I know. Book lovers, who most likely grew up surrounded by books, read the title of this post, roll their eyes and say “You don’t say!” However, since the coronavirus has made inspecting the bookcases of journalists, experts, and celebrities a fun parlor game, its a perfect time to examine the question: does growing up with books have an impact on children and adults?
The answer is a resounding “Yes!” Joanna Sikor and a team of researchers at the Australian National University surveyed participants between the ages of 25 and 65 from 31 different countries from 2011 to 2015. Respondents were initially asked to estimate how many books they had in their home when they were 16 years old. Then they completed a number of tests for reading comprehension, understanding mathematical concepts, and the ability to use digital technology for communication. For the purpose of the study, literacy was defined as “the ability to read effectively to participate in society and achieve personal goals.”
So what did study reveal? The study, published in the journal of Social Science Research, found that home library size is positively related to higher levels of literacy. Specifically, individuals who owned around 80 books at home tended to have average scores for literacy, while those who owned fewer than 80 books tended to have below-average scores for literacy. As number of books increased passed 80, scores for literacy increased, leveling off at about 350 books. That is to say, whether a person owned 350 books or 10,000 books, literacy rates remained steadily high. The researchers wrote: “A growing body of evidence supports the contention of scholarly culture theory that immersing children in book-oriented environments benefits their later educational achievement, attainment and occupational standing. These findings have been interpreted as suggesting that book-oriented socialization, indicated by home library size, equips youth with life-long tastes, skills and knowledge. However, to date, this has not been directly assessed. Here, we document advantageous effects of scholarly culture for adult literacy, adult numeracy, and adult technological problem solving.”
Another important study along these lines was conducted by Mariah Evans and her colleagues at the University of Nevada, Reno. Conducted over 20 years with more than 70,000 participants across 27 countries, the study by Evans is the most comprehensive study conducted on ascertaining what influences the level of education that a child will attain. Published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, the study found that regardless of parents’ level of education, occupation, level of wealth, or country of residence, having books in the home had a large impact on children’s educational attainment. Specifically, a child who is raised in a home with a home library containing 500 or more books gives a child 6.6 more years of schooling in China; in the United States, it increases education 2.4 years. The average increases in schooling across all 27 countries was 3.2 years.
One of the most interesting insights from the study was that having books in the home is twice as important as the level of education of the parents. This counters the commonly held notion that having parents who are highly educated is the strongest predictor of attaining high levels of education. Evans writes: “What kinds of investments should we be making to help these kids get ahead? The results of this study indicate that getting some books into their homes is an inexpensive way that we can help these children succeed. Even a little bit goes a long way,.” The study found that even having as few as 20 books in a home made a difference. Evans adds, “You get a lot of ‘bang for your book’. It’s quite a good return-on-investment in a time of scarce resources.”
So bibliophiles can now look to science to justify their compulsion to buy books (known as bibliomania) without any guilt. And parents, if you are listening, take your children, head out to the nearest bookstore and get them started on an intellectual journey that will last a lifetime.
Note to readers: I was trying to research average number of books in home libraries in the United States, but could not find any reliable information. If you have some data (including sources, URLS, etc). Would appreciate any insights. Cheers.
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