Last week The Telegraph boldly printed the ‘ultimate reading list’. Billed as ‘the perfect library’, it featured a collection of 110 books ‘that changed the world’. Reading through the list made me think about a recent opinion piece from Bob Usherwood in the Gazette and my own experiences of stock in public libraries.
Many of the libraries I’ve visited have adopted elements of the bookshop model to attract more visitors and make the service more relevant to 21st century users. Some have even rebranded the service entirely.
The thing that sticks in my mind most about visiting these ‘libraries’ is the massive collections of mass market paperbacks on display. Not that there’s anything wrong with pleasing the masses, but where was the rest of the collection? Tucked away, out of sight perhaps? Why were other books not enjoying the same exposure as Richard & Judy Bookclub titles? Why were users being forced to actively seek out books that weren’t lucky enough to make it into last month’s bestsellers lists? It was easy enough to grab a copy of Jordan’s biography but not quite as easy to retrieve Murakami’s ‘Wind Up Bird Chronicle’ or Orwell’s ‘1984’.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for popular / contemporary fiction; if truth be told, I’ve never really been a fan of the classics (I know, I know, bad librarian)! But the problem, as I see it, is in striking the right balance. All too often, it seems that popular fiction takes precedence over everything else. Given that performance indicators and evaluations (external and internal) are still mainly quantitative, I can see why many services are stocking up on titles that will deliver higher issue figures. But what’s the long term impact of such a strategy? Usherwood suggests that:
“If the public library is not going to provide a superior selection of novels than that to be found in the local supermarket, or more accurate sources of information than the tabloid press, how can it justify public funding?” (Usherwood, 2007, p. 73)
Yes, the future, it’s certainly worth thinking about, don’t you agree?