Thursday, 2 April 2009

On not having drunk the Kool-Aid

I've been a children's and young people's librarian for about six months now. It's been a heck of a difference: having done mostly online stuff for the five years I've been in the library biz thus far, the change has taken some getting used to.

The main difference as far as I can see is the sheer number of folk who appear to have some say - self-appointed or otherwise - in how children's library services are run. Doing online reference work means worrying about Enquire, the MLA online ref bundles, and whatever other e-goodies your management and funds allow you to buy and use. There's freedom in this role to think about what we're doing and how to do it better, and to investigate thoroughly the ways and means of using, publicising and encouraging your colleagues to become familiar with these products. My first "OMFG I want to be a librarian" moment came during an instructional session on online databases in my first week at university, so this is an area very close to my heart.

In my current job - a secondment while the real children's librarian is doing a Clore fellowship - I'm required to follow the law as laid down by third parties. There's a proliferation of folk whose companies, charitable organisations and what have you all claim ownership of the reader development space, which seems to have subsumed children's librarianship. We're actively discouraged from thinking stuff through, and instead we rush headlong from one organisation's big idea to the next.

There are advantages to this, of course. It's getting us closer to a single, universal approach to library service delivery (note the difference between this and a single national service, which I don't think is really likely or viable) and ought to ensure more consistency in service delivery across the sector.

But I don't buy it. It's stifling, and it's kind of insulting too. Are my ideas not good enough? Librarianship is supposed to be a profession, and I think that part of that is about individual professionals - used here in the most fuzzy, open and Guardian-reading sense, rather than the elitist, MA-only one - making decisions based on things like their own judgement and their interactions with the communities they work for.

So part of this groupthink I'm required to participate in is the statement that "young people" (a term I detest: was I a "young person" in my teens? No, I was the same Michael you know now, only short and skinny) will come to the library for stuff that's not books. We'll then put them next to the books, and they'll develop an interest in reading by osmosis.

This seems to me an explicit admission that we've failed: that teenagers won't ever be interested in what we actually do, and the only way to get them to come into the library is effectively to trick them.

Maybe I'm getting old - 30 is less than seven months away now - but I think we're wasting a lot of time, money and effort on chasing a demographic that keeps running. Maybe we should let them run? If we did that, couldn't we focus our resources with greater efficacy on providing a decent level of service and, erm, some more books? Couldn't we work with the people in
that age group who actually enjoy reading and help them enjoy it even more? Maybe if we manage this, we could highlight the readers, make them visible in the library through traditional things like book groups, and start to build interest in our core service that way?

You know I'm not some hidebound traditionalist. I love a gadget as much as the next Wired reader. But I can't help feeling that this focus on tangential shiny stuff is hurting us, inhibiting our ability to do what we're actually supposed to do. If we're going to attempt to engage with any specific target demographic, I think we need to do it by planning at a local level and tailoring services to meet the needs of our communities properly and meaningfully. Buying into a package dreamt up by someone else might do that job, but we as professionals need to exercise our skills, earn our keep, and create ideas of our own.