Reading the situation


The reading habits of the nation are revealed in a new survey funded by Library and Information Commission. Caroline Sanderson examines the sometimes quite surprising results</p><p>

Book industry surveys seem to be conducted with increasing regularity these days, but do they have anything new to teach us? In fact, they do. This week the results of an important new survey of reading habits in Britain are published, and they make for fascinating reading.</p><p>
Funded by the Library and Information Commission and conducted by Book Marketing Ltd and the library development agency, the Reading Partnership, Reading the Situation: Book Reading, Buying and Borrowing in Britain aims to present a more comprehensive picture of book reading in the UK than any of its predecessors.</p><p>
By using a nationally representative sample of households and randomly selected groups from the population at large, rather than relying on information gleaned solely from existing bookshop customers and/or library users, the survey offers a chronicle of the habits and feelings of readers (whether frequent or infrequent) and non-readers alike. And because the research is library-driven, it provides a particularly keen perspective on the contrasting activities of buying and borrowing books, examining the relationship between the two in more depth than any previous survey.</p><p>
It is exciting that libraries are playing such an important role in broadening the information available to the book industry, in the spirit of "reader development". If Reading the Situation has a trademark, it is its focus on the "reader", making it perhaps more holistic in flavour than past research. The report is divided into two parts: first, a quantitative section with statistics derived from completed questionnaires returned from about 900 households nationwide, covering all age and social groups. These households represented some 2,400 individuals, including about 700 aged under 17.</p><p>
The second part is a qualitative section, which contains more expansive information derived from six group discussions designed to achieve a mix of men and women, younger and older adults, from different locations and social groupings. In addition, the six groups were evenly split between people deemed "light", "medium" and "heavy" readers.</p><p>
Here are some of the main findings, drawn from both parts of the report and arranged thematically.</p><p>

The extent of reading

It is most encouraging to report that, according to Reading the Situation, reading still occupies a key place in our cultural lives. Books are read in 90% of the nation's households, with about 70% of children and adults reading at least once a week. Fiction is read by at least 60% of adults in most age groups, and by more than 70% of children aged between six and 14. Non-fiction is read by at least 40% of all groups aged six and above, rising to around 60% or more of those aged between nine and 16, and 35 and 64.</p><p>
Despite universal concern about competition from new media and increasing pressure on leisure time, relatively few people think they are reading less now than they were five years ago.</p><p>

Buying and borrowing: a new perspective

One of main objectives of the Reading the Situation research was to examine the relationship between buying and borrowing books. Previous BML research, notably Heavy Book Borrowers in 1996, and Libraries and the Consumer, based on data drawn from the Books and the Consumer survey in 1997, has shown that there is a close link between buying books and borrowing them from public libraries. Agencies such as the Reading Partnership in particular have sought to build on this by helping libraries to work more closely with booksellers and publishers towards their shared goals, namely, to encourage reading and the use of books.</p><p>
Reading the Situation provides much more comprehensive evidence of the value of such work. It finds that people see libraries and bookshops as complementary, rather than conflicting, sources for books to read, and that many will use both according to need. While libraries offer the chance to experiment and to read books that are otherwise unaffordable, people buy books when they want to keep them for reference, to re-read them, or simply when they want to own them. This explains, at least in part, the background statistic that around 17 million people in Britain buy their books on some occasions and borrow them on others.</p><p>
More than 40% of the heaviest readers (defined in the survey as spending more than four hours a week reading for pleasure) borrow and buy, as opposed to 29% of individuals surveyed overall. In addition, 10% of adults surveyed purchase books that they have previously borrowed. So here is the strongest proof yet that readers are best described simply as "readers", rather than being artificially pigeonholed as either"buyers" or "borrowers".</p><p>

The age factor

Reading habits vary tremendously with age, and very often change over an individual's lifetime. The typical ups and downs of our reading lives are as follows. As children grow older and become more proficient at reading, the extent to which they read as a leisure activity increases up to the age of about 11 or 12. Then it tails off suddenly when children start secondary school, particularly among boys, until, by the time they leave school, many are not really reading for pleasure at all.</p><p>
Reading among young males typically stays at a low level until middle age, when other leisure activities such as sport and socialising take up less of their leisure time. Adult females tend to read more throughout adulthood, though the amount they read dips significantly when they have a young family, increasing again as their children get older.</p><p>
As both sexes approach retirement age and have more leisure time, the amount of reading increases again. From this it can be surmised that some of the most active and adventurous readers are not in those age groups at whom many publishers throw large tranches of their marketing budgets. Livi Michael's Comment piece in The Bookseller of 14th April provides interesting support for this finding.</p><p>
But, at the risk of making books sound like banned substances, readers also need to be hooked young. The research confirms that those who enjoy reading from an early age tend never to give up the habit, and that, though at certain times of their life they might find it hard to read as much as they would like, they usually become heavy readers again once they get the chance. Even among those parents who have never developed the habit of reading themselves, there are many who read to and with their own children, and encourage book reading because of the benefits they believe it carries.</p><p>

