Investing in culture can change lives, break boundaries and reinvigorate communities

Ever since I was a child I have loved reading. The simple pleasure of opening a book had me gripped from the start, and I have no doubt it is a passion that has helped open up opportunities for me throughout my life.

When I became First Minister of Scotland I was determined that as many children as possible should also have the chance to catch the reading bug.

I know from personal experience that it’s something that stays with you into adulthood, and I also know that reading for pleasure is one of the best ways to improve a child’s educational attainment and emotional wellbeing. That is why I launched my First Minister’s Reading Challenge last autumn. Every primary school child in Scotland can take part in the scheme, in which they are challenged to read as widely as possible, and to experiment with different types of books they might not have tried before. It backs up other initiatives like Bookbug and Read Write Count which aim to get children reading from a young age.

I’m also proud that the Scottish Government, through Creative Scotland, has supported Book Week Scotland for the past six years. Organised by the Scottish Book Trust, Book Week Scotland has become one of Scotland’s flagship cultural events, featuring hundreds of free events across the country and giving people of all ages the chance to come together to celebrate their love of reading.

The Scottish Government believes in the power of culture to transform lives and to transcend boundaries. In our draft budget, published in December, we set out our commitment to increase culture spend by almost 10% over the next year, to £166.8m. We recognise that creative industries play a key role in our economy, employing 84,000 people in Scotland and accounting for 4% of our international exports. There’s no doubt that culture—and reading and writing in particular—can help us to make sense of who we are in a rapidly changing world. Perhaps best of all, it does not have to be expensive. In fact, it can be completely free.

With this in mind, the Scottish Government places great importance on public libraries and I believe everyone should have access to them. Libraries don’t just provide access to reading materials. Increasingly they play a crucial role in communities by providing access to IT and an opportunity to socialise, and helping children to get the best possible start in life.

Since 2015, we have invested more than £2.7m to support the development and delivery of Scotland’s first national public library strategy, and to help re-invigorate the role of public libraries and encourage people to use them.

We’re currently trialling a single library card in the North East of Scotland, which can be used in multiple local authority areas. Our ambition is to roll this out Scotland-wide.

Of course it’s not just public libraries which are important. School libraries also play a vital role in improving literacy and attainment. Last year we launched a £1m School Library Improvement Fund, and this has already contributed to enhanced school library services across Scotland.

Scotland has an enviable literary heritage. From towering figures like Walter Scott and Robert Burns, to our current crop of outstanding writers such as Val McDermid, Ian Rankin and our Makar Jackie Kay. One of our greatest ever writers, Muriel Spark, was born 100 years ago, and we will be celebrating this anniversary with a series of events this year. I can think of no better tribute to her memory than continuing our work to encourage more people, particularly children, to experience the joys of reading.

This first person piece is part of The Bookseller's in-depth focus on Scotland. Other stories in the focus can be read here.