Saturday, January 06, 2007

On the fall of the "big reader"

Have been back at work now for a week, and ruminating about the year (and years) to come. It's Council policy to give all its employees an enforced break between Christmas and New Year; in previous years I have been able to argue that the Libraries should stay open, but this is not very popular with library staff (being a small library we don't have so many casual staff that want to work through either, although two brave staff volunteered to clear the chute and shelve on one of the closed days, good on ya guys), so this year we closed all the libraries between Christmas and New Year (and I must admit, being one of the people who usually works the New Year shift, it was a welcome break). With Chirstmas falling on a Monday it was a particularly long break as we closed at midday on Friday. So I was looking forward to the throng of customers ready to break down our door come reopening day Jan 2 - well Tuesday came and went, and, while we were moderately busy, it was no big deal...ditto Wednesday...and indeed ditto every day this week! I remember past years after holidays (particularly the Easter weekend of years gone by) when there literally was a throng of borrowers waiting for the doors to open. I also remember customers who would almost need a truck to carry off their reading matter - we still have those, but they are now a minority and not the norm as in years past. And, yes, after a 20 year pattern of steadily increasing borrowing statistics of around 2-3% per year (12% in 1996 when we relocated the main branch library), last year showed a decline of around 2% - and this despite an increase in population of around 3%. And I have finally admitted to myself that this is probably the start of an inevitable trend.

Better minds than mine have speculated on the cause for this almost universal decline in library lending, but here's my take based on 20 years of observing the same community's library-using habits:

1. The obvious - reading takes time. There are so many competing priorities for people's time that the act of sustained recreational reading is almost a luxury. The people who still value reading are tending to be more picky about what they read - quality over quantity.

2. Another obvious one - competing formats - 20 years ago television was almost our only competitor, and it was pretty bad. Now we have pay TV and video/DVD rental and of course, the Internet and Google. And with more affluence people can self-supply by buying books.

3. Changing demographics - the older folk whose habit it was to read voluminously are - how can I put this delicately - passing on. The baby boomers who might have taken their place have lots of alternative activities to occupy as in points 1 and 2 above and are not likely to take up the mantle. Though they will still be a major support base for libraries - emphasis again on the quality vs quantity.

4. Families - the number of children in our community, while having grown in absolute terms, is static in comparative terms. 10-15 years ago we were kept very busy indeed with school assignments. Now a request for assistance with school assignments is almost a rarity. Use of picture books is still high; but over a 20 year period the loans of junior fiction and non-fiction have slowed to almost a trickle (again, kids demand quality over quantity and we are keen to comply - no dusty old crap for these customers!). As for teenage readers, we still have our heart-gladdening bookworms, but they are in a definite minority. Not surprisingly, loans of games, DVDs and Cds outnumber book loans 20 to 1 for this age group.

Having admitted the inevitable, but still wanting to passionately champion the value of libraries, my mind turns now to how to measure this value - it was sure easy measuring quantity, but how do we measure quality? And how to impress on our "new" breed customers that we care about quality too? (changing perceptions about the dusty old book barn they associate with libraries of the past - partly achieved through borrowing retail techniques for marketing and display which works with a great deal of success, I can say from experience).

Sorry I have to leave it hanging there as I realize I have a bit of research to do...


  • Out of curiosity - do you offer free public internet access?

    Or any internet access at all for the public?

    So you run training session in how to acceess the the Internet?

    Sorry - not aware of your setup.

    If you do just wondering about the popularity of this and what your thinking is on having this in the public library.

    My position is - I am all for it for a number of reasons.

    How to measure the value of libraries? Interesting question if you need to actually produce a number for your council to justify service etc.

    Will be interested to see what you come up with.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:55 PM  

  • Andrew - yes we do provide free internet, and compared to some libraries we are pretty liberal about it - eg we allow unlimited sessions if no-one else is waiting, we allow messaging and email and games, even downloading eg podcasts (though we currently baulk at music downloading, especially the illegal kind), all on Broadband. We have 5 internet connections at our main branch averaging around 13 gigs (total) of downloads a month which is pretty much full current capacity; I'd like to double this capacity when we get our extension in a couple of months' time so that there is a bank of serious, researchy, maybe even "adults only" computers (no filters! we use Cybersitter and sometimes it can be a pain),and a "games and other social stuff" bank where patrons including kids and teenagers can socialise and be noisy.(Currently at the main branch the 2 groups of users use the same bank of 5 on a carousel arrangement, not always amiably); 2 at our smaller branch which pretty much meets demand; even 1 at our teeny branch that only opens for 6 hours a week! And of course 6 at verbYL that get a constant hammering. As far as internet training goes, luckily there is a community based training company (Queensland Learning Network) co-located on the same block as us and we actively refer people to their classes - we just don't have the training set-up nor to be honest the time or expertise to do it as well as they do. And the local TAFE college aren't too shoddy in this department either. What we do tend to concentrate on are the skills that are rarer in the training population, and that we have primarily because we are librarians - ie database training (my colleague L has developed quite a lot of expertise in teaching this) and until someone else comes along, appreciating and setting up blogs (that's me!). And our Youth Librarian is becoming quite a dab hand at content creation software eg Dreamweaver. But it's high investment stuff for ostensibly "low" returns (in terms of numbers attending). But still very very valuable, and so far something we can offer that is unique in our community. But it's difficult to get this value across to Council.

    The one gripe I have about offering computer/internet access in libraries is the patron expectation that you will:

    1. Help them lay out their word documents/resumes/fix up the layout problems when they try to upload from thier memory stick to a different version of Word!
    2. Solve every technical problem associated with their damned email account!! (We make a pretty good fist of it)

    I guess I have a lingering resentment that, just because the machines used to do emails and do serious research on the internet are the same, patrons think that libraries are duty bound to help them with their email. We didn't help people write letters or post them at the post office in the old days, did we! Sometimes I feel I'm just a glorified postal worker...

    By Blogger Deb, at 1:03 PM  

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