Study: Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies

book shelves book stack bookcase books

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Scholarly culture theory highlights book-oriented socialization, indicated by adolescents’ home library size, as a source of cognitive competencies, skills and knowledge that are valued not only in formal education but also by employers in different places and historical periods. Scholarly culture does not comprise arbitrary cultural signals that identify elite members and earmark them for privileged positions in society: it enhances performance and as such it is valued in various historical circumstances and by modest families as well as the elite.

Growing up, I was surrounded by books. My mother had well over a thousand. As did I by the time I graduated high school. We also spent time at the public, K-12 school, and university libraries. Naturally, my first job was in a library. And, it is only a quirk of luck that I am not a librarian instead of a technologist. Well, an automation librarian. Fleur already has over a couple hundred books.

The study specifically has adults reach back into their memory and recall how many books they had. I worry about this kind of self-reporting because people use books as status symbol might inflate the number.

But, books in the home (as recalled from memory) as an adolescent, the level of literacy, numeracy, and technology skills grew up until about 350. Beyond that, there were not great gains. This seems like another of those Goldilocks things were there is great effect but only to a point. The gains are best from a handful to 80 but still good up until about 350.

In the cohort, people who were between 25 and 65 years of age between 2011 and 2015, grew up with hardly any books, and managed to finish only lower secondary school (9 years) typically performed in the literacy test at about −0.55 of a standard deviation below the mean. Their counterparts with university degrees had roughly average literacy levels (0.00). The same level of literacy was achieved by people who were surrounded by many books in adolescence but whose schooling ended in Year 9 (0.02). So, literacy-wise, bookish adolescence makes up for a good deal of educational advantage.

The effects are seen across culturally diverse countries.

I wonder though, if a robust library system affects how many books a household might have? I feel like we were an aberration for both having thousands of books and spending lots of time in libraries. Perhaps countries or even cities with easy access to books in libraries mean families invest less in personal collections but yet still adhere to scholarly culture?

But, my confirmation bias is excited about this study as it means my intention to surround Fleur with books, read with her, and foster a love of books & research is on the right track.

Got to this study by reading the Smithsonian’s Growing Up Surrounded by Books Could Have Powerful, Lasting Effect on the Mind.

Joanna SikoraM. D. R. EvansJonathan Kelley. (2019). Scholarly culture: How books in adolescence enhance adult literacy, numeracy and technology skills in 31 societies. Social Science Research, Volume 77, January 2019, Pages 1-15. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ssresearch.2018.10.003

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