Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Time for some reader development?

Listening to the very positive You and Yours phone-in and discussion about public libraries yesterday, one caller 's remarks jumped out at me. I didn't catch where she called from- but by the sound of her voice she was older, well-educated (mentioned Oxford University) and a keen user of library services- both her small local branch and a larger town centre one. She had moved recently and commented that her local library did not offer her a choice of books. I hope this was over-stating the case. I'm not aware there are any public libraries yet with no books at all. What I suspect she meant was that there were lots of other things more obvious- such as computers, DVDs, music and that she struggled to find a book that she felt she wanted to borrow.

The experts in the studio didn't have time to follow up this person's comments, but I think she was making 2 points. The question of whether libraries have given away too much space to ICT and other services has been in the air for many years now. My own interest in reader development was spurred on by trying to defend the need for books against a policy of expansion for ICT services and the belief by some managers that demand for books would spiral downwards rapidly. Most of us in the profession with a deep love of books have always felt that the two can and should exist side by side. A library isn't a library without books, but we recognise and value ICT services for all that they offer, and yes, libraries should be offering them. Other collections such as DVDs and music are a valuable part of our cultural offer and sit happily within our lending services, providing additional choices to a wide range of people.

Why this person felt she couldn't find a book she wanted to borrow is a more interesting reader development question. Unless this library literally had no books or had bought no new stock for many years, then surely there should have been at least one tempting title. Was it to do with the way the books were presented- all spine -on, leaving the browser no clues as to their content? Or was it to do with the selection- possibly all popular & genre fiction, leaving nothing apparently serious for a demanding reader? Or may be this reader was limiting her browsing to only writers she had heard of previously?

All these questions can be addressed by a library service taking reader development seriously. Consideration of presentation is obvious. Publishers know that covers sell books and many libraries have long been trying to offer more face-on display. Libraries do need to remain aware of looking attractive, contemporary and yes, tidy. Potential borrowers can be very quickly deterred if its difficult to see what might be interesting behind a barrage of For Sale trolleys or beyond a bank of computer desks

If the selection of titles is small and in the face of shrinking bookfunds, this is going to become a problem in most places, then library staff have to work at enticing people to pick up something different. They need to describe books, perhaps on shelf-talkers or by pulling them together into " If you like x you'll love y " displays or lists. They need to "market" books to readers by any means available, through mailing lists, social networking, text messages, by putting on events and activities where books are discussed. Readers are understandably reluctant to try books they know nothing about or which don't seem to match with anything they might have enjoyed before.We need to encourage them to dare something different.

I'm sure even the most narrowly focused reader can be encouraged to try something else for a change, if its presented to them in the right way. Maybe if its won a prize or been reviewed by a serious critic: the library needs to know that and present the information. Perhaps the reader could be asked to read something on behalf of the service and provide a review for a library website or to inform the library's readers groups. By joining a reading group themselves they might soon be able to influence the choice of books being offered. So many ideas come to mind, so quickly.

But all of this requires work and effort. This is reader development in action. The current round of spending cuts is having a massive effect on staffing structures and the sheer capacity of services to deliver. In a time of austerity those libraries which do survive, need to put more effort into retaining existing enthusiastic readers and creating new ones, not less. There is a huge groundswell of vocal support for library services currently and we must surely reflect on whether or not their continued support is deserved.

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