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Libraries for the Twenty First Century

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.

The cheerful folk in the pic with us are members of the Wellrites local writers' circle, who did impress us as one of those worthwhile, professional-in-outlook groups rather than some pointless, mutual-self-congratulation society. One occasionally encounters them, increasingly seldom, thankfully.

'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.


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
2nd Dec, 2008 13:12 (UTC)
I'm so glad to read such a positive view of libraries from someone whose books I have borrowed from one! I love my library (I'm in South Gloucestershire) and visit at least once a week. Their website is wonderful and lets me search for books to borrow in a multitude of counties and order them to my local branch for a small fee.

The assistants are always helpful and friendly. They often encourage children and young adults to read with competitions and interesting displays of graphic novels and picture books and increasingly DVDs, CDs and computer games as appropriate.

I usually buy books by an author after sampling their work through the library as I'm sure others do, they are a wonderful resource, I can't understand why everyone doesn't use them :-)
4th Dec, 2008 02:12 (UTC)
Ex-librarian here (I gave up that job for motherhood, which is much harder - no tea-breaks, for one thing!) Thank you for those kind words: I borrow books to find out new authors, then buy books I like: yours are a case in point.

ETA: Does TWF ever do sessions in bookshops? I ask because my daughter Sacha is working for Waterstones in Portsmouth and was wondering if she should tell her manager about you chaps.

She has already been able to recommend the Derby alt.fiction event to one interested punter. I do hope there'll be a TWF presence there next year, as I'm looking forward to attending and your contributions are always the most interesting ones.

Happy Christmas!

Edited at 2008-12-04 02:15 (UTC)
4th Dec, 2008 10:17 (UTC)
Yes, there should be an alt.fiction presence in Derby next year, barring unforseen domestic crises. And then there'd have to be a remarkable slew of those for none of us to make it. Merely one plus of working together as we do.

Apropos bookshop events, yes, TWF is happy to do those - er, as long as the bookshop in question can cover our expenses. SF&F publishers don't routinely stump up cash for such things unless they have arranged them directly.

Not that it's unreasonable for bookshops to expect them to -since other genre publishers seem more ready to put their hand in their marketing budget. I suspect we suffer in SF&F because the principle that authors finance their own trips to eg conventions is so well established.

Regardless, yes, please, do have your Sacha mention us. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

And for her further information, in our experience, an event that's got a proper focus - usually a panel discussion/Q&A works much better than the 'let's get authors along and folk will come to talk/buy books' approach.

What we can also do is send along supplies of our posters, leaflets, recommended reading list, bookmarks etc, if a bookshop wants to do a fantasy genre promotion to catch the potential readers' eye.

5th Dec, 2008 20:51 (UTC)
Excellent! Thank you.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )