer do if this were to disappear, a full 48% would either buy fewer eBooks, or buy none at all. The analysis does not break down between the share of people who would completely stop buying, and those who had never bought.

These results are certainly confusing, but what they don’t represent is an argument for trying to restrict or harm library eLending. Indeed, it seems that restricting or preventing library eLending would also have a net negative effect on sales of other media.

The study also looks at levels of contentment with the offer of eBooks for lending, and the timeliness of their availability. It finds that 75% of users are happy with the variety on offer and 68% with the speed at which they are available. This is arguably a testimony to the efforts of libraries to provide books – often at very high prices or on restrictive terms. It does not explore whether a wider range of books, available more quickly, could help attract more people into reading.

Finally, the analysis uses the answers to direct questions to suggest that people who borrow books in general, if given a choice, will borrow rather than buying. It also suggests that borrowers in general do not feel like they are in a situation where they can’t afford to buy. Clearly, the questions are leading – will people openly admit to being too poor to buy? What would they have said if they believed that authors should be paid?. Moreover, this doesn’t fit with the evidence that borrowers are in fact more likely to buy books than the rest of the population.



Overall, the study is relatively transparent in its objectives from the beginning, and so already needs to be taken with some scepticism. There are also oddities – the whole study assumes that over 10 million people are borrowing from libraries, but German Library Association figures show that only 7.35 million have library cards.

It makes a lot of noise about one or two results, while ignoring others, and makes some big – and unfounded – assumptions that have rightly been challenged by the German Library Association (DBV) in its own response.

It gives no attention to the question of the costs to libraries of acquiring and lending eBooks, although it is to be hoped that there would be consensus that freeing up libraries to expand collections and offer services is desirable.

Fundamentally, the parallels between book buying and book borrowing tendencies across income groups and levels of education – and the fact that book borrowers are also more enthusiastic buyers – only seems to underline that libraries and bookshops can work in synergy.

However, as the DBV points out, this only brings out an uncomfortable truth – one that the study overlooks – that reading (either though buying or borrowing) is less common among those with low incomes and low education.

The real conclusion, perhaps, is the need to do more to reach out to groups who may need support with literacy. Indeed, with 6.2 million adults in Germany struggling to understand texts, there is a real need to focus on whatever works in helping build reading skills, something that a properly supported library system, freed from unnecessary restrictions, is well placed to help with.

Making the Book Chain Stronger – and Unique

In many countries, the series of actors – and actions – that take a book from idea to bookshelf is known as the ‘book chain’.

The metaphor is attractive because of its simplicity, with a book to be published passed from writer, to publisher, to distributor, to bookshops and libraries, and to readers.

It is also used for planning policy interventions to support culture, with each actor benefitting from different supports – grants, tax reductions, or other tools.

Of course there is disruption. Plenty of authors simply bypass publishers simply by self-publishing. The work of distributors and bookshops (and some elements of the work of libraries) is subject to competition from the internet.

What is more worrying – as has been highlighted in online discussions in Senegal recently – is a tendency to forget libraries. This blog explains both why libraries are essential throughout the book chain, and indeed, why they make it unique.


Support at Every Step: Libraries Across the Book Chain

In the most simple terms, libraries are a market for publishers – in some cases, they are even the predominant ones (notably for scholarly works). However, this is to forget the other ways they provide help.

Authors – who tend to have a very positive attitude towards libraries – benefit from not only form the possibility to carry out research, but also to meet with some of the most passionate readers out there, and to be discovered by new audiences. Given that, alongside the desire to earn a living, simply being read is a high priority, this makes libraries into natural friends of authors.

For publishers, libraries are also effectively free advertising space, and make it feasible for them to produce a wider variety of content than would be possible if only working through bookshops. Libraries are also key players in developing the book-buyers of the future by encouraging literacy and a love of reading.

Similarly, libraries also be a useful source of feedback about demand for individual books, complementing that provided by bookshops. They are also are a vital part of the overall infrastructure for books – through running ISBN agencies, managing national biographies, and ensuring the preservation of works for future generations.

For bookshops, where perhaps the risk of competition can be seen as highest, there is in fact complementarity. Various studies from the US have shown that not only are people using libraries also more likely to use bookshops, but that discovering a new author in a library often leads to buying a second book at the bookshop.



Making it Unique: Why Libraries Make the Book Chain Special

What is missing from the previous set of actors are of course readers – libraries’ primary focus.

Indeed, it is this focus on meeting reader needs, first and foremost, that makes libraries and the book chain as a whole so special. No other sector of the creative industries has such a central focus on ensuring that it is not only about profit, but also about access.

This makes sense. Literacy is a core life-skill, and it is clear that a love of books and reading tends to make for better chances in life.

Arguably, as set out in the UNESCO Recommendation of 2015, the written word has a special role in sharing the thoughts and ideas that animate societies, and spreading the knowledge that drives progress. In this situation, giving everyone an equitable chance to access and enjoy it is essential to ensuring social cohesion, innovation, and compliance with international obligations.

Libraries, then, can be a source of pride for all others in the book chain – the thing that marks it out as being truly democratic, truly a contribution to broader social goals, rather than just a market or elite activity.



Clearly, the book chain is not without its problems, not least the need to hold its ground in the competition for people’s attention with other activities.

Moreover, there are ongoing discussions about how it is most appropriate for governments to support the creation and dissemination of new ideas, how to ensure that authors get a fair deal. As with any activity involving public money (including of course libraries), it’s important to be careful about how it is spent.

What is certain, at least, is that libraries are, and should be, part of the solution.


Find out more about how to support new authors – and creativity in general at session 188 – From Consumers to Creators – of this year’s World Library and Information Congress.