Country Profile: Austria


8,495,000 (2013)

Official language


Other spoken languages

Croatian, Slovene and Hungarian

Total expenditure on education as % of GDP

5.8 (2011)

Adult literacy rate (16 – 65 years)

PIAAC test results: percentage of adults scoring at each proficiency level in literacy (level 1 represents the lowest level of proficiency, level 5 the highest):

Level 1 or below: 15.3%
Level 2: 37.1%
Level 3: 37.3%
Level 4 or 5: 8.5%

Statistical sources

Programme Overview

Programme TitleStadtLesen (Reading in the city)
Implementing OrganizationInnovationswerkstatt
Language of InstructionGerman and English
FundingGovernments, NGOs and the private sector
Programme PartnersFederal governments, local governments, Austrian Federal Economic Chamber and publishing companies. The StadtLesen Veranstaltungs-GmbH (an events company with limited liability) cooperates with non-governmental organizations (NGOs), private companies and governments to deliver the project.
Annual Programme Costs€ 900,000
Date of Inception2009

Country Context

Austria has not recorded data on literacy for a number of years. As a member of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), with a long-established system of universal primary and secondary education, the country has not considered itself to have a problem with literacy. It is one of 78 countries likely to achieve at least 70% pre-primary enrolment by 2015. Nevertheless, while Austria performs better than most OECD countries in numeracy, it is falling behind other developed countries when it comes to average literacy proficiency among adults (OECD, 2013). Austria is significantly below average in mean literacy proficiency scores for 16 to 65-year-olds and also scores poorly in literacy proficiency levels for 16 to 24 year-olds.

UNESCO estimates that there were between 300,000 and 600,000 ‘functional illiterates’ living in Austria in 2008, that is to say, people whose reading, writing and calculation skills are insufficient for dealing with the requirements of everyday life (E-Inclusion, 2008). Despite this, the number of people attendeding literacy courses was low. Living in an increasingly fast-moving world, people have less time to deal with things in depth, and can lose the ability to concentrate on one thing for an extended period. As a result, illiteracy based on an inability to concentrate on longer or more complex texts grows. Reading and comprehension skills are required not only for reading books, but also, for example, for reading the instructions on setting up a computer or getting onto the internet. Illiterate and semi-illiterate people also have limited employment opportunities and are often trapped in low-paying jobs, at constant risk of poverty. These issues are particularly relevant in highly developed countries, such as Austria, yet, too often, the problem is neglected by officials or obscured by misleading statistics.

One approach to tackling illiteracy and engaging a wide range of people in improving their literacy is the creation of ‘literate environments’. The 2006 Education for All Global Monitoring Report defines them as follows:

A rich literate environment is a public or private milieu with abundant written documents (e.g. books, magazines, newspapers), visual materials (e.g. signs, posters, handbills), or communication and electronic media (e.g. radios, televisions, computers, mobile phones).

The Innovationswerkstatt (The Innovation Workshop), a private enterprise founded in 1999 by Sebastian Mettler, focuses on finding innovative solutions to problems in a way that benefits wider society. The company was, among other things, responsible for the concept of ‘Bibliotels’ (reading hotels). From this grew the idea of StadtLesen (Reading in the city), which incorporates the idea of creating a literate environment.

The project is about putting on free reading events in public spaces, and creating an atmosphere conducive to engaging with literature and the joy and pleasure that can bring. It also offers readers and potential readers free access to well-known authors talking about their new works, opening up such events to a wider reading public, including those who might be put off the normally socially narrow world of book readings.

Programme Overview

StadtLesen was set up to promote literacy and to raise awareness on a large scale by creating public reading spaces and providing areas in which people can sit, relax and read. By bringing reading and pleasure together an easy and effortless way was found to encourage people to sit down and browse through books, without obligation, and to become absorbed in the world of a book.

StadtLesen began in 2009, when it toured the nine main federal state capitals of Austria for nine weeks, installing reading rooms in the most prominent square of each city. Since then the programme has grown. In 2014 the mobile library stopped in 25 cities across Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy, providing books from every genre to be read on cosy beanbags, sofas and other furniture suitable to relaxed reading. On one day during each stop a prominent author joins readers to share passages from their work.

Participants can also relax with a glass of juice or wine at the small self-service bar.

Because of the involvement of the project’s various partners, drawn from publishing, tourism and furniture companies, among others, and the support of public authorities, StadtLesen has been able to offer the reading experience to participants for free. This is important in reaching a wide audience, a key objective of StadtLesen.

Additionally, books and furniture can be purchased during or after each tour, raising funds for further programmes promoting reading.

The concept of StadtLesen, generally, is that nothing happens. A reading living room is set up in a public space and this is understood to be an invitation to everyone, to sit down, take a book and enjoy literature. Its goal is to focus people’s attention on the practice of reading, and of reading for pleasure, in particular. This is done subtly, without forcing reading on participants or pushing it too forthrightly. The programme is run under the auspices of the Austrian UNESCO Commission.

Aims and Objectives

The project aims to:

Programme Implementation

Structure and Processes

StadtLesen Veranstaltungs-GmbH, a private events company, was charged with conducting and supervising the StadtLesen 2014 tour. It grew out of a project started by Sebastian Mettler in 2009 and is maintained largely through the cooperation of its partners, among them NGOs, private-sector companies, and local and federal governments. They provide books, furniture, resources, technologies and the space in the cities.

