Miranda McKearney: Never have our libraries been better suited to the public's needs

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It's shameful that 56 per cent of UK adults have literacy skills below the level of a good GCSE, and that some children go to school without knowing which way up to hold a book. Horribly telling that 25 per cent of young offenders have reading skills below those of the average seven-year-old.

We've been backing and building a movement in libraries called reader development because we think it can make a serious contribution to tackling these problems, and add to the sum of human happiness.

The movement is creating a livelier, more interventionist reading service that's both much more attractive and socially relevant. It's all about motivation, pleasure and recreation as the precursor to learning and growing. Research shows this reader development way of working has profound implications for helping people enjoy reading, for bringing communities together, building literacy skills, for helping people feel better in and about themselves, even for increasing community volunteering.

The movement is changing the way libraries operate. Its most intense work has been with children's reading and it's no accident that children's book issues are rising. It's making ground with adults too.

Fifteen years ago writer's events and proper book promotions were rare, now they are much more commonplace and professional. Library reading groups are mushrooming. We could make such ground if this new offer was more systematically developed and supported by decent book stock.

There's lots we're totally powerless to change, such as the government mess where library policy and finance sit in two different departments, the confusing plethora of library reports, the strange performance measures where the English indicator for libraries is just about adult library use. But we'll focus on what we can change and where future social trends are pointing: a more diverse population, more children in care, continuing skills problems, an ageing population needing to keep their brains active and wanting more than the traditional housebound service.

This is an edited extract from a speech being given by the director of the Reading Agency to the Public Library Authorities conference today