Reading and gender

This area of research includes some of the most dramatic findings. It also provides firm statistical data to back up other recent research that has highlighted gender differences. An Orange Prize for Fiction survey earlier this year (also conducted by BML) concluded, for example, that "women are less judgemental than men and are more experimental, using reading as a form of social interaction and self-improvement".</p><p>
There are many echoes of this in Reading the Situation, which uncovers a great deal more about reading and gender. For a start, women generally read more throughout their lives than men. This fact alone, though perhaps not wholly surprising, is fascinating in itself. Why is this so? And can we do anything to encourage boys and men to read more, or is it gender specific?</p><p>
As far as fiction is concerned, boys and girls read in relatively equal measure (75% of girls compared to 66% of boys); but the gap widens among adults (77% of women, compared to 45% of men). More women also read poetry (22%, compared to 8% of men). The survey found that, to some extent, men read less fiction because they are reading non-fiction or other genres (for example, graphic novels), but they are still less likely to spend time reading overall. Typically they say this is because they are doing other things, or because they simply do not enjoy it. Though some women also give these reasons, or say they prefer to read material other than books (notably magazines), they are far more likely to say that lack of time prevents them from reading more.</p><p>
Women also read books for a greater variety of reasons than men. While, like men, they read to find things out and for general interest, women are much more likely to say that they read for pleasure and to relax. Many say that reading provides them with the chance to escape and to use their imaginations.</p><p>
The social aspects of reading also show clear differences between women and men. As borne out by the Orange Prize research, men are far more cautious about their reading, being less likely to discuss the books that they read. They do not generally make a habit of recommending titles to others, and they are also wary of taking up recommendations themselves. If they do, they are more inclined to trust the opinion of so-called "experts" (e.g. reviewers) than that of their peers. This contrasts markedly with women, for whom book recommendations from friends, relations and workmates are a chief source of guidance.</p><p>
Women are less worried than men about making a wrong choice; they are also much more likely to give up on a book if they discover that it is not to their taste. Women frequently discuss the books they have read, though they usually do so in an informal way, despite the increasing number of reading groups.</p><p>
In short, Reading the Situation confirms the importance of female readers to the consumer books market, and fleshes out the bare statistic (contained in BML's current Books and the Consumer survey) that while women represent 52% of the adult population, they account for around 65% of all consumer book purchases.</p><p>

Why reading is special

It is heartening to discover that, for many, reading is still a special and unique activity. Around 25% of adults readers and 20% of children read books because they consider that reading gives them something that television and computers, for example, do not. In these high-pressure days, 52% of adult readers say they read books in order to relax or to relieve stress; 27% see reading as a form of escapism; and 24% as a chance to use their imaginations.</p><p>
While most children have not yet reached the point where they need to unwind, 31% say they read because it gives them the chance to use their imaginations. So, many book readers seem to appreciate the way that reading allows them to combine relaxation with stimulation in a way that television cannot.</p><p>

What would make people want to read more?

The all-important question. For most respondents, having more leisure time is the only thing that would make them read more. However, many young adults think reading is something they will have more time to do when they are older and less active, again, the older reader pattern. Some people do not read as much as they would like because they feel guilty about not doing something more "important", or that they will be being anti-social in some way, reading seen as "naughty but nice".</p><p>
There is fuel, too, for the debate about whether books are too expensive. Around one fifth of those surveyed said they would read more books if they were able to afford to buy more, while many said they would read more if there were better books available in the library. However, the issue of finding time to read is a far bigger problem than range or price.</p><p>
Finally, the small number of people who do not enjoy reading at all tend to think that nothing would make them read more. Old habits, or lack of them, die hard. For some people, reading still seems to have a pretty poor image. The question here is, how does the book world work together to combat the negative stereotypes?</p><p>

Libraries: their unique role

It is appropriate to round off by looking at the image of libraries, the linchpin of the research. Libraries undoubtedly have their work cut out to ensure that they remain high in the public consciousness, and to reverse the decline in borrowers over the past 10 years. But Reading the Situation finds that they still fulfil a unique role in the eyes of many readers, making books available to those who cannot afford them or who do not have enough space to keep a large number at home.</p><p>
Libraries also play a key cultural role in offering readers the chance of risk-free experimentation with authors and genres they might not otherwise have tried. People are far more likely to choose books they had not planned to get when visiting a library than when in a bookshop; and some readers (particularly those in the older age groups) find that libraries offer a less intimidating atmosphere than bookshops.</p><p>
With research results such as these, it would be a fair assumption that some of the liveliest, most intelligent and wide-ranging reading is taking place among the over 60s at a library near you. Even HMV Media Group chief executive Alan Giles has called public libraries "the greatest purveyor of books in the UK".</p><p>
Reading the Situation provides food for thought for cultural planners, the education sector and policy makers, as well as for librarians and the book trade. If it helps forge closer relationships between libraries and their commercial counterparts in the process, it will have proved invaluable.</p><p>
READING THE SITUATION: BOOK READING, BUYING AND BORROWING IN BRITAIN is available from Book Marketing Ltd, 7A Bedford Square, London WC1B 3RA (tel 020 7580 7282; fax 020 7580 7236; e-mail bml@book, priced &pound;37.50 for the book trade and public sector and &pound;75 for others.</p><p>