StadtLesen takes place over a 26-week period, from April to October, visiting a different city each week. The ‘reading room’ is installed on Wednesday and from Thursday to Sunday, 9am to 10pm, there is free access to books and reading. On Monday the equipment and the books are packed away and moved to the next city. In 2014, 141 candidate cities were considered, with 25 eventually selected. Between 50,000 and 100,000 visitors were estimated to have attended in each city. For 2015, there are already 161 nominees for StadtLesen. Out of those 26 will be selected.

Approaches and Methodologies

StadtLesen’s approach is to provide visitors with free access to literacy resources, without boundaries, in a cosy atmosphere in a public space. The books on offer are intended to cater to the needs of every type of reader – and include bestsellers, biographies, novels, thrillers, fiction and non-fiction.

Teaching Material

Free access is provided in each of the cities to between 3,000 and 5,000 books, including international and German novels, for both children and adults. The choice of books is down to the publishers (70 German and around 30 international) and their current publishing programmes.

Recruitment and Training of Facilitators

The facilitarors work full-time and are paid from the allocated programme resources. In each city the project involves around five organizers from the Innovationswerkstatt and StadtLesen GmbH, while a team of six people moves with StadtLesen from beginning to end. They are trained and briefed prior to and during the events. Furthermore, they are provided with specific documents, for example letters to the invited writers, their books, and resources on how to present and promote them. City departments of culture and marketing, the public library and bookstores are also heavily involved, fulfilling one of the main criteria for participation.


The initial attraction for learners is that StadtLesen takes place in one of the main public squares of the city. Their curiosity encourages them to stop by and take a look. The cities and the Innovationswerkstatt also promote the event through press releases, media engagement, websites and social media.

Monitoring and Evaluation of the Programme

StadtLesen 2009 was evaluated following nine weeks of touring through Austria. Sources for the evaluation included reports from the team accompanying the tour, media and press responses, as well as feedback and responses from visitors and the general public. Notes from the ‘guest book’, which was provided in each city, and comments on the homepage of the website were evaluated. The accompanying team also collected opinions and reactions while on the tour. Media and press responses were summarised in press clippings, and the support and feedback of partners were evaluated. Participating authors were asked to give their honest opinion of the project.

Impact and Challenges

Impact and Achievements

The goal of spreading the enjoyment of reading as widely as possible was achieved, with some 1.4 million visitors recorded during the sixth months in 2014. More than 20 publishing companies supported the programme enthusiastically. Furthermore, the official website is visited frequently – more than 60,000 people used it to thank StadtLesen for the great idea. In StadtLesen 2010 the project’s main media partner ORF (the Austrian Broadcasting Organisation) broadcast a large number of literature-themed programmes to promote it to people who had not visited reading rooms in the main cities. Another achievement was that the writers were happy to appear and thrilled by the atmosphere and the range of guests of their readings. As early as the second year the project had no difficulty in engaging top writers. The overall aim, to overcome people’s difficulty with long or complex texts and help them become absorbed in reading, was achieved, with people stumbling across the event and becoming immersed in a book.

Face-to-face interviews with StadtLesen visitors showed that the project had been successful in getting across the message that reading was relaxing and enjoyable, not effortful or connected with work. People were surprised at how fast they became absorbed in the story, and how quickly the time passed. This experience and the positive impact it had on people’s attitude and perception was one of the intended effects of StadtLesen.


‘Learning to read is a lot more than a priority of education. Is is a sustainable investment for the future as well as the first step in the direction to basic education and a self-determined life. StadtLesen puts reading as enjoyment in focus. By erecting reading living rooms in public squares the project invites pleasurable browsing and reading.’
Gabriele Eschig, General Secretary of the Austrian UNESCO Commission
‘Reading not only brings the world inside your head. Reading is a world inside your head.’
Sebastian Mettler, initiator of Stadtlesen
’Compliments to StadtLesen, a wonderful framework, a wonderful ambience. A pleasure also for the reader in front of the audience. Thanks.’
Franz Zeller, author and StadtLesen 2014 Reader
‘If we experience reading as pleasure and dare to immerse ourselves in the ocean of books, we unlock new worlds. StadtLesen starts right here, in the middle of the everyday, and takes us on a voyage of exploration’
Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament


One of the biggest challenges was to convince partners of the importance of the project and to overcome the dominant opinion that illiteracy is not an issue in Europe. Another challenge was to reconcile the interests of local and regional authorities, cities, counties, the state, NGOs and publishing companies.

Lessons Learned

The most convincing argument in generating support is that reading is an important factor in sustaining a successful economy and society. Companies need to stay competitive, and that demands that employees have the ability to read accurately. Another important lesson was that in the modern world of the internet and social media, reading was, to an extent, being lost as a cultural skill.


Beginning in nine Austrian cities in 2009, the sixth StadtLesen tour in 2014 visited 25 cities all over Austria, Germany, Switzerland and Italy. The initiative grew quickly in scale and reached a very wide audience. Its longer-term stability depends on how well it succeeds in encouraging people to read more and for pelasure. StadtLesen supports the development of reading skills and literacy in an uncomplicated, informal way, without the often negative connotations of teaching, school or having to learn. The importance of reading, as a source of pleasure as well as a means of getting on, was promoted and the key messages embraced by people who attended the events. This helped change their perceptions of reading, letting them, for a time, slow down the pace of their lives and concentrate on literature.


Contact details

Sebastian Mettler
Neutorstraße 33, 5020 Salzburg, Austria
Tel: 0043 (0)662841079
Email: office (at)

Last update: 27 February 2015