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If you were banished to a desert island, and you could only take one thing with you, would it be a book? I'm sure that - as a librarian - you would say yes. For you, reading is essential - part of your life. But you're one of the last, if we are to believe a recent survey in the Netherlands: 43% would take their TV set with them, 17% the radio, and 17% a stack of magazines. But no-one mentioned taking a book. Which is strange, because a book has everything. So we all have a lot of work to do. I am therefore very pleased to have the opportunity to speak to you at this conference, and to share with you our ideas on promoting reading in the Netherlands by presenting some of our projects. I have given my presentation the title: Stichting Lezen as a Creative Structure. During it, I will try to explain to you what makes the organizational concept of Stichting Lezen as a public-private partnership so creative, and why I think it works.
As we all know, reading habits are changing. Many people in the Netherlands find this a worrying development. It is generally felt that a situation in which large numbers of people rarely read - either because they lack the skill or simply because they do not care enough to take the time to concentrate - will pose us serious problems in the future. I need hardly convince you of the importance of reading. It is essential to full participation in modern society. It adds quality to life, and provides access to culture and cultural heritage. Reading empowers and emancipates citizens, and it brings people together.
For this reason, the Dutch government is stimulating the reading of books, newspapers and magazines - and this is especially important at a time when an increasing number of people are spending less time reading, and when reading skills are declining. At the same time, the new media require excellent reading skills and have their own place in the full range of media. Every medium, whether printed or on screen, caters to different needs.
To give you some idea of the problem we are talking about, research has shown that more than half the adults in the Netherlands hardly ever read a book. Those who do read spend a much smaller part of their leisure time doing so, compared with 25 years ago. At the age of 12, for instance, primary school children spend, on average, less than half an hour a week reading in their leisure time. That is considerably less than we previously thought. This is not a problem of illiteracy. Nowadays, people lead busy lives, combining work with social and cultural interests. Reading forms just one of the many outlets they can choose. Who doesn't recognize the daily juggle with time? I'm sure that you, as librarians from all over the world, will recognize the problem.
One of the paradoxes which we come across is that, although people in general have a much higher level of education than they did in the 1950s, this has not brought about an increase in the time spent on reading by the majority of the population. Another paradox is that although people spend less time on reading, books are still considered to be valuable objects - worth possessing and cherished even by those who hardly ever read. And non-reading parents still consider reading to be an important activity for their children. This means that there is certainly a good basis for the promotion of reading. But it is not a matter of simply reaping what we have sown; the question is, how do we make people readers for life?
The general trends - that people are reading less than they used to, in spite of a higher level of education; that young people, in particular, are reading less; and that a worrying percentage of children have trouble with reading comprehension - have prompted the Dutch government to make the promotion of reading one of the top priorities in its cultural and educational policy. It is feared that the negative trend will eventually lead to a split in the population: between those who do have access to information and the book culture and those do not. This will seriously affect participation in culture and society, and might eventually pose a threat to democracy and our national culture. For example: how can a voter make a carefully considered political choice if he or she does not have free access to information?
The Dutch government promotes all aspects of reading: more people should read more, and they should read work of better quality. Not only books and literature, whether fiction or non-fiction, but newspapers and magazines, too. New to government policy is the conviction that reading should be promoted through partnership between the public and private sectors. After all, it is not just a major concern for educational and cultural institutions, but also for publishers, booksellers and librarians. So a plan of action has been drawn up in cooperation with their professional organizations. Some 6 million guilders from the national budget were allocated to the promotion of reading. Stichting Lezen was set up by the Dutch Booksellers Association (NBB), the Dutch Publishers Association (NUV) and the Dutch Centre for Public Libraries (NBLC) to act as a platform and to coordinate and initiate activities, to stimulate cooperation, and to advise on government funding. The government stipulated that the cooperation should also be financial, so government subsidies should generate additional funds.
That is the background to Stichting Lezen. For four years now, our foundation has been the national platform for the promotion of reading. It is a creative structure which makes possible a broad range of reading-promotion activities by generating and funding new plans and strategies. Based upon this public-private partnership, new methods and materials are developed for both new readers and at-risk groups. Research is stimulated, existing activities are coordinated in order to pool resources and achieve continuity, and networks are set up at the local, regional and national levels. The press, radio and television are encouraged to take on their share of the responsibility for promoting reading. One third of the budget is earmarked for that purpose. But don't think that working together on this common strategy is an easy matter. Each of the participating organizations has its own targets and endeavours. They remain completely autonomous in their own activities. But when they seek cooperation and government funding, they also have to contribute financially and eventually be prepared to give the new activities a place in their own organizations without long-term financial assistance from the government.
Collaboration based upon public-private partnership is at the heart of the organization of Stichting Lezen as the national platform for the promotion of reading. Together with our partners, we have drawn up a strategy for the coming years. We have made some very fundamental choices. We have chosen children and young people as our main target group, since research clearly shows that by doing so our efforts will achieve the best results. Reading should start at home and be a continuous process. So parents and teachers are to be made aware of their responsibilities in language stimulation, and encouraged to make reading a worthwhile and exciting experience both at home and at school.
But enough about the organization. The proof of the pudding is in the eating. Although it is too early to boast of any success, we have definitely noticed more interest in the topic and an increase in the cooperative promotion of reading. There is much discussion at the moment about the extent of the problem and the best and most effective ways to promote reading. Many experiments have generated innovative approaches, which can now be implemented in a more structured way .
So let me now give you some examples of the activities initiated, coordinated and stimulated by Stichting Lezen. They can be roughly divided into three categories. The development of new strategies and methods is the first; improving the reading environment is the second; and the third is improving the image of reading.
The use of this material is combined with regular guidance and instruction to stimulate parents to experience the fun of reading together with their children, and to establish reading routines at home. A 'growing-up book' illustrates the progress the child is making. The material looks quite simple, but since it has been developed from first principles and tested thoroughly it is very effective. But it is not only the material which makes the programme innovative. More important are the local networks which have been set up or improved. Librarians, nursery-school teachers, doctors, staff in early childcare organizations and local authorities work closely together. They form the core of this attractive reading programme. Experienced mothers share their knowledge with new parents by visiting them at home. Support and training is provided by consultants stationed at regional libraries. The programme has a follow-up scheme for primary and secondary school pupils. The combination of attractive, well-tested material and a good organizational structure at the grassroots level, to ensure that the material is used correctly, works. More and more local authorities are making use of this programme and of the support we offer.
'Fun with books' is one example of a new way of promoting reading, by providing a form of educational support to parents and teachers. I will now give you an example of a project which is improving children's reading environment.
This has prompted us to set up a programme to revitalize school libraries, in close co-operation with public libraries, publishers, booksellers and, of course, schools. The programme is called 'The school library in the year 2000'. Schools and libraries were invited to take part in this programme, and to produce plans for the ideal school library. Many schools were enthusiastic and accepted the challenge. Pilot projects and experiments were set up to establish the criteria for a modern, well-equipped school library. Models of what a library should offer to be attractive to young people and a good place to study. The new media should have a place in the school libraries, alongside books. One of the challenges is to find a good balance between the two, and to face the financial consequences.
The experiments have shown that it is essential that schools have a good computer system, so that they have access to libraries' and publishers' databases. Schools should also be able to communicate with one another. One of the experiments showed that teachers and pupils found it very interesting to chat on the Internet about the books they had just read, and that teachers considered the Internet an effective way to exchange teaching ideas.
One important step forward for schools on the electronic superhighway was the decision by the Minister of Education to provide them with sufficient hardware, starting at a rate of one PC per ten students within the next few years. An educational network, Edunet, has also been set up. This is proving to be an enormous stimulus for schools to work out new programmes. Moreover, as a result of this and also of our encouragement programme, a group of public libraries have decided to form a consortium together with a large educational publisher and an IT specialist to produce new programmes for use in school libraries in support of reading promotion. The new consortium will provide 'content' on a commercial basis, which is certainly a new development for public libraries in our country. The revitalization programme also made it clear that - besides having a basic permanent collection of books - each school library should have the chance to borrow thematic book collections from the public libraries in order to support teaching programmes. In many of the pilot projects, local networks of schools, libraries and booksellers were formed. Through these, communication between the partners has improved, and the schools have received better support for all kinds of reading-promotion activities, such as the Children's Book Week and National Reading-Aloud Day.
Finally, the experiments showed the essential role of engaged librarians and supportive teachers with a high level of expertise in managing the 'state-of-the-art' library of the next millenium. So training programmes are to be set up.
The results of these experiments will be published in the Handbook for Reading Promotion. Information will be provided about basic collections of books, about a choice of fiction and non-fiction titles to support different subjects, as well as a calendar of reading-promotion activities and ways to fit them into the crowded curriculum.
Another programme which we like and sponsor is a radio contest for students aged 13 and over. In this, they compete in their knowledge of books and facts. Accompanied by a radio reporter, they visit a bookshop to choose a book. Later in the week they have to report their findings during a live on-air discussion. The programme is called the Blauwbilgorgel, a fun word taken from a famous Dutch nonsense poem. This programme also shows that young people are attracted to games, competition, radio and television performances in conjunction with books and reading. I think that it brings a touch of glamour to reading, which young people find stimulating.
The promotion of reading is not only an issue in the Netherlands, but also in Flanders. There, many activities are sponsored by the government. Examples are the Flanders Children's Book Week, the Antwerp Book Market, various materials for the promotion of reading, a lot of research and the promotion of reading groups. One project in which we cooperate with our Flemish counterparts is the Youth Jury of the 'Golden Owl' book prize (De Jonge Gouden Uil). This jury is modelled on the 'Jeune Prix Goncourt'. Senior students at secondary schools and teacher training colleges in Flanders and the Netherlands form reading groups with classmates and pick their own winner from the shortlist for the Gouden Uil, which is a leading prize for the best fiction, non-fiction and children's books in the Dutch language.
Ladies and gentlemen, I have come to the end of my presentation. Stimulating the promotion of reading in a public-private partnership is a challenge for Stichting Lezen. I always like to think of Stichting Lezen as a creative structure which makes a broad range of reading-promotion activities possible. But does it actually work? This spring the Government carried out an evaluation of its reading-promotion policy. Of course, the promotion of reading requires long-term effort. But in the four years that Stichting Lezen has been active in the field, there have been some interesting developments. Cooperation between organizations has increased, activities have been set up on a larger scale and with greater continuity, new methods for reaching at-risk groups have been developed, school libraries are being revitalized, and National Reading-Aloud Day has became a nationwide success. What's more, the promotion of reading is now definitely on the agenda. Reading is essential because books are the key to the world - both the real world and fantasy worlds. So if you are banished to a desert island, take a book - and I hope you will inspire children and young people to do the same.