QUANTITATIVE ANALYSES across 27 nations have documented the positive effects of book-lined shelves in homes. Children who grow up in homes with 500 or more books enjoy positive intellectual advantages.
I read these analyses more than 10 years ago when reviewing common traits displayed by successful applicants to American Ivy League colleges. “Home library size has a very substantial effect on educational attainment, even adjusting for parents’ education, father’s occupational status and other family background characteristics,” reports one published in the journal Research in Social Stratification and Mobility. “Growing up in a home with 500 books would propel a child 3.2 years further in education, on average, than would growing up in a similar home with few or no books."
This is not anecdotal evidence. “This is a large effect, both absolutely and in comparison with other influences on education,” says the research team, led by University of Nevada sociologist M.D.R. Evans. “A child from a family rich in books is 19 percentage points more likely to complete university than a comparable child growing up without a home library.”
This effect holds true regardless of a nation’s wealth, culture or political system, but its intensity varies from country to country. In China, a child whose parents own 500 books will average 6.6 more years of education than a comparable child from a bookless home. In the United States, the figure is 2.4 years — which is still highly significant when you consider it’s the difference between two years of college and a full four-year degree. The study did not measure the impact in Ireland.
Researchers used data from the World Inequality Study, which pooled information from a series of representative national samples. In most nations, survey participants (a total of more than 73,000 people) were asked to estimate the number of books in their parents’ home when they were 14 years old. The scholars compared that figure with other factors influencing educational achievement, including the education levels of one’s parents.
“Regardless of how many books the family already has, each addition to a home library helps the children get a little farther in school,” they report. “But the gains are not equally great across the entire range. Having books in the home has a greater impact on children from the least-educated families. It is at the bottom, where books are rare, that each additional book matters most.”
Evans and her colleagues contend the number of books at home is an excellent reflection of a family’s “scholarly culture,” which they describe as a “way of life in homes where books are numerous, esteemed, read and enjoyed.” An early immersion in such a culture “provides skills and competencies that are useful in school,” and/or engenders “a preference for and enjoyment of books and reading that makes schooling congenial, or enjoyable,” they conclude.
So mom and dad don’t have to be scholars themselves; they just have to read and respect books, and pass that love of reading down to their children. Anna Quindlen was clearly onto something when she wrote: “I would be the most content if my children grew up to be the kind of people who think decorating consists mostly of building enough bookshelves.”
M.D.R. Evans, Jonathan Kelley, Joanna Sikora, and Donald J. Treiman -- "Family scholarly culture and educational success: Books and schooling in 27 nations", Research in Social Stratification and Mobility, 2010.
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