The absence of books—whether in developed or developing countries—is an impediment to literacy.
Despite advances in publishing, books remain out of reach for large numbers of people. A well respected study of 16 sub-Saharan African countries found that a majority of primary schools have few or no books. This scarcity of text slows reading acquisition and, subsequently, learning in all school subjects.
Book shortages impact middle-income and rich countries as well as developing countries. In South Africa 51 percent of households own no leisure books and only 7 percent of schools have libraries. In poor neighborhoods in the United States, the ratio of children to books is 300 to 1.
Although many parts the world are book-poor, these same places are increasingly mobile-phone rich. Today the United Nations estimates that 6 billion people have access to a working mobile phone and over 90 percent of the population is blanketed by a mobile network.
Due to the ubiquity of mobile devices, UNESCO is investigating how they can be leveraged to advance literacy. The data connectivity fees required to read an open-access book on a mobile phone can be as little as 2 or 3 cents, while the cost of a comparable paper-and-ink book is often 10 USD. This means that mobile reading can be 300 to 500 times cheaper than reading books in a physical format. Mobile books are also typically easier to distribute, easier to update, and, in some instances, more convenient than paper-and-ink alternatives.
For these reasons, UNESCO is illuminating strategies to expand mobile reading and, by extension, the educational and socio-economic benefits associated with increased reading.