Friday, 8 August 2008

A recipe to save libraries?

An interesting blog entry from The Bookseller site about the future of public libraries.
Interesting as it is written by a Waterstones branch manager who has probably(?) never worked in public libraries. We in libraries are often being told to look to retail to raise standards. In Swansea, we have taken this on board. We have improved presentation, stock management, customer service skills, book knowledge of staff, opening hours, library layout and environment.

We even (just), pipped the big W with the introduction of a black polo shirt for staff.

And yet, here is Mr. Latham, telling us that we shouldn't have gotten rid of the books that no-one wants to borrow, and criticising libraries for not wanting his Dad's old book collection.
All reserve stock should be orderable via the internet, he proclaims. Held presumably in giant warehouses, staffed, lit, heated, rent payable &c. on the offchance that bucking the trend, someone should one day want to borrow a copy of of Lord Snodbury's guide to modern manners 1936 edition. Hardly a good use of public money. It might be alright in Dr. Who but where do you stop? With publishing seemingly expanding every year, soon every square yard of this sceptered isle would be covered with huge hangars storing every book ever held by any library ever, as if that were in itself a mark of quality.

You know what - no.

Libraries are public services and have to repsond to customer needs and demands. Library managers apply principles of collection management that boil down to basic common sense when deciding what to keep in store for a rainy day. Sometimes we get it right and sometimes we get it wrong. It's not as perverse as the retail practice of returning everything at month end that hasn't sold, even if the same day more copies of the same book arrive in boxes. We are not governed by the same commercial principals but we do have to ensure good use of resources to maximise usage.

This doesn't mean dumbing down - far from it. In fact I know that Swansea Central library boasts a far wider range than the local W, even in very popular areas such as fiction and childrens.

If Mr Latham had his way, libraries would be full of dusty old books and Waterstones would be full of shiny new ones. Libraries would be staffed by "veteran librarians" for whom "customer skills" would not be a priority, and Waterstone's staffed with customer friendly book lovers.

I wonder if Waterstone's believe that you can't have both customer skills and book knowledge? Do their staff need LIS degrees to select and recommend books or do they just employ people who love books and people?

I wonder if he's a little bit scared of what a good library could mean for his business?

I know the answers to a lot of these questions - do you?


Perkins said...

You always put up a good case for Swansea, but there would be no harm in listening to what Martin Latham says. He is not just 'a Waterstone's manager' to be compared with a local branch. He has been one of the best bookshop managers in the country for over 20 years, is also a noted scholar and has a view of public libraries which is likely to be valuable. He is as aware of what giving service to the public means as anyone you might meet. You diminish your argument by not undersatnding the attention given to back list stock in shops like Martin's. Why don't you go and talk to him?

Anonymous said...

Classic Paige - well said. Keep bucking the national trend.

Josh W said...

The BBC ran in to problems of just this sort with one of their internet education programs; it was felt that they were too good and should restrain themselves in order to allow the market to do the rest.

Here's my perspective; libraries should ideally try to get more and more out of the money every year, not by magic, but by technological advances.

This would mean a slowly expanding set of available books, as it got cheaper to look after them, and transporting them around the country got easier.

But what new books would these be? Well demand for books and recalls could be observed, to find which books are often double-booked.
But for those books not part of circulation, people could buy them for the library, with a subsidy spread out between such purchases based on the money not used for replacement and redundancy requirements, and whatever else you can think of.

So what about the reserve idea? Should there be a national store of obscure books for when books are donated? Actually that sounds a pretty good idea, because although one library may not have a need for a book, it may be that others will. That is a very different idea from picking up someone's cast offs. So instead of just picking them up, you check the quality, and if it is up to scratch do a search of all welsh libraries for a copy, or even all British libraries if it's that obscure!

Then people could either store them here and pass them on when appropriate, or pass them to some warehouse in mid-wales or somewhere better connected, where people can look after them, if that ends up being cheaper than swapping.

This way it's always driven be readers, not authors.