Rural Teens on the Role of Reading in Their Lives

By Paulette M. Rothbauer


This paper reports the findings of a qualitative inquiry into the reading habits and library practices of older teenagers living in a rural municipality in southwestern Ontario, Canada. The researcher interviewed twenty-seven young adults between the ages of fifteen and nineteen years about their reading practices and preferences. Participants included teenagers who identified as avid, moderate, or light readers, or as nonreaders. Responses to the specific statement, “Using your own words, describe for me the role of reading in your life,” were used as evidence in this paper to make case for the significance of reading in young people’s everyday lives. Four major themes related to the experiences of reading emerged in this analysis: autonomy and independence, habit and comfort, experience, and knowledge. The paper concludes with a discussion of possible implications for library services to rural and small-town youth. This work makes a contribution to the understudied fields of rural librarianship and studies of reading among rural youth.

Despite the large number of public libraries in North America serving rural and small-town constituents, we know little about the role of either libraries or reading in the everyday lives of rural youth. In today’s world, the daily lives of young people seem to be saturated with digital technology and socially networked communication practices, leading to assertions and assumptions that books, reading, and libraries have only a marginal place in the media landscape of rural youth coming of age in the early years of the 21st century. However, when asked directly about the role that both libraries and reading play in their lives, young people often give poignant testimony. Taken together with evidence that residents of rural, remote, and small-town areas in North America do not always enjoy widespread access to powerful computers and networks that are available in many urban and suburban areas,1 it would seem that information policy and professional library and information science practices designed to support the pervasive use of various information and communication technologies at the expense of reading promotion and library use may be short-sighted. Just as techno-boosterism is an extreme position, so too would be casting a blind eye to the undeniably media-rich and technologically mediated lives of young people today, advocating only for the pleasures of reading the printed and bound book.

The position taken in this research follows from Eliza Dresang’s articulation of the value of her theory of radical change in the context of the information seeking behavior of young people.2 Dresang calls for a conception of reading and information seeking that privileges the imbrication of digital media with handheld devices of all kinds, including printed and bound books. In this study, engagement with textual media of any kind is included as it was presented in the self-reported descriptions of the role of reading–whether the reading of printed and bound books or of digital materials–among older teens living in a rural municipality in southwestern Ontario, Canada. The findings in this work are taken from responses of twenty-seven young people between the ages of fifteen and nineteen years to the statement, “Using your own words, describe for me the role of reading in your life.” Four major themes related to the experiences of reading for these young people emerged in this analysis: autonomy and independence, habit and comfort, experience, and knowledge. After a review of research literature and selected professional articles on rural libraries and youth, followed by an overview of the research methods used for this qualitative inquiry, each theme will be discussed in turn privileging comments from the young adult participants’ accounts of reading. The paper concludes with a discussion of implications of the findings of this study for rural library services to youth.

Rural Youth, Libraries, and Reading

Over the past thirty years in library and information science (LIS) professional literature, there have been consistent, although infrequent, reports of the practices of librarians and other library workers in rural library systems, and, of these, very few reports of services to teens and young adults. When it comes to rural library services in general, LIS literature provides an account of external pressures that affect the sustainability of rural libraries: budget shortfalls, declining populations in catchment areas, the lack of a professionally educated workforce combined with a lack of access to ongoing professional development and technology skills training. Library Trends has devoted two journal issues to rural libraries: first in 1980, edited by John M. Houlahan, and again in 1995, edited by Patricia LaCaille John. Both issues addressed what is perceived to be the neglect of rural libraries by “scholars and decision-makers, and the national library press and literature”3 and both are concerned with the “new” electronic technologies of the day that were seen to hold the possibility of mitigating the isolation of rural communities by connecting them to larger networks of information.

Another journal dedicated to rural library services, Rural Libraries, provides additional information on the development of rural library services predominantly in the United States. Among its publishing output were several calls for improved service to young people and for youth advocacy, along with summaries of best practices for various library programs.4 In these articles, authors often emphasized the need to adapt existing rural library service strategies to correspond to changes in the demographics of rural and small-town communities, as well the need to respond to both the opportunities of and demands for access to new technologies.5 For example, in an article that provided an update on factors affecting library services in rural libraries in the United States in 2002, the author cited such issues as homelessness and poverty, the rise of migrant families, at-risk behaviors of rural youth, institutional challenges such as the lack of specialized youth services library positions along with restricted library budgets, and few opportunities for professional development for rural library workers.6

