On 5 and 6 March, the Mainz Rearing seminar organised by Aldus Up was held at the Johannes Gutenberg University of Mainz.

The event brough together Aldus Up project partners and several experts to exchange views and experiences at the intersection between the surveying of reading habits and the promotion of reading, with strong emphasis on reading as a force to defend democracy. While acknowledging the manty challenges that these matters present, participants agreed that it was time to start acting on a few realistic immediate objectives, to improve understanding and to encourage the sharing of best practices. There was in fact consensus on the need to increase awareness on the benefits of reading and to support reading promotion initiatives, as well as the measuring of reading habits.

After greetings and an introduction by Christoph Bläsi, Professor of Book Studies at the Gutenberg University and member of the Aldus Up Reading WG, the first day kicked off with a keynote speech on “Interesting aspects of current reading research” by Prof. Gerhard Lauer, also from the JGU Mainz. Prof. Lauer touched upon a broad range of topics, including cognitive sciences, philosophical questions and more – encompassing the decline in PISA results, the possibility to achieve good results on learning through different media (with examples from children’s tv programmes), the phenomenon of social media bringing teenagers close to literary classics. Prof. Lauer stressed the importance of reading on many levels, including the promotion of prosocial behaviour; he then spoke of the social structure of books and the development of the culture and politics of books, to conclude with a call for a European reading survey system combining aesthetic and socio-psychological dimensions in a multi-factorial model of cultural modernisation. In the Q&A session, he mentioned how in some areas in Germany, introducing regular reading in class in elementary school (20 minutes a day at least 4 days a week) had had very good results in increasing readership. He also noted that unfortunately science does not easily translate into politics.

A second keynote speech by Miha Kovač, Professor at the Department of Library and Information Science and Book Studies at the University of Ljubljana, who presented the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto. The manifesto, whose complete name specifies it is about “high-level reading”, i.e., reading of long and complex texts about complex problems that require intellectual patience, force us to self-questioning, train us in perspective-taking and requires understanding of rules of logic. Prof. Kovač said the manifest came from the observation that our societies are losing the ability to do high-level reading, and relied on the Stavanger Declaration, which highlighted the stronger advantage of reading on paper on comprehension of long-form informational text. Presented in Ljubljana in October 2023 and supported by all major international book and publishing organisations, the manifesto’s main messages are that information technologies are not neutral – besides enabling us to access and retrieve information they also train us in different cognitive abilities; that screen technologies imply a degree of multitasking (which is not necessarily something our brains are good at); and that books are different – they have a strong connection to high-level reading. Book reading means training in maintaining focus, broadening and deepening the vocabulary, encountering more complete sentences than in speech. In short: screen media and book reading train us in mental abilities that are different but crucial for survival in the contemporary world. Prof. Kovač said he had no ready answer to the big question of how to promote high-level reading, but added that getting there would require further research on it and on its impact on math, computer and reading literacies, and analytical thinking; that only a combination of publishing, bookselling and library stats in together with reading surveys and PISA, PIRLS and PIAC data could properly outline the book/reading landscape in EU; and that the creation of a European Reading Observatory would be a great step forward. In the Q&A session, he recommended taking a bottom-up approach to the matter.

Next was a session on “Reading is important – Two aspects on a continuum”. Prof. Simone Ehmig, who heads the Institute for Reading and Media Research at Stiftung Lesen, a Germany foundation dedicated to reading promotion, made a presentation provocatively called “Reading and reading promotion in the age of digitisation: Why we do not need to save the book but to solve the real problems”, in which she argued that the strong focus of our concept of reading on books might be counterproductive for the learning motivation of less literate population groups. After pointing out that data over a few decades did not seem to indicate a relationship between the emergence of digital devices and the decline in reading skills – for which she provided some worrying figures – , Prof. Ehmig described the many serious negative implications of low levels of reading skills in adults, also painting the picture of a vicious circle in which low educated adults tend to have fatalistic views on their chances of improving and to place little value on learning and education, with a view of reading as an outdated competence of an educated elite. From a perspective of reading promotion, Prof. Ehmig concluded recommending focusing not only on reading and readers, but on non-readers and people with a lack of reading skills; accepting that high-level reading is an ideal that is not realistic for every individual even if everyone must be given the chance; broadening the concept of reading and, in addition to reading books, also taking reading in everyday life and on digital media seriously; and abandoning the normative view of “good” reading in books versus “also somehow reading” on screens and in everyday life.

Kristenn Einarsson, former CEO of the Norwegian PA and now CEO of the World Expression Forum, focused his presentation on how “Reading helps to defend democracy”, starting from the observation that democracy saw a worrying erosion across the world recently, and stating that to protect democracy we need enlightened citizens, which means reading citizens. Mr Einarsson called for taking action and providing adequate funding to initiatives in this field, expressing full support for the surveying of reading habits and the monitoring of the “reading health” of societies – something that European leaders should make a priority.

