Posted by: paultovell | March 12, 2010

Cross-country Bookcrossing

I recently heard about the phenomenon of Bookcrossing – the idea of leaving books in public places for people to pick up, read, then pass on in the same way – and thought I’d try it out.  [See]  And I chose today as the time to do it, making the most of a long train journey.  Having already picked my three books to try this with, I decided to leave one in the starting station, one in the destination station, and one on the train in between.  And it’s quite exciting, I’ll admit, not knowing who might pick the book up, and where it might travel.

The station waiting room this morning was a cold affair, with lots of miserable-looking commuters engrossed in their Metros.  I decided to leave the book on a bench there, although it was hard to find the opportune moment – in other words, when someone else might not pass it back to me and say “excuse me, I think you’ve dropped this!”  But when the 8:30 to Derby pulled in and the station almost entirely emptied, I put the book out and sat on the opposite side of the waiting room.  I was quite glad to have deliberately positioned it before I needed to leave the room, as it was very interesting watching people eyeing it up.  One man looked suspiciously at it before opting for the easier, lighter Metro, although I daresay it would have interested him.  Then a young woman came, sat next to it, picked it up and read a few pages, then put it down – perhaps when she saw I’d scrawled my handwritten message in the front directing people to the Bookcrossing website and insisting that they could take it home with them.  Why are people so suspicious of free things?  Then it was time to go.  It may stay there for a week; it may have been taken already.

Once on the train, I again took advantage of a stop at Birmingham where nearly everyone changes to put it casually on the seat in front of me – where I could see if it had gone or not by the end of the journey.  No-one sat there for a good 2 hours, but then an older gentlemen came and rested it on his seat-table for a while before getting off and taking it with him!  Result.  Perhaps I’m getting a bit too into this people-watching thing.

For my final release, I knew Ihad to be quick as my onward lift was waiting for me. So as I got off the train, I simply bent down on a nearby bench on the platform and left it after tying my shoelace. I got up and ran off – thus preserving the anonymity of the release. And yes, it is a release – it feels strangely liberating to do this – try it yourself! As I returned to the station many hours later, I noticed it had gone. Perhaps the cleaner has taken it; even so, it’s still a connection!

One of the really interesting things about doing this is it makes you think where people stop, where they might be keen to pick up a book, and who you might attract with any particular title.  Great head-candy for a librarian!  The best is perhaps yet to come though – when my fellow (albeit unwittingly) Bookcrossing subjects decide to look at the book’s profile on the website and perhaps make a journal entry…

Posted by: paultovell | March 6, 2010

RFID comes to Burton

After a very busy week which has been a long time coming, we now have self service kiosks fully installed and operational.  The first three days have gone largely without hitch, although clearly some things will take time to get used to.  But for the record, here are the good points about it:

  • Lots of people are very excited at the advent of new technology – the novelty factor.  Children and teenagers think the library is a little bit cooler this weekend than last.  Also other older borrowers are impressed by the technology too: “Isn’t it clever?!”  It’s certainly making the library look more up with the times.
  • We have been able to redesign the library as a result, making the space more inviting, the stock flow better, and also having a little more room for some previously overcrowded sections.
  • Our displays are better and more regularly topped up – so the books are perhaps issuing better (time will tell…)
  • People are paying their fines!  How interesting that people will much rather pay a machine than a human, who they can “butter up” more.  That’s when they don’t put coins in the note slots though, which has happened this week…
  • The stock is tidier as shelving gets done nearly immediately, and it makes the library look fuller because books aren’t hanging around on trolleys, but going straight back onto displays or shelves.  The two display units near the machines are functioning a bit like a “just returned” trolley.
  • People do seem to be enjoying having control of their own account and their own books.

One or two things need ironing out though – the machines have had various gripes with some books and occasionally problems counting money.  Customers have seemed quite forgiving of this for now, but perhaps the frustration will develop if it keeps happening.  Also the jobs people are doing now have changed in many ways, which we were anticipating, but couldn’t entirely imagine.  Yes, people have been “freed up” to do other things – but what those other things are has yet to be decided!  And those new “things” have got to be at least as interesting, inspiring, useful and varied as what they were doing before.  I’m not sure anything is as varied as our beloved public, but we’ll try and find out!  Whilst we could put more events / promotional things on, at the moment the machines need more supervising and more staff on hand than the old counter did, so we’re a bit limited what we can do.  I’m convinced that not every customer wants to be interrupted to talk about books, but if interacting is the key, then perhaps alternative ways of interacting – through reviewing displays etc – might be the way to go.  Jury still very much out at the moment!  But then, it has only been three days…

Posted by: paultovell | January 27, 2010

The Reading Cafe

Yesterday we held our first Reading Cafe at the library.  If having to fetch more chairs at the start of an event is a benchmark of success, then we struck gold.  In all 16 people attended – far more than we anticipated – and while most of them didn’t know what to expect when they arrived (but hoped it wasn’t going to be like a reading group), they nearly all really enjoyed it (and were openly delighted it wasn’t like a reading group).

This started from the premise that not all of our readers want the formal setting of a reading group, but they do love to talk about books.  So we decided to create an event for them, where they could come along and chat – very informally – about books.  The only bit that was remotely formal was the start (after we’d served tea and coffee), when I had to welcome everyone, point out that we were not sat in a circle deliberately, and say what my favourite book was.  The next person to speak couldn’t be heard by everyone, people started their own conversations, and 2 hours later they left (when we did).  Simple.