Given the general absence of youth services staff positions and dedicated library programs or services for teenagers in many rural areas, it is perhaps not surprising that the recommendations for improving library services to rural and small-town young people follow general guidelines for library services to all teenagers. There is concern about establishing a basic level of service that addresses staff attitudes towards teenagers, improved collections and programs, and the development of appropriate teen spaces in libraries.7 School and public library cooperation is another major theme in the professional literature as youth advocates are required to capitalize on opportunities for sharing resources from local expertise to collections of materials and resources.8

Despite recent research reporting that services to young people are central to the overall suite of programming and services offered in rural libraries, very few researchers have specifically looked at how rural and small-town youth use libraries and how they get access to reading materials.9 Still more infrequent are recent studies of rural youth and reading practices. In the mid-1980s, Constance Mellon reported on the results of a survey about reading preferences and habits with more than 300 ninth-graders in rural eastern North Carolina.10. She found evidence that teens were actively reading and, provided that they were able to exercise independent choices, that they valued reading as a pleasurable way to alleviate boredom. Harold and Fern Willits reported on an earlier reading survey, conducted in 1983 with more than 3,000 eighth- and eleventh-grade students in rural Pennsylvania.11 They found that “the more the person was involved with his/her family and peers, participated in school and community activities, worked on chores at home, or watched television, the more hours he/she reported reading.”12 Rothbauer investigated the place of the library in the reading accounts of older rural teens, seeking to understand the seeming dissonance between the lack of a visible reading culture and ample evidence that teens in the sample community were regularly engaged in reading practices in their daily lives.13

The research reported here follows from Rothbauer’s earlier work to illustrate, using details from my participants’ own statements, the role that reading takes up in their busy lives. Such evidence can contribute to an interrogation of the pervasive conceptualization of youth today as people who live the entirety of their out-of-school lives online; furthermore, it shows that if the research gaze is on the consequences of specific modes of engagement with various media products among young people, it is possible to learn more about the meaning that such engagement might hold.

Research Methods

The findings reported in this paper are part of a larger qualitative research project that investigated reading practices, perceptions of libraries, and library usage among older teens living in a rural municipality in Canada.14 Although several different methods of data collection were conducted for the larger study, this paper will report findings based only on the transcripts of face-to-face conversational interviews with twenty-seven young people who were between the ages of fifteen and nineteen years old. The researcher conducted all interviews and transcribed and analyzed the interview data. Interviews took place at mutually convenient locations between November 2006 and March 2007.

The overarching research problem of the larger project concerned the degree to which rural young people living in the periphery of a large urban center were marginalized from a rich print culture or from digital forms of textual engagement due to their geographic location. The secondary research question reported on in this paper focused on how youth perceived of the role that reading and libraries did play in their lives as they came of age in small-town and rural Ontario.

The Research Site

At the commencement of this project, the municipality that functioned as the research site had a population of approximately 10,000 people with half the people living in the single town and the rest residing throughout the rural countryside and eleven small villages. The economic pillars of the county, of which this municipality was a part, were manufacturing, tourism and agriculture: correspondingly, there was a large blue-collar workforce. The municipality was largely Christian (70 percent Protestant, 18 percent Catholic); most people resided in families in homes that they owned; 91 percent of the population had English as their first language; and only 10 percent of the population was born outside of Canada. Just more than 1 percent of the population declared themselves as visible minorities (e.g., as Latin American, black, Southeast Asian, Korean, or Chinese). The household income was about ten thousand dollars a year less than the province-wide average. The youth demographic split equally into male and female: 3.7 percent of the population were males between fifteen and nineteen years of age (n=370) and 3.7 percent of the population were females between fifteen and nineteen years of age (n=375). Approximately 40 percent of youth population lived in the only town and 72 percent of all youth were attending school full-time.15 Within the municipal boundaries, there was one full service library branch in the only town and one small, one-room branch in an adjacent village, although small branches of the larger county library system were located in adjacent villages of the bordering municipalities. There was one high school with a library and a teacher-librarian. There were several churches and sporting arenas, one Christian bookstore, and no music stores, cinemas, or Internet or wifi-enabled cafes. There were no identifiable, neither publicly nor privately managed, dedicated teen-only spaces.

Sample of Youth Participants

Purposive sampling was used as it allowed for emergent sampling design, the serial selection of sample units (i.e., participants), continuous adjustment, and the selection of sampling to redundancy of categories.16 Gaining access to youth participants was achieved through negotiation with the regional school board, the high school administration and teaching staff, and with the active support of school and public library staff. Letters of information that outlined the research purpose and methods were created for youth participants, adult caregivers, parents, and guardians and were distributed through classroom visits and via the school and public libraries. Interviews were conducted with twenty-seven young people who were between the ages of fifteen and eighteen years of age between November 2006 and March 2007; fourteen participants were female, thirteen were male. Their median age was seventeen years. All participants lived in or near the specific rural municipality with approximately 18% of them living in the single small town. All young people meeting the age and residence requirements were invited to participate. When asked, approximately 56 percent of participants saw themselves as readers, leaving 44 percent who saw themselves either as non-readers or light readers. In an attempt to recognize the value of their time, especially given their very busy schedules, participants were given $20 gift certificates from retail stores located in the nearest urban centre. Compensation was not offered as an incentive but as a symbolic recognition of the participants’ contribution to this project.17 Demographic data related to the income and education levels of participants’ parents were not collected: the purpose of this study was to learn something about the nature of reading and libraries and their meaning in the lives of rural young people rather than to make generalizations about rural youth.

