The role of public libraries is "crucial to sustaining and building engagement in literature", the Royal Society of Literature has concluded from a survey conducted with Ipsos MORI and published today (1st March). Meanwhile, 11% of respondents said they expected to read little or no literature in the future.
Local libraries were found to be one of the top-three contributing factors for what would most likely encourage more reading of literature, according to the survey of 2,000 people in the UK. While 18% of respondents said more local libraries would encourage them to read, 26% said more recommendations would help, while cheaper books were urged by 21%. However, the latter two needs could be satisfied by libraries, the RSL pointed out, given librarians' role in helping people to choose their reading and free accessibility of books removing financial barriers.
"A properly resourced public library service is vital to sustaining and increasing the engagement in literature that this survey makes clear is such a valuable component of British society," said Tim Robertson, director for The Royal Society of Literature in the report.
Robertson also highlighted that the desire for cheaper books was "problematic" because it conflicted with the need for writers to be able to make a reasonable living. He said it showed its UK Writers campaign, a collaboration between it, the Society of Authors, the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society and the Writers Guild, needed to reach "a much wider audience".
"We are an organisation led by writers, and we see writers’ earnings being squeezed alarmingly," said Robertson, citing research showing British authors’ average income fell 29% between 2005 and 2013 to an average of £11,000 per year. "The main reasons behind this are pressures on booksellers – especially supermarkets and big online retailers – to reduce costs, and this has led in turn to smaller advances and tighter contracts for writers, as well as confusion about earnings from digital formats," he said.
Other factors listed that would help encourage reading included more local bookshops (13%), more free time (13%), and programmes on TV or radio (12%).
The survey also found that a significant minority of people have “little or no” interest in literature, with 11% saying they expect to read less or no literature in the future.
“For many of this group, the main reasons are the pressures of contemporary life – 23% of them don’t have enough time, 18% are too busy – which at least suggest that literature might become a possibility for them if their circumstances change,” the report said. “For others, the reasons seem more intransigent: 15% have other hobbies and 19% simply do not like reading.” Notably, 20% os respondents said they could not name a writer of literature at all.
The report found men and people from disadvantaged social groups were "particularly likely to miss out" on the experience of reading literature regularly.
However, three quarters of the British population were found to have read literature in the last month - based on their definition of what literature is and the report reached a consensus of 88% that literature should be part of everyone's education, while 56% of those who do not currently read literature said they would like to. Benefits of literature included stress relief, with two thirds of respondents believing this to be true, as well as assisting with empathy - altogether 81% of respondents agreed literature helped people to understand others' points of view.
Shakespeare and Dickens were found to be the most recognised "writers of literature" today, followed by J K Rowling in third place featuring in 7% of respondents answers. Shakespeare (11%) and Dickens (9%) were the most common answers when members of the public were asked to name "a writer of literature", using their own interpretation of what this means. But, showing perceptions of what literature is has moved on, respondents were just as likely to name popular, commercially successful writers, other top answers including Stephen King (2%), James Patterson (1%), and Dan Brown (1%).
The 400-strong list of writers named by the public could be "arguably the most definitive summary that exists of Britain's literary canon", according to the RSL. Of the authors named, half are living, half are from overseas and 69% are novelists; however, only 31% are female, and just 7% are Black, Asian or mixed race.