Julia Gillard, Terry Deary and the cultural problems with libraries

On Sunday Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced a new ‘Reading Blitz’ program for primary school students.

As I read the Prime Minister’s media release (thanks @latikambourke) I was struck by the difference between the Prime Minister’s rhetoric and the ABC radio interview of Tasmanian Premier Lara Giddings just three days earlier. In response to a question about why Tasmania’s literacy and numeracy results are so poor compared to the rest of Australia and the OECD, Giddings stated that

It’s true to say we have a lower socio-economic community here in Tasmania and some cultural problems with the value of education. That’s why we’re concentrating on the early years, that’s why we’re investing in getting mothers – pregnant mothers – into the class and school environment again so it’s not so threatening.

Having grown up in Tasmania I understand what Giddings is getting at. I was lucky to be raised in a family where reading for pleasure and valuing education both went back multiple generations. This was not, however, universal. I went to school with plenty of children who were raised in families where neither education nor reading were particularly prized, encouraged or modelled. My final year of school included students who achieved a perfect score for English and those who were, quite literally, barely able to read. Given that we all went to the same school it seems clear that the problem was not simply a lack of effort or testing from our teachers. Continue reading

A failure of imagination – the problem with format neutrality

I often hear librarians promoting their ‘modern librarian’ credentials by saying “it’s about the information, not the container”.  By this they tend to mean that librarians in a world of instantly downloadable ebooks, subscription journal databases and multiple other formats for audio, visual and written works should be format-neutral.  That we should not be concerned about in which formats information is available, as long as it is available somehow. But what if it is about the container? Continue reading

From selection and recommendation to curation and suggestion


A couple of weeks ago I went the the VALA 2012 conference and saw an inspiring keynote closing address from Eli Neiburger.  Whilst the talk itself was great, it was the question and answer session afterwards that inspired this particular post.  Eli was asked about the skills new librarians will need, and the first thing he said was ‘curation’.  But what exactly is this, and why is it different to what we’ve always done?

Curation and selection are opposites

Imagine a military museum with a particular number of rooms and a certain number of weapons on display.  You follow the path from room to room and stand behind the velvet rope looking at the exhibits.  This is the world of selection, where a limited number of items can be collected and stored in a restricted space.  Every poor decision about what to collect costs money and time, but more importantly also has an opportunity cost because something else could have gone in the space.  This physical reality has led to the traditions of commercial publishing and newspapers, as well as selection and collection development in libraries.

The world we live in is decreasingly bound by these realities.  On the internet, the opportunity cost of hosting a file is approaching zero, such is the cheapness of computer storage.  In this new world, the options available to military weapon enthusiasts look more like this.  If Neo wants to know where the most interesting guns are, he’ll need help, especially if he wants to find one of these  (thanks to Eli for the tip).  He’ll need a curator.

Curation provides guidance.  it doesn’t restrict choice, but rather opens doorways.  It is a way of making sense of an endless number of choices.  it’s a map – patrons can wander off the map if they like, you’re just giving them a place to start based on what you know.  The other key difference is that selection takes place before an item is available to your users, whereas curation simply makes it more visible after it is available to them.

This reminded me of an important distinction regarding how librarians provide personalised service.

A good book

Public librarians often get asked to recommend a good book to read.  All of us have fallen in to the trap of then immediately doing so.  This may feel like we’re providing great service, but it is actually an example of very poor and thoughtless service.

What patrons of course mean by ‘a good book’ is ‘a book that I will appreciate reading’ – not ‘a book you enjoyed’.  For this reason librarians long ago invented ‘the reference interview’.  This handy tool works for most enquiries and is needed because most people need a bit of coaxing to explain exactly what it is that they are looking for – whether it’s a book on dinosaurs or the latest Stephen King novel, it’s surprising how difficult it is to work out sometimes.

So once you’ve worked out what they are actually asking for you might then simply try to think of what you have in the collection that is most like that thing.  If you’re providing fiction books, this can get tricky.  It means you’re either going to fall back on one or the other of the following strategies:

  • recommend something you have read that you really enjoyed and is somehow ‘similar’ to what they say they enjoy.
  • recommend another author based on the genre of the books they tend to enjoy.

Neither of these is really all that useful – one of them is essentially spam, whilst the other could have been provided by Amazon or LibraryThing.  These patrons come to us because they want suggestions about what to read next that will expand their world and provide meaning to them in their current state of mind.  If they wanted more of the same they could have found it.  They’ve come to you because they don’t want more of the same (even if they don’t know it).  To serve these patrons properly you need to  make a psychological and verbal leap from recommending to suggesting.  The School of Life’s Bibliotherapy service is an example of the sort of thing we need to aim for.

If you are recommending something, it’s more personal for both them and you.  People think of ‘recommend’ in the same group of words as ‘guarantee’.  When a patron wants help to find a new book for recreational reading you can’t take the risk of recommending, because what they are actually asking for is assistance taking a leap into the unknown.  You can minimise the risk to an extent, but they want a bit of risk in their choices because that’s how we find interesting new ideas, new ways of seeing and new art-forms. If you recommend something you are implicitly bearing the risk that they won’t enjoy it.  Do that enough times and nobody will ask for your recommendations any more.