All participants were white and most had lived in or near the municipality for all or much of their lives.

Data Collection and Data Analysis

As the sample of participants was diverse, including youth who like to read a lot, who like to read a little, and who do not enjoy reading at all, interviews were deemed to be the most appropriate method of eliciting meaningful data about the individual experiences of reading and libraries. Interviews permitted responsive questioning and interview schedules could be tailored to the unique context of each face-to-face interaction. Key features of in-depth interviewing include a flexible structure to encourage talk about specific topics, interactivity to encourage free talk from participants, use of probes to explore and expand salient themes, and new ideas and new thoughts that are generated for both the researcher and participant about the interview themes and topics.18 The interviews were between twenty and sixty minutes in duration. In keeping with guidelines for this kind of interviewing, a uniform schedule of rigid interview questions was not used, but as the interviews progressed, “hermeneutic prompts”19 were developed that were taken from other accounts of reading. These prompts were used to explore specific ideas with individual participants that occurred in previous interviews. A general interview guide was created for use during the interviews to ensure that all areas of interest were covered. The researcher conducted all interviews in face-to-face encounters. Interviews were scheduled at mutually convenient times and occurred in the public library, the school library, or at a local restaurant. Informed consent was required for all interviews, and interviews with minors occurred only with the additional written consent of parents or guardians. All interviews were audio-recorded and transcribed. Towards the end of the conversational interviews with participants, they were asked to describe, in their own words, the role of reading in their lives. Their responses to this question were coded for recurring themes in an attempt to come to an understanding of what reading means to these young people.20

Data analysis was guided by open-coding techniques and involved the qualitative procedures of active listening, immersion in the date, data reduction and transformation, and thematic analysis.21 These procedures correspond to the “constant comparative method” of grounded theory techniques by which close attention is paid to the data to see which themes emerge. Such techniques encompass interpretive activities such as counting statements, looking for metaphors, comparing and contrasting statements; these techniques were used throughout the entire project to make sense of the data. I also used different methods to isolate themes: looking at the text as a whole, close readings of selections from the texts, and “insightful” readings that are an interpretive attempt to make sense of the data within the specific contexts of the inquiry (i.e., rural librarianship and reading practices).22 Strategies of peer debriefing (with other LIS and youth researchers) and member-checking (with participants) were used to test the salience of the thematic analysis. To aid with qualitative coding of the transcribed digital texts in an Apple computing environment, each interview was coded by the researcher using TAMS Analyzer Software version 3.4, created by Matthew Weinstein, a product designed specifically to be used for qualitative data analysis.

Results: “Using your own words, describe for me the role of reading in your life.”

Four major themes related to participants’ descriptions of the role of reading emerged in this analysis: autonomy and independence, habit and comfort, experience, and knowledge. In the section that follows, I elaborate and illustrate each theme using evidence taken from the interview transcripts.

Theme 1: Autonomy and Independence

When asked to reflect on the role of reading in their lives, many participants discussed reading in terms that emphasized a sense of independence and autonomy, especially from school assigned reading and from teachers’ evaluations. For example, quiet-spoken Richard,23 as avid a gamer as he could be given his dial-up access to the Internet, enjoyed reading stories about “wars that really happened” along with computer and car manuals and magazines. When asked about the role that reading played in his life, he responded quickly and firmly in marked difference from his shy and tentative responses to many of my previous questions: “Definitely not like what I read for school. You have a choice to pick what you want to read” (Richard, 17 years, moderate reader). Lena, an eighteen-year-old avid reader with plans to become a librarian, expressed a similar sentiment. Her response emphasized the freedom associated with making your own reading choices and from simply choosing to read: “Just doing stuff on my own; I like doing that. And reading, just obviously, like, how can you be any more independent other than just to read?”

