Do literacy programs like Big Reads really work?

There’s little data to back up the efficacy of city-, state-, and country-wide reading initiatives.

Do literacy programs like Big Reads really work?

There’s little data to back up the efficacy of city-, state-, and country-wide reading initiatives.

How do you measure joy? Can we calculate the pleasure of learning to read? Is it possible to quantify the satisfaction of reading an amazingly good book?

For the third year in a row, the Trump administration is trying to revoke all federal funding from public libraries. The idea, to many readers, is categorically absurd. But readers or not, we live in a world where economic realities demand facts and figures. Multiple studies show libraries’ positive economic impact, but when it comes to measuring the success of city-wide reading programs like One City, One Book and Big Read, often there’s no number to be had.

In 1998, former Seattle Public Library Executive Director Nancy Pearl founded If All Seattle Read the Same Book, a public initiative to get the city’s then 536,978 residents to, well, read the same book. At the time, the goal was to improve literacy, a number that can be measured over time. By 2005, the program’s seventh year, Seattle had become the most literate city in the nation. Today the goal and name of the initiative are slightly different: The library site says Seattle Reads is “designed to deepen engagement in literature through reading and discussion.”

This goal is not unlike that of Big Read, an initiative out of the National Endowment for the Arts (an independent federal agency Trump has also tried to defund). NEA Public Affairs Specialist Elizabeth Auclair says Big Read’s goal is to “broaden our understanding of our world, our communities, and ourselves through the joy of sharing a good book.”

Since 2006, the NEA has granted more than $19 million to more than 1,400 communities to help finance their programs; neighborhoods can apply for up to $15,000 in matching funds per application cycle. More than 400 towns do One City, One Book, a Big Reads alternative tracked by the Library of Congress. The American Library Association provides resources for One Book, One Community. Programs can also be state organized, like One Book One Region in Connecticut.

In order to receive funding, a community applies for a grant and details “the programs they want to do that make sense for their community,” according to NEA Director of Literature Amy Stolls. Applicants don’t have to be independent cities — individual neighborhoods in the Bronx, for example, participate — but Stolls said each applicant must show local capability for success: “That's how our review committees are looking at these. They're not saying Los Angeles is doing this and Louisville or a small town in Kentucky [has to do] that.” Instead, application criteria address local organizational capacity.

How these neighborhoods achieve the joy of sharing a good book is up to them. The NEA provides multiple book recommendations a year and communities select the one that best meets their needs. After reading multi-year option Station Eleven, a post-apocalyptic novel by Emily St. John Mandel frequently mentioning Shakespeare, a Southern community established the town’s first theater troupe. And in Santa Barbara, California, reading Mandel’s book helped participants bond during the 2017 wildfires. For other places, Stolls explains, success can be discussion groups that bring residents back to dying downtowns, help them see the world from another point of view, or meet a living author for the first time.

Two-thirds of Big Read grantees are repeat participants, having supplied program-end reports with participant numbers for years past. But New York, which organizes its own program, doesn’t track such numbers, according to program organizer Katherine Drew, the associate commissioner of media strategy for the Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. The city does track other things, for instance how many times a One Book selection is checked out in its library system; last year’s pick, Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan, was the most-checked out book.

It’s not that New Yorkers’ literary joy is more difficult to measure, rather that Drew’s office isn’t tracking metrics. While she encourages readers to talk to each other on the subway, One Book, One New York’s primary goal isn’t to bring the city together. It’s economic: “We have the five biggest publishing houses here in New York City,” she explained, noting program goals are threefold: to champion the publishing industry, help independent bookstores, and showcase New York’s 219 public library branches.

Unlike community spirit and other success indicators that are harder to measure, economic growth always comes with a number. But the New York City mayor’s office has never asked bookstores measure the program’s effect on sales. “We do not ask for [growth metrics] nor do they want to give us those exact numbers,” Drew said. In fact, she added, publishers actually give the program thousands of copies for free. “I know you're looking for stats,” she said. “This is not a stat-driven program.” She declined to comment on the program’s budget.

In Seattle, Library Journal   reported the program cost $70,000 per year to get going, the first three years funded by a Lila Wallace/Reader’s Digest Foundation grant. In the program’s third year, it received $500,000 from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In Chicago, early annual costs were $40,000 and in Syracuse, New York, $80,000.

How these cities spend the money is as diverse as their goals. Santa Monica, for example, paid to have Mandel come speak. In New York, Drew said, “The only funding that we do for the office for the program is for the advertising that you see in the subways and the buses.” (New York Public Library and Brooklyn Public Library finance their own programs promoting One Book, One New York.)

Stolls said there’s only so much any town can expect from just one book: “It's really about community and bringing the community together, focused on discussing and the joy of the book. So we hope that and trust that there are benefits to the program.” Ideally, she added, these benefits would include “more patrons to the local libraries and that people are discovering new books,” reading more, “getting to know community members that they didn't talk to before and...learning about new topics.” This is the type of anecdotal feedback Stolls says communities share.

“We don't have specifics at the moment to back that up,” she said, but the NEA is on its way to correcting that, starting a national, small-scale study to gather data, one town to the next. “It's in the very beginning stages,” Stolls said, explaining that early metrics on reading joy may be available by the end of the year.

Clarification: An earlier version of this story was imprecise in describing the metrics tracked by New York City’s One Book, One New York program. The program does not track participant numbers, but it does track things such as how often a selection is checked out of its library system.

Terena Bell is a journalist in New York City.