Saturday, December 08, 2007

Spot the difference

This blog's cheerful presentation of the temporary exterior of Cardiff Library and that of a similar one in Kansas City rather hides the appalling differences. Whereas the latter features "influential books that represent" Kansas City, the former features the kind of books with which libraries in this country waste shelf space. This doesn't so much encourage reading as challenge the bookstall at the airport. And I wonder if it's like this because the city councillors appealed to publishers to, er, sponsor the design?


  1. 'waste shelf space?' What? As public libraries are funded by tax-payers stock selection prodeedures are based on demand for titles rather than someone else's (mis)conception of what library users *should* be reading. It's user-focused and its democratic - shelf space isn't 'wasted' because these books won't be on the shelves, they'll be out on loan and have lists of people waiting for them. The books used for the display in the library at Cardiff have been amongst the most popular books borrowed from all public libraries. People who want classic works of literature in their library should go to the library and ask for them. They will be there. Librarians are trained in Reader Development and this is a value-free method of expanding people's tastes and confidence in choosing new books. Or perhaps you think libraries and librarians have some responsibility to coach people into reading only so called 'worthy' literature? I don't think the service would be around much longer if we were to go down that route.

    Thanks for the food for thought, and the links. I really loved those pictures.

  2. I appreciate it might appear to be snooty and anti-democratic but it's quite the opposite. Here's a link to an earlier post in which I describe what I owe to public libraries and another about the despair I think is promoted by the kind of fiction displayed in Cardiff. I don't believe reading as such is a good thing.

    I want libraries to encourage reading that enables readers to find a genuine happiness (and I don't mean via the classics!), not as a free alternative to devour one after the other cynical, despair-dealing corporate fiction.

  3. Thanks for the reply and those links - interesting reading, as always. I think my problem is that I fundamentally disagree with you on a basic point: I do think reading 'is a good thing' and generally, it doesn't matter what you read. Reading anything is an exercise in imagination and empathy, one which might be better focused on Hamlet than Hello but one which is valuable all the same.

    As a reader and a writer myself I can make choices about quality and literary merit, and it so happens that most of the time I prefer books that make me think, make me notice the language or ideas, that challenge me and make me feel. Probably not a lot of those books are displayed on the front of Cardiff library.

    As a librarian I'm deeply conscious of my role in making information and literature (of all kinds) available and accessible, in helping readers to make choices and expand their horizons and in promoting reading as a valuable activity no matter what it is that is read.

    You'll very easily find librarians who share your view about reading, who are uncomfortable with the way the service is going, who are secretly (and not so secretly) wondering why we've moved away from existing as a repository of what is good and great about written culture, and metamorphed into a free-at-point-of-use version of the 3-for-2 tables at Waterstones.

    I'm not entirely unequivocal about it myself and I still wonder if it is possible for us to do both. It will, in the end, come down to money - we are accountable to the tax-payer and need to provide the service that they want.

  4. Ah, if I were a librarian, no doubt I'd patrol the shelves glaring at anyone reaching for the latest James Patterson. Actually, I do that in bookshops in my spare time ...

    I'm not saying these books should not be stocked, but don't you find the uniformity of the Cardiff facade distressingly intolerant?

    I find it interesting that those people who read only these corporate commodities and readily admit, as they do to me, it's not *great literature*, they *still* want some kind of literary cache and are offended when it isn't given.

  5. I do patrol sometimes (shhh!) but I've learned to keep Jenn-writer/reader in the box while Jenn-librarian/ambassador for reading is working. Most of the time I am successful.

    I wonder what the result would have been if Cardiff had done the same as Kansas City, and asked the citizens to choose? Perhaps they did, or perhaps they pulled the titles from their own lists of most-borrowed books. Which is, I suppose, kind of the same thing. Yes, it is uniform, but I'd argue that Kansas city has a kind of uniformity of its own.

    Maybe all those books should have been mixed up and split down the middle. I'm toying with the idea of saving up for wallpaper like that for my room and I'll let Jenn-writer/reader out of the box to make the choices!



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