Katherine, an avid reader who particularly enjoyed the novels of Stephen King and did not like romance or fantasy (“those books with magic”) also described the role of reading as something that set her apart from other people. Katherine was receptive to book recommendations from others, especially from her aunt, who had recommended every “good book” Katherine had read in the past year. She said, “[A] lot of people if they see me reading, they always ask me, why are you reading that for? Like it should be for a class. It’s never for a class. They always look surprised and say, ‘I don’t read.’” She went on to say that although reading for other than school purposes a bit unusual in her circle of friends, it did not bother her to be perceived as being different, or in Katherine’s words, “It’s just too bad for them” (Katherine, 17 years, light reader).

Eighteen-year-old Nick described himself as an avid reader although he spoke poignantly of the challenges he faced over the years as a child who was identified in a different school system as a struggling reader. 24 For Nick, reading was a way to exercise power in an educational system that left him frustrated and resentful. The following excerpt from the interview illustrates both of the rebellious nature of Nick’s reading and his sense of empowerment:

What’s the role? Well, since I’m illiterate and stuff, I kinda want to read more ‘cause its kind of like a ‘stick it to the man’…Well, it’s kind of like, you know, a program where they try to get you to read again and like a lot of the counselors when I was at it said I was the smartest kid…I didn’t like it. I didn’t like a lot of the rules because I thought basically they treated us like we were retarded which is a major problem. So once I got into high school I started kind of at the applied level and then went up to academic level, so now I’m in academic English. I plan to go to University which is the opposite of what they thought I was going to do in public school…My ambition is to, you know, to kinda give them the middle finger in a way (Nick, 18 years, avid reader).

As even these short responses show us, voluntary reading can contribute to a sense of autonomy and independence born of resistance to sanctioned reading and important for feelings of self-validation and empowerment.

However, another common theme to emerge from the interviews favored an opposite sense of the role of reading, one that is associated with comfortable routine and habits.

Theme 2: Habit and Comfort

Many participants spoke of the role of reading as a way to relax, whether it was a mundane way to fill the time or as an active method of escape from the pressures of their daily lives. Katherine and Richard described reading as sometimes simply being a way to alleviate boredom or a way to pass the time as seen in their respective comments: “I usually read like every morning on the bus, in my spare [time], in class when it’s boring,” and “It’s just something to do when there’s not very much else to do.” Joe echoed these ideas by saying, “When I’m bored, that type of thing” (Joe, 16 years, avid reader). Some participants spoke of reading in a slightly more active way when they recounted their reading habits. For example, after Darren related how difficult it was for him to find time to read since much of his leisure time was devoted to sports, he described his daily practice of reading online as follows: “[It’s] kind of a habit. Every night–go home, go to the computer, read stuff…any time I find time. Just whenever I walk in” (Darren, 15 years, light reader).

Young women were much more likely to describe reading as a way to escape or to distract themselves from stressful events of the day. For example, after Carmen told me that she’s been reading since she was little, laughing about how her mom read to her in the womb, she said, “So, I don’t know, I just think it’s really important to be able to read and broaden my mind…I think it can be a way to distract yourself if you have a lot going on in your life. If you have time, take a minute and sit down and read” (Carmen, 17 years, moderate reader). Lena’s description of reading as escape is a much more active method of carving out a space of peace and quiet: “Sometimes it acts as an escape. Like I’m having a bad day so I’ll pick up something and just close myself off to everyone else and just read” (Lena, 18 years, avid reader). Jennifer, an avid reader and regular public library user, who often checked out five books per week on average, talked about reading in a similar way when she commented, “Well, if I’m like in a bad mood or something, it takes me off into my own little world so I’m just like not there” (Jennifer, 15 years, avid reader).

Lisa immediately launched into a discussion of her favorite books and authors, speaking with obvious enthusiasm and enjoyment about works by Elizabeth Chadwick, Eoin Colfer, Brian Jacques, Philip Pullman, and C.S. Lewis. She also described how reading, not television, creates a space to “de-stress” in her very busy school schedule: “I love to play sports. I do track and field in the spring and did basketball last year. I don’t really have time this year. I was thinking I had my plate full a couple of weeks ago, and I was kind of like, go, go, go! Like [with] TV you have all those commercials and stuff and you kind of lose interest sometimes, like flip to another channel miss half the show. But reading’s like, [you] get into it [and the] next time you look at the clock it’s four hours later” (Lisa, 15 years, avid reader).

So while some young women in this study described reading as way to make a space of quiet and escape in their busy lives, other participants spoke of reading as a way to understand and access different experiences or to make connections with others.

Theme 3: Experience

Like other readers, the participants in this study described the role of reading in their lives as a way to understand experiences of others; for some this led to feelings of connectedness with others, and for others it shed light on possibilities for themselves. For example, in response to a question about an important book in her life, another reader, Samantha (17 years old, avid reader) told me about A Child Called It by David J. Pelzer.25 It was difficult for her to tell me what she liked about it, but she acknowledged that it was insight into the experience of abuse and recovery recounted in the book that made it so compelling to her.

