On March 5 and 6 2024, the Mainz Reading Seminar took place at Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz to talk about what the title suggests – reading promotion, reading competence, reading research. The forum organized by Aldus Up’s Working Group on Reading, namely Christoph Bläsi (JGU Mainz, Germany), Kristenn Einarsson (World Expression Forum, Norway) and Luis González (Germán Sánchez Ruipérez Foundation, Spain), was attended by various international representatives of the research, educational and cultural sector to share their knowledge, ideas and experiences and discuss what’s next.

As a soon to be Aldus Up member, I had the pleasure of becoming a two-day, on the outside looking in spectator. Mainz showed me that reading is on the European mind and people are committed to further elevate the landscape of surveys and promotions. The great consensus between the experts on the importance of reading was illuminated from different angles. In the details, however, there are still agreements to be made. Revisiting my notes I discovered several common threads with which the presentations, panels, and discussions were sewed. Here are my five stand out takeaways and visions from an audience perspective.

For readers interested in a more detailed, presentation-oriented recap of the conference, please enjoy Enrico Turrin’s article Mainz Reading Seminar.

Reading as a mean to defend democracy.

One of the common threads of the Mainz Reading Seminar was the significance of reading – especially higher level reading – as an indispensable (political) tool crucial for defending democracy and fighting authoritarianism. Miha Kovač (University of Ljubljana, Slovenia), initiator of the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto, illustrated the consensus across political boundaries: “If we lose higher level reading, we lose democracy”. Kristenn Einsarsson underlined that higher level reading is not substitutable with any other activity in order to develop critical thinking and with that enlightened citizen (next to various other cognitive benefits).

In her moving presentation Olena Odynoka (The Ukrainian Book Institute) showed that reading is targeted for these exact reasons in times of war. While Russia purposefully destroyed libraries and burned books, the Ukrainian citizens now read twice as much as reading became a mental shelter and a weapon against suppression.

Reading Promotions made in Europe.

The most effective tool to archive the end goal of higher-level reading skills are long-form texts, especially the printed book. International examples showed what best practices exist for promoting books and reading enjoyment to children, adolescents, and parents: María José Gálvez (Director General for the Book and Reading promotion at the Ministry of Culture in Spain) spoke on the country’s pact for reading, under which several successful reading promotion found their footing: 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 program.

Vibeke Røgler (General manager of Foreningen !Les, Norway) added insight to the work of her association, which uniquely is receiving state support by both the Ministry of Culture and Ministry of Education. !Les looks back at nearly three decades of expertise, resulting in over half a million yearly participants in their short-term campaigns and long-term initiatives. These e.g., consist of eleven different initiatives annually for 6 to 19-year-olds, including ‘Read and Play’, three literature awards, a non-fictional magazine for youth and four anthologies, initiatives against bullying, a dedicated podcast, and a website for youth book reviews. Outside of school, initiatives include ‘Book Start’, transforming telephone booths into mini-libraries, and participating in national activities like World Book Day, Sports Reading Day, and Read Hour.

Bruno Giancarli (Italian Publishers Association/AIE) presented the initiative “Io Leggo Perché” which for the last 8 years has helped to stack the bookshelf of poorly financed school libraries with more than 3 million books through the donation of citizens and publishers. As a result, school libraries are expanded, newly created and attended more often.

Simone Ehmig (Stiftung Lesen, Germany) gave examples of their low-threshold approach of meeting people where they are rather than waiting for them to visit the library on their owns. This includes public campaigns, awards, having celebrities as ambassadors, action days (reading aloud day, world book day), books at POS in discount stores (Aldi), book gifting programs (parents of newborns, small children, beginning readers, Happy Meals), partnerships with ministries, companies, foundations, associations, platforms with training for multipliers, and more.

What to promote and what not?

However, a more difficult question emerged from the discussions: How do we on the other hand deal with “lesser” forms of reading, such as digital reading, short text content, audiobooks, non-book/everyday reading etc.? What middle ground is there to promote below higher-level reading so that it serves as a step towards the end goal and does not end up being the final destination? Simone Ehmig emphasized that while promoting higher-level reading we must make sure not to lose those and their realities out of sight whose reading skills are the lowest right now and often are not motivated to become literate on their own. Here an “elitist” book centered and demonizing every day digital reading approach most likely will end up being counterproductive. Still, as Miha Kovač put it, we can’t lower the standards for higher-level reading. Relating to that point Bjørgulv Vinje Borgundvaag (Norwegian Publishers Association) added that now in Norway it’s being questioned if maybe it has been taken too far with multifunctional libraries as the printed book has become just one of many offers competing with other media and activities.

New EU ideas.

A recurring topic of discussion was the relevance of reading and books for both ministries of education as well as culture and the lack of collaboration. Rather than working together to assemble the most important goals, often times one institution is left out while the other pursues tactics too narrowly. This is symbolized by the Ljubljana Reading Manifesto which was signed by ten ministers of culture but none of the education. Looking at the Audiovisual Sector a European Reading Observatory should be implemented to build bridges and cover this obvious void.

Speaking of EU-wide observations: The EuRopean Item Core Set for Reading Surveys (ERICS) by Aldus Up has been published and is being used in Italy, Spain and Norway. Luis González talked about the practical work of convincing the Spanish company conducting the respective reading studies to change their current methodology. Ukraine, Slovenia and Latvia are announced to be the next countries to implement ERICS, while Gerhard Lauer and Christoph Bläsi (Johannes Gutenberg-University Mainz, Germany) want to take the next steps necessary to be able to claim the same for Germany soon.

What’s next, what’s needed?

To research and promote reading and books is not an easy task as Gerhard Lauer stated at the very beginning of Mainz Reading Seminar. In fact, it’s a matter of pushing the envelope (“die dicken Bretter bohren”). Nevertheless, Arnaud Pasquali (Creative Europe) found encouraging words in the concluding panel that now might be the best time to really make a change: Due to recent studies such as PISA and PERLS there is a momentum in politics – on state and EU level – to do something about reading skills and promotion.

In the concluding panel the participants of the Mainz Reading Seminar discussed where we go from here: What needs to be done and what is needed?

  • Data – if possible big data – in order to build a non-emotional, bulletproof basis on the topic of reading skills and reading promotion. To put it bluntly: What’s good and what’s bad (e.g., smartphones, digital reading). By that we can tackle the brought-up elephant in the room of how to beneficially promote or not promote below higher-level reading. An aforementioned European Reading Observatory would immensely help conducting such studies.
  • As big data can quickly mean big money which in return can take a lot of time to gather, we also need to “pick up the logs” and do our best with what’s available to us. Taking small steps and securing the small victories is the way to go rather than wait for the one big perfect solution. As put by the attendees: Let’s Just Do It!
  • One of those easier steps is what this seminar was all about: building alliances and working together. This for example could manifest in a data bank/website for sharing ideas, e.g. best practices on reading promotion activities as well as collecting and visualizing already available EU data.