Monthly Archives: October 2013

Browsing the library shelves – genres and the problem with general fiction


Like most public libraries, we divide our fiction books into several genres, so that people can easily find the sort of books they enjoy most, making the experience more like browsing in a bookshop. I have mixed feelings about this as I think it stops people trying different sorts of books but I’m coming round to the idea more and more as I can see customers like it and it definitely boosts our borrowing figures.

Crime is one of our most popular sections and a few months ago we created a sub-section for cosy crime. We weeded the crime books to create more space to display front-facing books and picked out the cosy books to shelve in their own bays. The whole crime section now looks much more attractive and it means that people who like the medieval mysteries of Peter Tremayne may now try those of Ariana Franklin or even be tempted by the modern Agatha Raisin books by MC Beaton. So, in a way it is encouraging wider reading.

I still hate that the general fiction books (i.e. the ones we haven’t slotted into genres) are so neglected but it’s partly our fault as we’ve put them at the back of the library and few people seem to get further than the crime, saga and romance shelves! I’d really like to get people borrowing these books but I’m not sure how best to do it.  Should we rearrange the whole library? Mix the sagas in with the general fiction? Any suggestions?


Surrounded by books – afternoon tea in the library

Photo from Look after each other!

Local author, Marilyn L Rice, has written a lovely account of Monday afternoon tea at Langley Library in her blog, Look after each other!. The weekly afternoon tea (with Marilyn’s homemade cakes) for over 55s is one of our most popular regular events and is typical of the things happening in local libraries nowadays. These community events get people into the library, making libraries important places in their lives and it’s good that library services emphasise their importance. But we’ve got to be careful not to lose our unique look and feel in the drive to save money by sharing our buildings. It’s great to have spaces large enough for community rooms but look at those books surrounding the women in the picture – it’s not surprising that they talk about what they’ve been reading and all leave with piles of books in their arms! Having children’s activities in rooms full of books has the same effect (with its impact on literacy and attitudes to reading) – you won’t get the same inspiration and atmosphere in a typical community room, however bright and beautiful it is.

Literary fiction and empathy

I read Rose Tremain’s “The Road Home” about a year ago and it’s one of those books that changed the way I think and feel about certain things. It’s a story about a man, Lev, whose wife has died and who moves to London from Eastern Europe to try and earn some money to send back home to his family. I can’t remember many of the details but the sadness, anger and fear Lev feels were so powerfully written that they’re still with me and surface whenever I meet or read about someone who’s moved here for economic reasons.

No newspaper article or TV documentary about economic migration has ever affected me like this but I never thought about it much until my daughter sent me a link to an article about some new research that found that reading literary fiction makes us better at understanding other people’s emotions. They talk about “writerly” fiction that leaves gaps for you to fill in yourself and “readerly” fiction that spells it all out for you. If we have to make an effort to understand a book’s characters we’re more likely to develop our ability to empathise. This fits so well with my own experience that I’m sure it must be true!

I can see why people find literary fiction daunting – it’s much easier to pick up a thriller or romance and lose yourself in the story. (I often need one of my reading groups to make me read a literary book.) But sometimes when you’ve read a book that makes you step out of your comfort zone, you find it affects how you look at and think about the people around you.

Neil Gaiman: “No such thing as a bad book for children”

Neil Gaiman gave a wonderful Reading Agency Lecture at the Barbican yesterday about how important reading and libraries are and talked about their future, especially for children and young people.

A couple of weeks ago I wrote about how we should let children choose their own books and Gaiman agrees: “A hackneyed, worn-out idea isn’t hackneyed and worn out to them. This is the
first time the child has encountered it. Do not discourage children from reading
because you feel they are reading the wrong thing. Fiction you do not like is
the gateway drug to other books you may prefer. And not everyone has the same
taste as you. Well-meaning adults can easily destroy a child’s love of reading: stop them
reading what they enjoy, or give them worthy-but-dull books that you like, the
21st Century equivalents of Victorian ‘improving’ literature. You’ll wind up
with a generation convinced that reading is uncool and worse, unpleasant.”

Library card design – does it matter?

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My nephew Joe, a graphic designer, is not very impressed with the Surrey library card: “Kids aren’t going to be inspired by this!” (I think it’s quite attractive, although it does look a bit like a National Trust membership card.)

I’d never really thought about it before, but perhaps having an attractive card would encourage young people to use libraries more. We could offer people a choice of designs, a bit like when you’re buying a gift card from a shop, but would the cost be too high in these difficult times? A few years ago in Sandwell libraries we were told that we couldn’t use coloured ink for posters or flyers in order to save money, but then someone realised that if we didn’t market ourselves more effectively then we’d end up saving even more money by closing the libraries!

What do you think? Is it worth spending money on library card design? Have you come across a really attractive card? Personally I’d love to see a range of cards with portraits of famous authors or fictional dogs on them!

We need your money: support an unfashionable library!

Prince William is an Aston Villa fan, not because he was born in Birmingham, but because he and his Eton friends chose to support unfashionable football teams, rather than the usual Chelsea or Arsenal. But I’d like to suggest that rich people start thinking about which unfashionable library they’re going to support as well. You don’t need to have a particular link to Sandwell, but perhaps an Etonian West Bromwich Albion fan would like to help its local libraries as well?

My old college, Somerville, regularly asks me for money, and Oxford University is now aiming to raise £3 billion, having reached its original target of £1.25 billion in record time. Oxford needs the money so it can compete with Harvard, Yale and the other Ivy League colleges but Sandwell needs the money so its children can compete with other UK children in education and the job market. If you give our libraries money, you’ll be in a much smaller, more exclusive club than the Oxford donors!

If you decide to give millions to public libraries, make sure your accountant ties the money up well, so the councils don’t spend it on something else or decide that they can give up on their own commitment to libraries. But if you have a smaller amount, you might like to pay for every library in Sandwell to have an annual visit from each the following:

  • a popular children’s author
  • a professional children’s story teller
  • Ronnie Crackers (or some other wonderful children’s entertainer).

Or a new roof for Langley Library, please.

Third favourite dead dog?

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This year’s Creepy House Summer Reading Challenge was very popular and I loved the spooky theme but the one problem was it all happened too near Halloween. Now October’s here libraries start thinking about Halloween displays but I don’t want to get the same creepy books out again yet so I’m going to try and get the kids thinking about their top tens of various book characters. I’ve started with a simple “Which witch do you like best?” and I’ll probably add “Twit twoo’s your favourite owl?” and maybe “Ghoul be the scariest ghoul?” You can tell I enjoy my work.

We love top tens in our family and my children never disappoint me – Jack’s always happy to tell me that Monica is the Friend he fancies most and Tess, when very young, once referred to her third favourite dead dog!