Katherine’s comments illustrated the way the experiences in a book can reflect one’s own experiences when she said, “I guess it depends on the book I read. Like if I read a book about someone struggling and they make it through, I’ll be like, oh, I can do something like that” (Katherine, 17 years, avid reader). Shelley enjoyed reading, but like many in this study, she felt she just did not have time to read as much as she might like. She watched a number of television shows regularly and told me that she read “quite a bit” online. Her attempt to describe for me the role that reading played for her illustrated the common desire among the young people in this study to connect with the world in experiential terms. She began by claiming that the role of reading is “imagination,” but then after a moment of reflection, she elaborated, saying, “…sort of, because when you read, it almost carries you somewhere. It’s not so much to escape, as it is to experience the other side of it” (Shelley, 18 years, light reader).

Harvey was an outgoing young man, heavily involved with activities related to school government, sports, his church, and his community who told me that his favorite book was the The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini.26 He described how this book really showed him that reading could be something different from what he was used to:

Well, reading before was transferring information from a page to your brain and holding it there. Now I think reading is more about the feeling. It’s more about…being involved in the reading and not just reading it for a book. You’re reading it and you want to be involved and you know you’re getting your imagination going and you’re reading because you like to and you’re reading because you enjoy it. It’s more involved… (Harvey, 17 years, avid reader).

This excerpt demonstrates that not only does reading give access to different kinds of experiences, but that the experience of reading itself is valued, especially when one is given the chance to reflect on what reading means.

Theme 4: Knowledge

Although participants recounted several pleasurable examples of reading practices throughout these interviews, when asked directly about the role of reading, most of them gave responses related to Louise Rosenblatt’s concept of “efferent” reading, or reading for the information “take[n] away” from the text.27 This idea held true regardless of their status as a light, moderate, or avid reader. While it was common to hear brief comments such as, “It’s kind of just something I enjoy doing” (Karen, 16 years, avid reader); “I just read for fun” (Samantha, 17 years old, avid reader); “I just love to have a good story” (Ruth, 15 years old, avid reader); or “I guess I read for pleasure” (Bill, 18 years old, moderate reader), the most dominant theme in the responses to the question about the role of reading relied on notions of learning, information, or knowledge. This is illustrated below with a selection of excerpts from the interviews:

Well, reading is really to get good ideas right. Like Kurt Vonnegut is all about ideas, even Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy28 is more a bit of a fluff or entertainment novel but still [it’s] got a lot of ideas (Nick, 18 years, avid reader).

Like I enjoy learning so I always pick up a book to kind of influence myself, um, to get different opinions, obviously (Lena, 18 years, avid reader).

Yeah, it makes you think. Also if you want to talk to people about something and have like mature conversation, it helps to have read some books (Shelley, 18 years, light reader).

The more I read, the more words I understand…I do better in English. Like when I was younger I didn’t have a very big vocabulary (Marie, 17 years, avid reader).

Well, I guess, that by reading a book I was able to do something that I wasn’t able to do before…I don’t know, I guess it broadens insights (William, 15 years, avid reader).

For understanding I think. Reading’s the heavy part. Without the ability for books and stuff I don’t think I’d be able to get a lot of stuff done. Like, the biggest thing could be like the tutorials and stuff that helped me ‘cause otherwise you’re out on your own and you have no clue what to do (Michael, 17 years, light reader).

Um, I think it just helps to keep my brain going. Like I learn a lot of bigger words and I learn how to use them and stuff (Jennifer, 15 years, avid reader).

Responses associated with the concepts of knowledge, information, and learning came from across the sample of participants, from those who loved to read and who read a lot as well as from those who were light to moderate readers. The concept of reading may be a taken-for-granted understanding of what reading means among young people. The consistency with which participants responded with this sense of reading suggests that reading, as a way to learn and to gain knowledge, was an easily accessible idea to them, whereas meaning associated with pleasure and experience is harder to articulate and may require a certain maturity in their reading careers or histories.


In many respects, the themes reported in this paper confirmed the findings of other studies that seek to understand the motivation to read for pleasure among young adult readers. In a fine-grained case study of five adolescent readers, Anne R. Reeves reported that when her participants were asked why a person should read, responses related to “learning new things” and accomplishing goals related to other interests (such as sports) and to the unique pleasures of being transported to imaginative “places, people, and plots” through engagement with texts.29 In a study of attitudes towards pleasure reading among younger teens, Vivian Howard developed a taxonomy of adolescent readers that describes reader positions that range from Avid Social to Reluctant Solitary.30 Howard found that the young teens in her study “read for pleasure for the same reasons that adults read for pleasure: to be entertained, to pass the time, to relax, to exercise their imaginations, to escape, to clarify vocational goals.”31 However, unlike the participants in Howard’s study, who lived in a large regional urban municipality, the rural youth in this study did not exhibit strong peer influenced social reading preferences and habits. This difference invites further research that explores the extent to which such positive peer influence as reported by Howard can be harnessed by libraries to foster a visible reading culture among communities of rural youth.

