Social mobility (or rather the lack of it) has been in the news a lot recently. Former Conservative Prime Minister, John Major, attacked the “truly shocking” privilege of the privately educated elite in Britain and David Cameron responded by suggesting that this was partly due to the low aspirations of those from poorer backgrounds. If he really thinks this is a significant factor, perhaps he should re-consider his government’s attitude to public library funding.
In my family, my generation was the first to go to university and so when we were very young we didn’t know many people with a higher education or a professional job. But when I was about ten, I was given two books that opened up an exciting new world for me. One was Jean Webster’s Daddy Long Legs (1912) and the other was Louisa M Alcott’s Little Women (1868). In Daddy Long Legs, orphan Judy is adopted by a mysterious man who sends her to a liberal arts college in New England where she receives a wonderful education and becomes a writer and in Little Women, Jo March leaves home to pursue a writing career in New York. Although both books end in romantic marriages, the lasting impressions they make are of engaging, strong, intelligent women who make their own decisions and follow their own ambitions.
Jocelyn Bailey has written an interesting article about women’s aspirations, in which she looks at Astrid Lindgren’s Pippi Longstocking as an inspiring role model for women. Pippi’s power comes from the very fact that she is fictional:
Fiction can be (is) incredibly powerful in suggesting possible lives. Fiction draws the reader in, invites their imagination to pick up where the words on the page end.
Judy and Jo affected me so strongly (and still do) because they were in books that I became immersed in. It didn’t matter that I didn’t live in New England in 1912 or that my father wasn’t away at war or that I didn’t want to be a writer – I could still try to be like them. Characters in film or television don’t seem to have the same effect – perhaps because too little is left to our own imaginations.
Without public libraries a lot of children (and adults) wouldn’t have access to the wonderful novels that can change our lives by raising our aspirations.
When I did my library masters in 2002 we were told never to mention at a job interview that we loved books or reading because this would put the interviewers off. My heart sank but I took it on board and managed to get my first post as an academic librarian without once mentioning books. But several years later, at my public library interview in Sandwell, they asked me to tell them about a book I’d read recently and explain why I liked it so much. I told them all about Happenstance by Carol Shields and felt really pleased that I could be open about my passion for reading at last.
Most of the public library staff I’ve worked with have loved reading and that’s brilliant, because it’s much easier to sell a product you like (and we’re certainly in the business of “selling” the library services). But it’s more important to be warm and welcoming to library users, to listen to them, to help them find out things or access a job application form or set up an email account, than it is to be the best-read person in the world. If you listen to people talking about books they’ve read and keep up to date with book reviews and the new books in the library, if you use book choice websites, then you’ll be able to recommend books to people.
Now that my children have grown up, I read fewer children’s books, but I read articles about children’s authors and literature and look through all the new books that arrive at the library, so I can talk to kids and their parents about which books they might enjoy. Above all, I listen to the children who tell me about the fantastic books they’ve just read.
You don’t need to be a great reader to work in a public library but you do need to be interested in reading.
Displays are usually a good way to promote children’s books and you can measure their success by how often you have to keep topping them up. These three displays were hopeless as the books hardly moved at all.
You’d think football stories would be popular, especially with boys, but they never seem to get borrowed from our library. The children were more interested in taking home the laminated badges I made of Aston Villa, West Brom, Wolves and Birmingham City for the display than they were in the books themselves. All I can think of is:
the books aren’t funny, scary or exciting enough
children aren’t stupid and they know Theo Walcott and David Beckham didn’t really write the books
kids would rather play football than read about it
The Enid Blyton issue is a bit different. Lots of single author displays work well, especially if they’re tied in with a film like Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson books in the summer, but the Blyton books were ignored. Even when I mix her books with others in a general adventure books display she isn’t popular. I loved her books as a child so perhaps I’m a bit biased and should just admit defeat and move on.
I was really disappointed that my display of the Kate Greenaway Medal and the Carnegie Medal shortlisted books last year didn’t really work. The display was full of lovely books but only a few were borrowed. (Exactly the same happens with displays of book prize shortlists in the adult section.) I think I was expecting parents to pick up the books for their children because they’d been judged so highly, but it just didn’t happen. Perhaps it’s because
people are suspicious of literary prizes, thinking there’s a bit of snobbery involved and the books won’t be very accessible
the books that appeal to the judges are less attractive to children
the books covered a wide reading age so the display wasn’t focused enough
Should I just give up on these books or can you suggest other ways for me to promote them?
Last Friday in the library, during half term, we made underwater collages by sticking torn bits of coloured paper onto cardboard fish. Luckily, our brilliant volunteer, Ayshea, was there to help as it was so popular we had to run a second session later in the morning. It’s a really simple and fun technique you can apply to any theme.
All you need are:
some cardboard fish – 2 per child per hour (I used cereal boxes)
small torn pieces of coloured paper, especially patterned pieces, sorted into colours (weekend newspaper magazines are good)
PVA glue and paintbrushes (remember to apply glue onto the cardboard and then again over each piece as it’s stuck down)
blue poster paper for background
green paper for weed
white paper for bubbles (the children’s excellent suggestion)
Inspired by the window displays of Richard Booth’s Bookshop, I thought I’d like to use poetry in some of our displays, and this is my first attempt, for Remembrance Day. I’ve used Rupert Brooke’s poem, The Soldier, which may be a bit too patriotic for today’s taste, but is familiar to lots of us and conjures up the feelings of many soldiers at the start of the First World War.