When did you last visit your public library? I'm ashamed to say I don't get into mine nearly as often as I did when the sons were smaller. That'll be a New Year's resolution for 2009 then. Because I did pop into the local branch library last week and saw it's following the positive and innovative trends we've been seeing all over, on gigs for The Write Fantastic. This has been a particularly busy year for us as libraries have really got behind 2008 as The National Year of Reading.
A particularly fine example is Bexley, where Sarah Ash and I were on 22nd November. They have an excellent online presence
, where you can do everything you might expect, like reserve and renew books, DVDs and such, as well as finding out what libraries are open when. But there's a great deal else besides, like access to online databases. They have 'rooms' where keen readers can find book groups to join and share recommendations and reviews. Different genres are all featured, along with special events like author visits, which are followed up with online interviews. Sarah and I will be doing just such a Q&A soon. ( Collapse )
'Lifestyle' interests like DIY and sport and travel etc are covered. Then there's the Entertainment Room with information on film, TV, local theatre and cinema. The Teens Room offers study resources, recommended reading and reviews and information on local groups like the Manga Network and Battle Gamers. And there are similarly focused resources for parents and carers, primary-school kids, local and family historians.
But don't you writers want people buying your books, I might imagine someone grumbling, rather than borrowing them for free?
I do think that grumbler is missing the point. Libraries and bookshops aren't mutually exclusive. They're complementary. Libraries enable readers who can't afford to buy books to keep on reading, especially the young. Nowadays, with the rise of the DVD and computer games and libraries lending those, they enable people to explore all the varied facets of the contemporary imaginative landscape. Again these things aren't mutually exclusive, and tie-in fiction plays a large part in keeping teenagers reading on into their twenties, traditionally a time when a lot of people drift away from reading fiction for pleasure and may not return until they have kids of their own. Or at all.
Encouraging teens - girls and boys - was a particular focus I noted in Rutland Library last week. It was the library service who organised the schools creative writing seminar that I was teaching, they're running a short story competition in the run up to Christmas and they host regular Warhammer gaming sessions.
Oh and before that hypothetical grumbler can start on about digital divides and how online stuff is all very well for those with home broadband, every library I've been into before we started TWF in 2005 has offered computer access and free wi-fi is becoming more and more common.
Libraries enable readers in two minds about a particular author to try one of their books for free. If that book doesn't work for the reader in question, no harm, no foul. If it does, chances are, they'll go on to start buying their books when circumstances and funds allow, or start putting their titles on the Christmas list.
The best way of selling books remains word of mouth recommendation. Which is why library review sites and their reading groups are so fantastic. Reading groups in particular encourage people to move outside their comfort zones and try something new. Again, if it doesn't work for them, no harm is done. If it does, they've taken their first step into a wider universe. Again, we were very impressed by Bexley's support for their readers' groups, via their 'Well Read' newsletter, readily available in all their libraries.
Anyway, libraries don't take income away from writers. They add to it, via the Public Lending Right scheme. A token payment for loans is calculated and paid out annually, up to a maximum of £6,600. So no one gets rich on it, not even JK Rowling, but for instance, it's a major contribution to my discretionary/convention travel fund each year. And the UK scheme is soon to be extended to Ireland - hurrah!
Looking more immediately forward, I'm keen to see what Trafford libraries are offering. Checking details for our upcoming TWF gig there, I was impressed with their online presence too.
And I'm wondering just how busy TWF is going to be in 2009 because I cannot imagine any of the librarians we've met this year allowing the impetus they've generated just to evaporate.