'When I got my library card...

by tosca on Monday, August 15, 2011

...that's when my life began.'
~ Rita Mae Brown


In which Tosca has more questions about libraries, only this time in relation to books in general and readers' advisory in particular. I don't proclaim to know the answers to any of what I'm about to ask. I guess it's more my way of talking aloud in an effort to clarify some thoughts I've had about readers' advisory and how I don't think we've quite managed to do it justice in the past. I also don't expect that anyone answers, but it sure is the icing on the cake if this strikes a chord with someone, somewhere.



It's Monday which means I'm meant to post a book review tonight but I'm not going to. Instead, this post is book related but, more than that, it's work-related. Well, maybe library-related fits better as a term. So, on to the questions:

  • When did we relinquish our responsibility to provide ongoing readers' advisory professional development for staff? And how do we get that back? It weighs on my mind sometimes that I had awesome readers' advisory skills (I'm modest about everything except this one skill) that, really, weren't recognised when I worked in the branches. And yet it was the hugest part of my job on the front desk. But it didn't count towards my pay at all. Ever. When I was hired on I was asked about books, you know the kinda thing: Do you read? What do you read? And that was it. For the rest of my time there. And yet I put in hours reading across a variety of subjects and genre and format type. For a couple of reasons: I love books, and I was in libraries for the books. Branch managers take us in for our skills and, really, they benefit from it, but we don't learn this shit by osmosis. We keep it up intentionally so it should kinda be recognised intentionally. Managers everywhere, if you're listening, library assistants can't maintain those skills if they're not purposely given the time. We provide damn good service and advice at the front desk but you want to mark me on whether or not I can accurately process till and EFTPOS transactions? There is something seriously wrong with that.

  • Why isn't it the responsibility of all branch staff to be reading something - fiction, nonfiction, graphic novels, magazines, etc. - and reviewing those for the library website? I'm not talking a book a week. I'm thinking more a book a quarter. That's four books/reviews a year. Definitely achievable. When you consider the number of staff we used to have back then, that would've been 1000 book reviews a year.

  • We spend a lot of good money on books, so why aren't we making sure we get our dollar's worth? I'm not saying that the only reason we're in business is because of the books (even if, privately, that's what I think and even if, privately, I would rather be about the books than be an internet cafe). But I do wonder why the hell we shell out so much money on books, yet not put that time and investment into our staff to promote them intentionally, and not just accidentally. I read something a few years back that got right up my nose - that readers' advisory was something that happened in general conversation. What a crock of shit. If that is the case, then honey, you're doing it wrong. Oh so wrong.

  • Why is it that libraries don't allow their staff time to read at work and count that as 'work'? I'm not talking about reading magazines or novels during our lunch or tea breaks. I'm talking about allocating a specific amount of time, either daily or weekly, for staff to read their stock in order to familiarise themselves with their collections. It needn't be much, 15 mins a day. Staff could use the time to go through new books and get an idea of what customers might be asking about, read magazines or newspapers with book recommendations and reviews because customers will come in asking about those, too, maybe choose one specific part of the collection and get to know what's in it and how it can be recommended/used. It is time well spent. And I know this because I've done it.

  • Are we ready to admit that readers' advisory is about more than recommending books? It's bigger than that. It's the whole kit and kaboodle - from the buildings to how we arrange our shelves and collections (location, location, location) to signage to issuing the books to repeat visits and everything else in between. I'm not sure we're at that point yet.

  • Do our acquisitions staff believe that branch staff are experts on our collections, too? If a branch staff member makes a purchase recommendation, how seriously is it taken? If a library assistant recommends that a particular subgenre is about to blow up and become popular, what are the odds that they'll be listened to? If, for example, I had stated 3 years ago that steampunk romance was going to be the next biggest thing, would I have been listened to? If I'd also said that male/male romance novels were going to be huge and we should buy books catering for that, would I be taken seriously? The answer to both was no, I was not. And yet both of these subgenre are huge now. Just like I predicted. And I think we missed the boat a little. Your branch staff aren't stupid. They also deal with the general public, all day, every day. They hear what the public want, firsthand. They also practise collection management. Don't automatically discount them. You want your collections to reflect the varied voices in your community. You need your branch staff for that. They keep you in check, they keep your collections real.

  • I'm not ambitious on my own behalf. I could care less about money and prestige. I don't give a banana about one day being a manager. In fact, I couldn't think of anything worse - it looks like you spend your day sitting in meetings and filling out paperwork. I'll pass on that, thanks. I'd be the crappiest manager in the history of managers, anyway, and I have no illusions about that. I'm ambitious in one thing, though. My greatest wish - or my greatest library wish, anyway - is that when people think of books, they automatically think of libraries. I want that. We are the experts. Aren't we...?

    3 comments

    Nice post Tosca. In my Library, I can't count the number of times I have heard the manager say she hates it when someone says they want to work in a Library because they love books. But that's what a Library is full of! I would still say that is the Library's core business! And our cataloguing team get treated better than the rest of us. So I get a little disheartened when I hear that. It seems to be all about customer service, but what service are we providing? Most of my time is spent as a cashier for our Internet computers - a service yes, but one anyone could provide, really. I'm losing my skills at reference interviews and RA. I'm trying to focus myself on that, but it is hard when you just don't get that many queries. So I hear what you are saying, and agree. Long live books and reading and libraries.

    by bobinrob on August 16, 2011 at 8:30 AM. #

    Howdy and gidday :) I get told that my attitude about books is retro and that libraries are bigger than that. I'm sure they are. I'm in libraries because of my love for books. I stay because I want people to get the most out of us that they can, and am more than happy to teach them how. But I often wonder...who speaks for the books? Who intentionally promotes something that costs us such a lot of money and affords us so much pleasure/knowledge? We train our staff in the databases, to answer the phones, to respond to emails, to field reference enquiries at the desk but we don't really train them in how to sell/upsell books. I know what you mean about how your RA and reference skills get rusty, too, because mine are about dead. Your query is one that I often ask myself in quieter moments, sure, we're in customer service...but what exactly is our service?

    by catatonia on August 16, 2011 at 6:41 PM. #

    You're totally right, as I've said Tosca, and pretty much everyone I know on my ~level~ is discontent and would quit if they could. I wish I were exaggerating. I'm counting down the days until I can quit full time work. My co-workers would rather be fucking PAs than this job. And why they hell do they call me a Customer Service Advisor and refuse to let me be called a Library Assistant like a goddamn am? I don't appreciate being a checkout operator again. Brb gotta fill out more RSI complaint forms. :|

    by minarosenrot on August 16, 2011 at 11:19 PM. #

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