A session followed that looked at “What countries do for reading on the national level”. María José Gálvez, Director General for the Book and Reading promotion at the Ministry of Culture in Spain, outlined her country’s recent experience with reading promotion: Spain, where reading promotion is somewhat of a legal obligation enshrined in the Constitution, moved from a plan to a so-called pact for reading, made of many steps (not all successful so far, such as the planned creation of a reding observatory); success stories include the awarding of prizes for reading promotion in libraries in small towns, authors visiting secondary public schools, and the establishment of a digital library with a well-functioning e-lending programme. Sigrid Køhn Dobbe, Senior Advisor at the Norwegian Ministry of Culture, presented in turn her government’s approach and initiatives. Afterwards, Anne Schiøtz and Bjørgulv Vinje Borgundvaag, from the Norwegian Booksellers Association and Publishers Association respectively, joined Mrs Gálvez in a conversation with Luis González, Director General at Fundación Germán Sánchez Ruipérez.

The second day opened with a series of case studies about what “doing something for reading” can mean operationally. Prof. Ehmig presented Stiftung Lesen’s strategy, based on the vision that all people can read, which targets children, adolescents and their families from educationally disadvantaged environment, relying on multipliers (daycare centre teachers, schoolteachers and volunteers) and a series of stakeholders and funding partners (politicians, companies, associations, interest groups). The foundation acts in the fields of awareness raising, gaining partners and stakeholders, bringing reading into everyday life and supporting stakeholders. Examples of initiatives include public campaigns, awards, having celebrities as ambassadors, action days (reading aloud day, world book day), books at POS in discount stores (Aldi), book gifting programmes (parents of newborns, small children, beginning readers, Happy Meals), partnerships with ministries, companies, foundations, associations, platforms with training for multipliers, and more. They keep a low-threshold approach, going where people are rather than waiting for them to go to a library. In 2022, Stiftung Lesen initiated a process to develop a National Reading Plan to systematize the promotion of reading, language and literacy all along people’s life, but so far has not managed to obtain government funding for it. Among their initiatives there is the distribution of free reading material, including book gifting and stories for free on digital devices, which while not always effective, has shown some benefits: experience showed that families that get books for free read aloud more often to their children.

Vibeke Røgler, General manager of Foreningen !les, a Norwegian reading promotion organisation, illustrated in turn her institution’s activities. With members from the whole Norwegian book sector and links to the ministries of culture and education, and funded by members, private companies and public grants, Foreningen !les organises national initiatives free of charge in close collaboration with schools and libraries, focusing on children but also supporting adults, providing teachers and librarians with resources and a framework to stimulate reading pleasure.

Bruno Giancarli, from the Italian PA, presented “Io Leggo Perché”, the initiative of AIE that aims to donate books for school libraries across the country (involving citizens and publishers alike). In its 8th edition in 2023, the initiative was born from the observation that in Italy very few schools had a budget for a school library. The 2023 edition saw 25,394 schools and 3,609 bookshops participating, with 582,749 books donated (100,000 by publishers); more than 3 million books have been donated in 8 years. The project, supported by the government, has made great progress through the years, and is accompanied by extensive data collection by AIE, given the importance of measuring impacts. A large increase in school library attendance has been in fact noted, and many school libraries have been created or expanded. Political lessons learned include the fact that with the poor level of investment in school libraries, a campaign like this can be decisive, and the observation that given the significant differences across the country, resources must be targeted.

The next session, aptly called “For all of that we need reliable data”, focused on the importance of reading measurements for raising awareness and for effective promotion. Luis González spoke about the EuRopean Item Core Set for Reading Surveys (ERICS), the framework designed within the Aldus Up project for organisations in charge of national surveys on reading habits who wish not only to collect data for national studies, but also to make them comparable with results from other European countries. The methodology has been in Italy, Norway and Spain; Mr González focused on the Spanish results and recommended trying new narratives for reading promotion, focusing on book reading’s positive externalities (societal, economic and health related) and using compelling advocacy tools. Prof. Bläsi, in turn, outlined a charting proposal for the positive effects of reading – and what this means for surveying and promoting reading. He analysed the question of which forms of reading exactly have which effects and suggested mapping the effects of different kinds of reading across the various domains, calling for reading promotion to focus strongly on the expected (and predictable) benefits.

The event concluded with a panel discussion called “Where do we go from here?”, in which Arnaud Pasquali (DG Education and Culture, European Commission) and Olena Odynoka (Ukrainian Book Institute) joined several of the previous speakers to talk about future prospects, possible actions, opportunities and challenges. Among recommendations to collect reliable data, calls for raising awareness on the exact nature of the problem, the announcement that Slovenia and Ukraine were next in line to adopt ERICS and warnings that Member States might have little appetite for the creation of a new body such as a Reading Observatory, consensus emerged on the value of collecting best practices, pooling all available data, starting small and doing whatever is possible as soon as possible.