James Walker shares an interesting initiative designed to help draw in a new generation of readers to libraries.
Last year I did a literary walk for the Nottingham Festival of Words and was struck by how little people knew about their own history. I found this incredible, particularly as Nottingham is currently bidding to become a UNESCO City of Literature. This became even more worrying when it was announced in the April 2014 budget that Nottingham City Council would be cutting 25.5 million funding from libraries and arts organisations. When we combine this with the number of independent bookshops falling to 987 in February, there is a real problem regarding physical access to books, and in turn access to ideas and culture.
All of which means that potentially the most visible space for books are the supermarkets. I don’t want to live in a world where Tescos dictate taste, not because I’m a literary snob, but because only large publishers can afford to retail at reduced rates.
We can add another, perhaps not unrelated, problem to the equation: illiteracy. England has never had it so good when it comes to this shameful social problem. According to a major study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, England holds the unenviable title of 22nd most illiterate country out of 24 industrialised nations.
The long-term economic implications of these findings were supported by the Confederation of British Industry which found that – brace yourselves – one-in-six pupils struggles to read when they leave primary school; one-in-ten boys aged 11 has a reading age no better than a seven-year-old; and at 14, six-in-10 white boys from the poorest backgrounds are still unable to read properly.
The National Literacy Trust suggests the reason for this depressing trend is that books are deemed a thing of the past by the so-called YouTube generation. Consequently, the number of children reading outside school has dropped by 25% since 2005. Finding engaging reading material is a particular problem for boys. This is appalling as there is a strong link between literacy and social outcomes, such as home ownership, voting, or a sense of trust in society.
To try to address these issues I have created an interactive graphic novel called Dawn of the Unread which is available across all media platforms so that our ‘youtube generation’ can access it in formats they are most comfortable with. I chose the graphic novel medium because it is something reluctant readers will be more comfortable with. The embedded content means that they can go ‘deeper’ into the text for additional information in the form of video, social media and contextual essays.
It was launched on National Libraries’ Day (8 February 2014) with a new chapter published on the 8th of each month until April 2015. At the end of the project a physical copy will be presented to every library and school in Nottinghamshire.
The narrative underpinning Dawn of the Unread is a loose twist on the zombie genre, with 12 writers from Nottingham’s past returning back from the grave in search of the one thing that can keep their memories alive: ‘boooks’.
Every chapter takes libraries and reading at the centre of the narrative as we want to explore the role and function of libraries in the 21st century. So for example, in Nicola Monaghan’s chapter we will see Kerrie-Ann, the protagonist of her debut novel The Killing Jar, using a disused library for an illegal rave. In my chapter, Arthur Seaton argues that the operative libraries of the 1830s used to be based in pubs, so perhaps drinking and reading is the way forward…
I have commissioned 12 artists and writers to give snippets into the lives of writers and fictional characters who may appeal to reluctant readers, such as eccentric lords (the 5th Duke of Portland), bare-knuckle boxers (Bendigo), and thieves (Charlie Peace). Hopefully they may be suitably intrigued to then go on to read more. The important thing is this will be their decision.
But what I hope will be a key factor in drawing in a new generation of reader to libraries is the opportunity to ‘play’ Dawn of the Unread. To play, users must complete four tasks at the end of each chapter which address various facets of learning.
GO – They visit a literary location in Nottingham related to the chapter. This is to create a sense of pride and awareness of their city.
CREATE – write, draw or photograph something inspired by the chapter. This can then be viewed on screens outside Broadway Cinema in Hockley or the New Art Exchange in Hyson Green. This is to raise aspiration and confidence.
READ – Get a relevant book out from the library.
BWAINZ – Answer questions based on the chapter.
We are able to track engagement via open access logins, GPS and QR codes on books at the library. Scores are recorded on a virtual library card. The teenager that scores the highest will feature as a character in our final chapter.
We are writing to every school/college and university in Nottinghamshire to involve pupils and students. If this works and we are able to lure readers into libraries through digital technology then at the end of the project I am happy to hand over the software and format to other cities to trial.
Now I need as much help as possible to raise awareness of the project. Please download the App (available from 8th July), blog and tweet, and where possible, I am happy to come and talk to staff and schools about the importance of ‘boooks’.
Biog: James is the Literature Editor of LeftLion and Chair of the Nottingham Writers’ Studio. His most recent commission was the Sillitoe Trail for BBC/Arts Council multimedia platform The Space. For more info, please see www.jameskwalker.co.uk