All this is much harder, of course, but Librarians exist to help people expand their minds.  In postmodern libraries we need to do this by curating and suggesting, rather than selecting and recommending.

How do you measure the rate of mind expansion?

Gardening and the library

No, I’m not talking about weeding.

Anyone can plant some seeds and grow something – but the appetite for gardening advice in the form of books, TV shows, magazines, websites, clubs and nursery staff continues to grow just as surely as backyards shrink.  Imagine telling Peter Cundall or Monty Don that they should stop writing books, making TV shows and offering gardening advice, because anyone can grow plants and, you know, we’ve got mail-order seed companies and planting calendars.  The idea is absurd, yet this is precisely what happens when people say that we don’t need librarians because we have Google and ebooks.

The question and answer machine

Most people can read a book (or write one), or search a keyword or phrase on Google or Bing – but that doesn’t mean they’ll find what they really want – whether that’s the satisfaction of reading a book they really connect with or understanding the origins of Buddhism.  Librarians are connectors – helping our patrons to work out what it is that they actually want, and then assisting them to find it.  Those who see libraries as a pre-Google question and answer machine fail to grasp what it is that we do as librarians.  At their most basic, libraries can be this – someone comes in wanting to know the capital of Belize and leaves knowing that it is Belmopan and not Belize City.  But what if they wanted to understand Belize’s place in the relationship between Enclosure in England, the French Revolution and the United Fruit Company?  Or what if they don’t know they want to know about Belize?  What if the question is whether any countries other than the UK have God save the Queen as their national anthem?  Or they’re an orchid obsessive?  Or they just want to find some South American novels originally written in English?

A lifetime of Warhammer books

You could find an answer of sorts to all of these questions fairly quickly using a search engine.  A really good librarian however, can introduce you to things you (and indeed, they) never would have thought to connect to what you thought you were asking about.  When you think about it like this, libraries aren’t really about answering questions – they’re about expanding minds.

This is why the long, slow decline of Teacher Librarianship is so worrying.  (There may be some hope that this is finally being recognised – the winner of the inaugural Australian Institute of Teaching and School Leadership award for Primary Teacher of the Year was won by Jo Sherrin, a teacher-librarian). I’ve written about school libraries in the past, but even more important than the library is the librarian.  The high school librarian who introduced me to George Orwell’s 1984 did so because she recognised that it was the right book for me to read at the time.  It opened up a whole new world of literature to me, leading now just to Orwell’s other works (Animal Farm and more profoundly for me, Down and out in Paris and London) but thence on to Camus and others.  I was saved from a lifetime of Warhammer books by that one conversation.

Getting kids to read more interesting and challenging books is valuable in itself, but the effect is far more profound than that.  A variety of reading material, and a nudge towards quality writing, leads to broader thinking and exposure to new ideas.  It makes people more creative, and more empathetic.  There’s evidence that it also makes people healthier.  None of these are direct results – in fact, the benefits are very unlikely to come if they are the reason for reading.  If someone reads a novel because she thinks it will make her a better person, the effect will probably be lost.  Think about the difference between a kid reading a school reader because that’s the number they are up to, and the look on their face then they are deep in Tintin and the Cigars of the Pharaoh, or Specky Magee and the boots of glory.


This is what John Kay refers to as obliquity, in the book of the same name.  Some goals can only be achieve indirectly – the generic gains from reading for pleasure are exactly this type of goal.  So libraries are about expanding minds, but they only work if this is done indirectly.  We don’t hold talks called ‘how to stop being a racist bigot’ – instead, we hold book talks where we introduce readers to novels based on characters they might not normally empathise with if they met them in the flesh.  We don’t hold lectures on the dangers of Facism or Communism, but we do stock Schindlers ark and The gulag archipelago.

This sort of role requires nuance, tact and above all, continuous professional development.  It’s not good enough to be an expert on crime novels or Scandinavian history.  Librarians need to be able to do more than just find the right subject heading or know their Dewey numbers.  This is why programs like ALIA’s ‘Certified Practitioner’ accreditation are so important.  I am hopeful that this will soon become a requirement for librarians to gain and keep employment, rather than simply an interesting addition.

Measuring the rate of mind expansion

The other challenge we face, more than just the need for continuous development of skills and ideas, is the need to measure what we do.  This applies equally to special, academic, school and public libraries, but may end up being hardest for public libraries, as they are expected to do such a wide range of things.  If the effect libraries have is oblique, how on earth are we to measure how effective we are?  If our job is defined as lending books, then the measure of success is easy – how many items did you loan, and how many times?  But when more books and other services are delivered electronically and our role becomes more that of a ‘culture broker’, how do we measure it?  How do you justify your job to a skeptical finance committee when you can’t directly measure the effect?  You can’t very well present a chart with the rate of mind expansion in the suburb and how much is due to the library.  How do you measure rates of empathy and intellectual ferment?  And if you can’t, what measures can be used to determine how effectively libraries are doing their job?

I don’t really have any answers in this post, just questions.  I welcome any ideas in the comments – this is something we’ll all be grappling with soon enough.