Tuesday, 19 February 2013

Best practices in Children's Mobile Libraries: Stock procurement

Someone has to make the decision of what to put into a children's mobile library and as can be expected, it varies according to the authority. In some library authorities the operators advised a library purchasing team about which books or items were popular and went well in their vehicles. Some purchasing teams were made up of children's librarians, but in others they were not. In some authorities, the operators had no say at all, library stock being centrally purchased from a Library wholesaler. It is perhaps no surprise to discover that the services where operators were able to advise the acquisitions teams about which books their customers liked were more successful at inspiring children to read. 

The number of requests for specific books, or even books of a certain genre, was much greater in the vehicles where the books were centrally purchased by staff who had no contact with the vehicles, staff from the vehicles, or even other children's libraries. I was on one vehicle that had no dinosaur books, which really disappointed one little boy. I also visited a CML which had no horse books, and that really disappointed a young girl. On the other hand, I found two different CMLs where the operators had a lot of say in which books to stock and they were really enthusiastic about the books, getting books off the shelf to show me, saying things like "have you seen this one?" "this one is new, I really like it", " this is great book, and the kids love it". It is that sort of enthusiasm which inspires children. I also found two vehicles on which children told me they preferred to their nearest static libraries because the CMLs had more "books that they like". There was also the vehicle that visited a tiny rural village school. The teachers were so grateful for the service, because their children were "voracious readers" and the village was so isolated it was not easy to get to another library, and as one of the children said to me, it would have been really expensive to buy all the books she read. Those children revelled in the variety of books that the CML stocked.

Unfortunately, not even children's librarians get it right. There was one CML which I visited where the books were purchased by the children's team, who no doubt were guided by general trends and new exciting authors. The operators outlined three problems with their stock, and they felt that the children's librarians were not listening to their suggestions. One problem was that there was not enough non-fiction in stock, only a tiny shelf-full. The librarians apparently were of the opinion that reading fiction develops empathy and understanding, which is no doubt a good way to introduce children to feelings and a safe way of handling them. However, they forgot that libraries are store houses of knowledge as well as stories, and sometimes it is the knowledge that inspires children to read, or helps them learn out of the classroom. The second problem was sometimes new books would turn up, which were "trendy", but the customers of that vehicle ignored them. That new series was just not to their taste. It shows that local populations have their own opinions and a book which does really well in one community may not in another. The third problem was that librarians who come onto the vehicles to read stories from a "storybook collection" frequently chose really inspiring books, that simply were not available for loan, so children who wanted to read the book they had just heard, which happens frequently, could not borrow the book.

Now, why is all this important? I feel that I have been rambling a bit with this blog, and it is a little while since I have been thinking in the terms of logical arguments. The point is that to motivate and inspire children's reading, to give them the reason to read, you must offer them things that they will want to read, however puerile, however trashy, or even however highbrow. Books about films, or television characters, or comics, or graphic novels, or about ballet or boxing, are all a way of getting children hooked on the printed word, and gives them practise and motivation to start understanding those symbols we use to convey messages. CML operators spend a lot of time talking to children about books and their likes and dislikes, and therefore know what their particular customers want. Operators who like the stock themselves, and who have had a hand in choosing it, are more likely to know which book is just right for customer "X", and which books will be borrowed, and will have the enthusiasm to "sell" a book, or an author to a child. therefore operators recommendations for stock should be heard and implemented.

Choice and variety is also important, which sounds like a contradiction to getting the right books for the right child. I can only explain the phenomena of a large selection of the right books for one community with the memory of one boy I met, taking ages browsing at the shelves standing, looking, perplexed, being hurried by the teaching staff, sighing longingly, "There so much to choose from". His problem was not that he couldn't find anything he liked, he had found everything he liked.  

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