Best Sellers: Readers Advisory at the Core of Public Libraries and 'First to the Fringe'
Brown, Paul, Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services
Since 2008 Manukau Libraries readers advisory training program (2) has been intrinsic to enabling frontline staff to rethink and improve services. However far from representing a simplistic model of operational instruction Best Sellers is predicated upon key sociopolitical considerations. While advancing readers advisory work, it has challenged librarians to review organisational pedagogies and behaviours which have been allowed to act as delimiters in the repositioning of readers advisory services as the core business of public libraries.
Let me begin with a problem statement, or at least an acute transTasman observation, but which is also variably applicable throughout New Zealand and internationally. It is one at the heart of the ability of public libraries to execute a core role to a professional level
... libraries now need to refocus on the core business of books and reading ... The main challenge here is that many Australian library staff have lost confidence in giving people advice about books and offering borrowers the chance to try something new to read. (3)
This is not surprising when we consider that--much like the theurgist rediscovering a lost alchemy--public librarians are only recently reacquainting themselves with readers advisory or reader development, as attested by Karen Cunningham, Glasgow's Head of Libraries
If we had put the same amount of planning, time and resources into reading we would not have seen the dramatic decline in issues and membership that [UK] libraries have seen over the past ten years. (4)
However the reemergence of any readers advisory work, or upsurge in readers advisory activities in public libraries does not necessarily make for better or more effective service provision. Likewise the doing something is better than nothing approach does little to elevate the profession to the hegemonic position--which our communities should be pleasantly compelled to recognise--as the experts in all matters relating to books and reading. It is precisely this ranking, incumbent upon a sector with claims to professional status, which the Best Sellers project seeks for frontline staff.
To achieve its overriding goal, the program imparts a concise suite of lessons with learning outcomes stressing the need for
* the ongoing development and maintenance of a collaborative, coordinated and systematic approach to the procurement and organisational dissemination of this body of professional knowledge
* the purposeful application of this knowledge for the benefit of both the library user and the library's own business objectives.
What this requires is the removal of those organisational and psychological barriers of temperance which inhibit public libraries from
* energetically positioning themselves within their communities as specialist purveyors of books and promulgators of the beneficial activity of reading
* targeting the acquisition of the expertise and skills to offer a substantial qualitative improvement for users and the enjoyment they seek from their reading experiences.
This approach can often sit uncomfortably within the psyche of frontline staff in a sector characterised as philanthropic, passionate and hard working, but simultaneously viewed as a modest, passive and occasionally awkward player when it comes to the realities of competing in an increasingly commercially challenging environment--one where the book as a commodity, and reading as recreation, are subject to powerful market manipulations.
All progress depends on the unreasonable man (5)
If libraries do not achieve the public recognition, endorsement and the daily business they seek, then the fault is theirs.
Public libraries are a business. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Kevin Roberts, of Saatchi and Saatchi fame, affirmed that
Business is the engine of human progress ... [that] ... Its marriage with science delivered the global age ... [while] ... The role of business is to make the world a better place for all. (6)
The organisational fit of those statements with the mission of public libraries is apparent. We recognise general lending collections to be considerable investments, the contents of which offer tangible benefits for those communities which engage with them. Globally, the means by which we create, record and disseminate information is shifting at a rapid pace, with technology intersecting with, and excitingly confusing, the traditional landscape of authorship, intellectual property rights, readership, and that physical commodity itself, the book.
In response, albeit stutteringly, the retail book industry 'brandscape' is altering as well, and public libraries, as the people's champions, really cannot afford to play follow the leader. Public libraries operate as the biggest book clubs within their communities. With imagination, authority and vigour, they should be asserting their credentials to the very market they seek to advantage. Wholesale reliance upon self effacing notions of pro bono publico to attract and retain users is simply a requiem for further hardships. The good news is that
... in its custody of books and the words they contain, the library has confronted and tamed technology, the forces of change, and the power of princes time and again. (7)
So significant challenges have been met and surmounted before. The mission in readers advisory is no different--libraries can and must do better.
A few simple local examples suffice to verify this concern about the direct challenge libraries face for the heart and mind of the average bibliophile. We are all familiar with the bombardment of street and shop window signage by retailers laying claim to the expertise they offer and/or the quality products and services that await within their walls.
Most public libraries meanwhile manage the provision of a list of their opening hours, fixed to the outside of the …
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Publication information: Article title: Best Sellers: Readers Advisory at the Core of Public Libraries and 'First to the Fringe'. Contributors: Brown, Paul - Author. Journal title: Australasian Public Libraries and Information Services. Volume: 23. Issue: 1 Publication date: March 2010. Page number: 5+. © 2008 Auslib Press Party Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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