In a survey of urban teens’ leisure reading habits, researchers found that the majority of their respondents indicated that reading for pleasure and reading for learning or educational reasons were among their primary motivations.32 These researchers also found that the majority of urban teens who participated in their survey indicated that they were regular readers, thus providing more positive evidence that when we shift our research focus to teen-generated perspectives on reading habits, preferences, and attitudes, we are likely to find a deeper and more meaningful engagement with texts than is found in the popular adult discourses on teen reading or in the quantitative findings of large-scale national surveys. When directly asked about reading, teens and young adults may disrupt some of the commonly held notions regarding their lack of interest in or motivation to read for pleasure or for information. In this study, participants needed to be reassured during the interviews that I was interested in all kinds of reading: online sources, comics, news, “not for school” and “not from the library” choices and more; once they realized they could talk about the kind of reading they enjoyed (and not necessarily the kind of reading they thought I wanted to hear about), it was easier for them to articulate in their own words what reading meant to them.

It is also worth echoing the claim that Hughes-Hassell and Rodge made at the beginning of their article: “The leisure reading habits of urban adolescents have not been widely studied.”33 It is also very difficult to identify research into reading for pleasure among North American rural and small-town youth. The research reported here makes a small contribution to our knowledge regarding of the role of reading among rural and small-town youth, a consistently understudied population.

Conclusion: Making Teen Reading Visible: A Role for Rural Libraries

I wondered when I embarked on this research project whether reading for rural and small-town youth would offer possibilities that mitigated any sense of isolation that might be experienced by youth living in the periphery of a large urban center. There was little evidence, however, in this sample of young people that they perceived any lack of access to cultural ideas and practices due to their geographic dislocation. Even though access to the Internet and to the city itself was reported as being inconsistent, the young people in this study would seem to participate as agents and consumers in a globalised media culture that allowed them to feel connected to their urban and international peers. However, the material conditions that define the print culture of their municipality do suggest a certain impoverishment of access to reading materials and to an active reading culture. As I report elsewhere,34 four factors came together in a specific rural and small-town environment to render a picture of an invisible and isolated teen reader despite evidence that youth were reading and making reading selections throughout their days as they moved through their local environments. An understanding of these factors in light of the dominant themes from the teens’ description of the role of reading in their lives helps illustrate the challenge for rural libraries seeking to serve youth readers. The following factors contribute to what I have called the placelessness of reading:

  • the sheer physical proximity of reading materials that determined the type of materials that young people read (e.g., books on a mother’s night table or in a brother’s closet, magazines at the doctor’s office, materials in the school library and so on);
  • the perception of the public library as a place of childhood memories of both reading for pleasure and library visits;
  • the role of the Internet as a kind of default place for making reading choices (e.g., online news and music sites); and
  • the commonly reported lack of time for leisure reading.

The potential exists for rural libraries to respond to these factors to mitigate the invisibility of an active reading culture by providing a visible ground for reading events and diverse reading choices, as well as a site for young people to enact and explore reading identities as teen readers. As reported by young people themselves, reading of all kinds supports their growing sense of autonomy and independence, provides the comfort and reassurance borne of habit, provides access to diverse experiences of the world, and contributes to expanding stores of information and knowledge for all aspects of their lives. These multiple facets of the reading experience illustrate that reading plays important and active roles in young lives–roles, moreover, that are clearly associated with developmental milestones of adolescence and young adulthood.

Support for free reading choices and active reading practices among young adults in rural and small-town communities can be a positive contribution to healthy youth development. The themes outlined in this paper and as articulated by young people themselves clearly dovetail with sets of internal assets developed and popularized by The Search Institute. Reading for pleasure is identified as an internal asset related to a commitment to learning, but additional assets are supported in turn: the development of self-esteem and resistance skills, feelings of personal power, exercising interpersonal and cultural competences, and an orientation towards empathy, caring, equality, and social justice.35 For rural and small-town libraries seeking to justify collections and to strengthen reader services to teens and young adults, there is ample evidence that support for readers and reading contributes to healthy teen development.

