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Do seafarers still want to read? Should welfare organisations still spend lots of time and money providing books and magazines? Dr JASON ZUIDEMA, executive director of the North American Maritime Ministry Association, considers the issues…
The Mariners' Club in Hong Kong is a well-used, but ageing building, scheduled to be torn down in the coming few years and rebuilt to fit in with the modern skyscrapers that surround it.
The new edifice will provide new generations of seafarers with a welcoming, perfectly located place to stay when signing on and off ships in Hong Kong.
One feature of the current Mariners' Club building that might not make it into the new structure is the little display of free books on each guest room floor, with a selection of best sellers from previous decades and more recent women's fashion magazines.
For the past year, Zach Jeffers, a Young Adult Service Corps intern from the United States, has been tasked with making sure the displays are full, replacing books and magazines that have been taken. 'There is not a huge choice of new books, but I try to find the best ones from the books that are donated,' he notes.
Each month, the Mariners' Club receives a few boxes of donated books and magazines. Sometimes the books are newer and could be interesting to read, but most are dated and tired looking – having provided hours of entertainment for readers over the course of many years.
'I have always loved reading,' Zach says, 'so this is a little project that I like. Stocking these old books sometimes feels like a thing of the past, but I know that reading is good for the mind. It is a better use of time than playing video games or watching TV all the time. I like to take the time to go through the donated books and magazines to find the ones that our seafarer guests might more likely take.'
Unfortunately, it seems that seafarers are losing interest in reading for pleasure. Once a cornerstone of services provided by seafarers' welfare organisations, printed reading material is increasingly an afterthought, lagging far behind the internet, SIM cards, and transportation.
The trend has been charted: a major seafarers' welfare survey supported by the ITF Seafarers' Trust in 1996 was repeated in 2016. In 1996 book services ranked in the middle of the respondents' wishes; in 2016, they ranked last.
In a 2016 welfare survey by the ITF, book services ranked last on seafarers' wish lists.
Though there has been a dip in the demand for books and magazines, several organisations still exist worldwide with book or newspaper distribution to seafarers in their charters. The UK-based Marine Society has a special book services department offering bespoke crew libraries to a list of companies. The Norwegian, Finnish, Danish, and Swedish seafarers' services all run or partner with book and film distribution services for crews flagged with their countries.
For US-flagged ships, too, the United Seamen's Service continues to run the American Merchant Marine Library Association programme, sending boxes of used books to American-flagged vessels in a selection of US ports.
Yet these shipboard book services only serve a fraction of seafarers. An equally significant distribution of books and reading material happens via the network of seafarers' centres and missions of all traditions. Most centres worldwide still offer used books and magazines for free.
Many still dutifully put together bundles of newspapers, National Geographic magazine and other pamphlets for distribution in ship visiting each day.
No doubt, the distribution of free magazines such as the Mission to Seafarers' The Sea, Sailors' Society's Chart and Compass, the ITF Seafarers' Bulletin or other similar magazines in ports across the world fits squarely in the effort to keep seafarers informed and entertained.
But is it becoming a pointless exercise? Should seafarers' missions and services concentrate all their efforts on the other offerings that rate more highly in importance (as determined by seafarers), and especially on all things digital?
The answer is yes, to both questions – but only if those questions are posed in a certain way.
So yes, we should give up providing printed reading matter if this consists of out-of-date magazines and old books that shore-based workers would never read.
And, yes, we should concentrate on facilitating wi-fi, selling SIM cards, and doing anything that helps seafarers stay in contact with their families. We should not continue doggedly to promote traditional printed book or magazine services if this is done to the detriment of other services seafarers might need more.
But if we consider the questions in a different way, we can see there is still a great future and need for the promotion of reading among seafarers.
First, we should learn from initiatives already underway in wider society to arrest the decline in reading for pleasure. Boosting interest and enjoyment in reading is the cornerstone of myriad social and educational programmes, including UNESCO's World Book Day each April.
We promote reading for pleasure among seafarers for the same reason as any other group: because the benefits of reading are far-reaching.
Much more than other entertainment offerings such as video games or television, reading for pleasure exercises the imagination, builds social skills, and helps improve wellbeing. Reading for pleasure has knock-on effects in our work life, as it promotes reading comprehension and learning outcomes.
Many studies note clear links between regular reading and a family's socio-economic status. Most important for seafarers, reading for pleasure helps reduce stress, especially that brought on by social isolation. A 2015 study from the University of Liverpool found that reading for just 30 minutes a week produces greater life satisfaction, enhances social connectedness and sense of community spirit, and helps protect against and even prepare for life difficulties.
To get seafarers reading more, we should be concerned about the selection of reading material that we promote. The quality of the donated material is part of the trouble: who wants to read decades-old paperbacks and dog-eared fashion magazines? But more important is the origin of the material. We are all more likely to pick up books and magazines from our home country or culture and in a language we understand well.
For seafarers' centres, this is the crux of the problem. It is financially and logistically impossible for a centre in Cape Town, Yokohama or Seattle to have up-to-date printed newspapers, magazines, books or other material from every region of the Philippines, let alone China, Russia or India. Around the world, seafarers' services from the Nordic countries have tried valiantly to do this for their own countries and regions, but even then, programmes have been discontinued or downsized for lack of funding and feasibility.
The challenges of getting current news and books in printed form in all the main languages and dialects of seafarers are insurmountable. The only exception in most seafarers' centres is to have free religious literature in dozens of languages – a luxury conferred, of course, by the ample funding often available for its distribution.
The provision of cheap or free wi-fi by shipping companies and seafarers' centres will no doubt help address this problem. There is a huge amount of written, up-to-date content online in every language of the world. Reading on a screen might not be the same as doing so with a printed book, but the benefits of engaging with a text are still clearly at work. If seafarers had consistent access to the internet, they could use this material.
But access to the internet alone wouldn't solve the bigger problem. Most high-interest reading material would still be out of reach. Even in English, the most substantial book, magazine, and newspaper content is only available for purchase or by subscription.
Purchasing books for an e-reader becomes expensive over the long haul, vastly so when considering the price of used print books versus digital books, which must always be purchased at list price.
Zach Jeffers reminds us that reading is good. It is good for all of us – and, we would argue, especially for seafarers, given the long stretches of loneliness and isolation that characterise their working lives. We should continue to commit ourselves to providing good reading material for the seafarers we serve.
We also need to talk about providing real solutions, which one organisation or seafarers' centre cannot do on its own. It will require collaboration across countries, the maritime industry and welfare service providers. Digital tools and resources exist across our sector: let's work together to unite them.