While it is inappropriate to generalize from the findings reported here to larger populations of rural and small town youth, the meaning of reading as articulated by the youth participants suggests implications for those libraries serving similar populations of teenagers and young adults. The teens in this study clearly illustrate that reading in their daily lives has significance for their emerging identities, for their general sense of well-being, and for their understanding of and knowledge about the world. However, there is a certain invisibility attached to their reading, in part because there are no obvious spaces for their reading activities to be supported. So on one hand, we have teen readers exercising active reading choices and experiencing significant rewards of reading, and on the other hand, we have libraries seeking to respond to teens’ needs for information and reading materials. Yet the two parties seem to orbit in separate spheres, rarely encountering one another on any meaningful or lasting ground. Aside from now commonplace entreaties to library staff to, first of all, expand their notions of what counts as reading among their constituents to allow it to encompass all kinds of media formats and secondly, to continue to privilege readers’ ideas of quality, it is suggested that libraries urgently need to do more to signal their willingness to be a stable site in their communities for reading activities, for reading promotion, and for ongoing experiments in what counts as reading. Depending on the library and library system, this may take many forms, such as long-term strategic plans that position the library as an institution committed to serving teens as readers, but it might also mean a renewed commitment to tried and tested readers’ advisory services, including the creation of pathfinders and displays, booktalking, class visits, book clubs and literature circles, and myriad other programs that support both curricular and out-of-school reading interests.36 The challenge for rural libraries and library staff is how to bring recognition and visibility to what may be invisible but active teen reading cultures. The first line of action is to curb assumptions about the lack of teen reading and to investigate the reading practices and reading cultures of local populations. In many rural and small-town communities, the public library is the only place that has the capacity, both in terms of reading and literature expertise and collections of materials, to provide a space that encourages the pleasures of reading with its associated benefits. Through their support of teen reading and readers, rural public and school libraries are positioned to take up a critical and central place in their communities as reliable and consistent portals of access to readable texts, whether printed and bound or digital, and to support young people in their needs for autonomy and comfort and their quests for experience and knowledge.

References and Notes

  1. John Carlo Bertot, et al., “Public Libraries and the Internet 2009: Study Results and Findings” (Talahassee, Fla.: Information Institute, 2009).
  2. Eliza T. Dresang, “Information-Seeking Behavior of Youth in the Digital Environment,” Library Trends 54 (Fall 2005), 178-96.
  3. John M. Houlahan, “Introduction,” Library Trends 28 (Spring 1980), 489.
  4. For example: Patricia Mautino, “The Implications of Networking on School-Public Library Cooperation in Rural America,” Rural Libraries 1 (Spring 1980), 11-36; Becky Sheller, “Kids Are the Issue: Rural Libraries and Children’s Services,” Rural Libraries 3 (Spring 1983), 95-111; Ristiina Wigg, “Across Towns and Across Times: Library Service to Young People in Rural Libraries,” Library Trends 44 (Summer 1995), 88-111; Linda Johnson, “The Rural Library: Programs, Services, and Community Coalitions and Networks,” Rural Libraries 20, no. 2 (2000), 38-52, 61-2; Mary Prentice, “Libraries: Educational Partners Meeting the Developmental Needs of Patrons,” Rural Libraries 24, no. 2 (2004), 61-94.
  5. Susan P. Walton, “Programming in Rural and Small Libraries: An Overview and Discussion,” Rural Libraries 21, no. 2 (2001), 7-23.
  6. Lisa Bitterman, “Across Towns and Across Times: Library Service to Young People in Rural Libraries,” Rural Libraries 22, no. 2 (2002), 43-60.
  7. Susan M. Conway, “Young Adult Public Library Services: An Overview,” Rural Libraries 25, no. 2 (2005), 37-58; Erin LeAnn Smith, “Why Rural Public Librarians Should (and How They Can) Serve Young Adults,” Rural Libraries 23, no. 2 (2003), 45-68.
  8. See for example: Mautino, Rural Libraries; Barbara E. Jackle, “Book Borrowing Habits of Urban and Rural Children: A Survey,” Rural Libraries 4, no. 2 (1984), 1-19.
  9. Amanda E. Standerfer, “Reference Services in Rural Libraries,” Reference Librarian 45, no. 93 (2006), 137-49; Bharat Mehra, Kimberly Black, and Shu-Yueh Lee, “Perspectives of East Tennessee’s Rural Public Librarians about the Extent of Need for Professional Library Education: A Pilot Study,” Journal of Education for Library & Information Science 51, no. 3 (2010), 142-57.
  10. Constance A. Mellon, “Teenagers Do Read: What Rural Youth Say About Leisure Reading,” School Library Journal 33 (Feb. 1987), 27-30.
  11. Harold W. Willits and Fern K. Willits, “Adolescent Reading: A Study of Twelve Rural Pennsylvania Towns,” Rural Libraries 10, no. 2 (1990), 61-70.
  12. Ibid., 65.
  13. Paulette Rothbauer, “Exploring the Placelessness of Reading Among Older Rural Teens in a Canadian Municipality,” The Library Quarterly 79 (October 2009), 465-83.
  14. This project was funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, Standard Research Grant #410-2005-0331.
  15. Statistics Canada, 2001 Community Profiles. Catalog no. 93F0053XIE. (Ottawa, Ont..: Statistics Canada, 2002).
  16. Lincoln, Yvonna S., and Egon G. Guba, Naturalistic Inquiry (Newbury Park, Calif.: Sage, 1985), 201-2.
  17. Priscilla Alderson and Virginia Morrow, Ethics, Social Research and Consulting with Children and Young People (Ilford, U.K.: Barnardo’s, 2004), 71.
  18. Robin Legard, Jill Keegan, and Kit Ward, “In-Depth Interviews,” in Qualitative Research Practice: A Guide for Social Science Students and Researchers, eds. Jane Ritchie and Jane Lewis (London: Sage, 2003), 141-42.
  19. Max van Manen, Researching Lived Experience: Human Science for An Action Sensitive Pedagogy (London, Ont.: Althouse Press, 1990).
  20. It should be noted that in keeping with this kind of interpretative research that seeks to understand the meaning of a phenomenon, there is no attempt on the part of the researcher to make generalizations from this sample of rural young people to all rural young people. However, the salience of themes related to the experience of reading as described by participants in this study suggests that the meaning of the experience may have generalizable qualities.
  21. Anselm Strauss and Juliet Corbin, Basics of Qualitative Research: Techniques and Procedures for Developing Grounded Theory, 2nd ed. (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1998); Marlene Zichi Cohen, David L. Kahn, and Richard H. Steeves, Hermeneutic Phenomenological Research: A Practical Guide for Nurse Practitioners (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 2000), 76-82.
  22. Max van Manen, Researching Lived Experience, 91-3; Jinx Stapleton Watson, “Making Sense of the Stories of Experience: A Methodology for Research and Teaching,” Journal of Education for Library and Information Science 42, no. 2 (2001), 142-45.
  23. Pseudonyms are used for all participants.
  24. Nick made it clear that his challenges with the school system occurred in a different municipality, not the one where he was attending high school.
  25. David J. Pelzer, A Child Called “It”: One Child’s Courage to Survive (Deerfield Beach, Fla.: Health Communications, 1995).
  26. Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner (New York: Riverhead, 2003).
  27. Louise M. Rosenblatt, The Reader, the Text, the Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).
  28. Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (New York: Harmony Books, 1979).
  29. Anne R. Reeves, Adolescents Talk about Reading: Exploring Resistance To and Engagement With Text (Newark, DE: International Reading Association, 2004), 236-37.
  30. Vivian Howard, “Peer Groups Influences on Avid Teen Readers,” New Review of Children’s Literature and Librarianship 14 (November 2008), 103-19.
  31. Ibid., 107.
  32. Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Christina Lutz, “What Do You Want to Tell Us about Reading? A Survey of the Habits and Attitudes of Urban Middle School Students Towards Leisure Reading,” Young Adult Library Services 4 (Winter 2006), 39-45; Sandra Hughes-Hassell and Pradnya Rodge, “Leisure Reading Habits of Urban Adolescents,” Journal of Adolescent and Adult Literacy 51 no. 1 (2007), 22-33.
  33. Hughes-Hassell and Rodge, “Leisure Reading Habits of Urban Adolescents,” 22.
  34. Rothbauer, “Exploring the Placelessness of Reading.”
  35. Search Institute, 40 Developmental Assets for Adolescents, (Minneapolis, Minn.: Search Institute, 2007):
  36. For a useful overview of young adult readers’ advisory trends and services, see: Jessica E. Moyer, “Children and Young Adult Readers and Readers’ Advisory: Research Review,” in Research Based Readers’ Advisory by Jessica E. Moyer (Chicago: American Library Association, 2008), 77-91; Heather Booth, “Children and Young Adult Readers and Readers’ Advisory: Young Adult Librarian’s View,” in Ibid., 100-10; Heather Booth, Serving Teens through Readers’ Advisory (Chicago: American Library Association, 2007).

About the Author

Dr. Paulette Rothbauer is an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Information & Media Studies at The University of Western Ontario where she teaches courses on young adult materials and library services in the MLIS program. She is co-author of’ Reading Matters: What the Research Reveals about Reading, Libraries and Community (2006) and has published several papers on the intersection of young adult reading and library practices. She is presently researching the emergence of the modern Canadian young adult novel and the rise of the discursive construction of the teenage reader.

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