Key things:

  • We needed a hook to act as an icebreaker – these were people who didn’t know each other.  So we had a pinboard where we encouraged them to stick the title of their favourite book (and a box labelled “books we love to hate”).  At the end, we had a ready-made display, and are going to find copies of the books to put below it.  Hopefully this will happen each month.
  • There were postcards on the table and pens so people could write down any books they heard about that they wanted to trace.  And the recommendations were flowing the whole time, especially when people discovered who liked reading the same things as they did.  They also loved being able to recommend books to library staff for purchase!
  • The chairs were arranged around tables, next to sofas – all over the place, but not in a circle facing each other, which helped those casual chats to start.
  • In future months, we’re going to pick different themes (some will hopefully be suggested by our new cafe-goers!) and hooks to hang those opening chats on – though I’m sure they’ll all end up talking about books of all sorts, which is fine.
  • The informal nature of it meant that they got to know each other much better and have already started forming relationships which should hopefully keep them coming.  One person even saw it was happening, “dropped in” for half an hour, then disappeared again.  Exactly the point.
  • Finally, it was brilliant for us as library staff to talk casually with readers about what they like and don’t like, and what we can do to help them.  That kind of open forum doesn’t exist in many places. 

I have never organised, or been to, an event where people were so uninterested in free tea and coffee.  It was clear from the start that they were there to talk about books.  Looking back, we really feel like we’ve hit on a new direction for reader-centred events, certainly in this authority.  Time will tell  – but the signs are all very promising so far.  I’m not sure I’ve heard of any other events similar to this – please tell me if there are!

Posted by: paultovell | January 21, 2010

Borrowers without boundaries

On the one hand, I have been spurred on today by reading a wonderful quotation that librarians are “great defenders of freedom and democracy”.  On the other, I read in Howards End is on the Landing by Susan Hill, the frequently heard speech about how libraries are “getting worse” (although in whose viewpoint was not clarified).  This has all got me thinking about what people want from us, and it’s led me back to Northern Ireland.

I have never been to Northern Ireland, although in my Managing Your Career Day post below, you can read how Diane was enthralled by its library service.  But I have heard a lot recently about what’s been happening in libraries there.  You’ve probably heard that their authorities have all combined to form one library service, Libraries NI.  I know similar things have happened in London, too.  And I’m sure that this must be what our customers really want.  No artificial boundaries (I live in a different county from my workplace and so have to join two services, for example); a much greater and richer stock to access, consistent procedures and policies, no inequality in provision, extra convenience.  Even moving jobs to work for a different authority can be a bit of a lottery.  

I have known a borrower travel thirty miles to access a better library service because they are appalled at the stock where they live.  Doesn’t sound like the fair and inclusive service promised in 1964.  And just look at the freedom they have across the Irish Sea to consult the public about what they really want…

Certainly a step in the right direction for those who are hoping the “one form joins all” idea becomes a reality.  I even like some of their policies better than our own, especially about opening hours.

Of course, what you do lose is the local identity and pride inherent in a local service for local people (to paraphrase Derbyshire’s motto).  A regional service might maintain this, but if we’re heading for a national one, it’s gone – except for local studies collections.  But I’m not sure that’s really why we exist as a “service to humanity” (grand-sounding statement courtesy of Michael Gorman, from Rob Westwood’s article in the back page of the Gazette last week).  People don’t really care who is providing the service (except when they need to complain) – they care what they can and can’t have.  And if what they can and can’t have here is different to a library just across the River Dove, then perhaps it’s time to start following Northern Ireland.  Meanwhile I continue to search for something, take note Ms Hill, which categorically states that what the public want from a public library is reams of antiquated books, piling up into forever.  That’s surely a storehouse, isn’t it?

Posted by: paultovell | January 14, 2010

My week in the bargain basement

This week I have been spending a lot of time sifting through the graveyard of any library – the fiction reserve collection.  That motley collection of books which no-one dares throw away even if they haven’t moved from their spot fifty years (I’m not exaggerating, several books I checked had last issued in 1960).  It’s also a fascinating place to be in the library – someone famous once said you can tell a lot about a library service from its reserve stock – well, it sounds like something someone might have said once.  In all seriousness, the selection method and criteria that go into defining a reserve pile are very telling about the progressiveness of a library – do they hang onto everything, including those unfit for human hands to touch?  Remove the grubby ones but keep everything that has ever issued?  Keep the “classics” but consign all else to the skip of change?  Or even, not have an outmoded and unfashionable shelf of books at all?

My library falls somewhere in the middle of the extremes, as I’m sure most do.  But I wonder how up-to-date library policies are on what should be kept or discarded.  I have got rid of roughly 50% of the stock down there in the last few days, using a criteria of only keeping books I’m happpy to touch without the safety of a nearby sink, and those that have issued in the last ten years.  Perhaps a little harsh, but ten years is still a remarkable back catalogue compared to bookshops – one of the big advantages we have over them.  Where a decade has passed and not a single person has thought they might quite like to read that volume, the odds of it coming back into the public consciousness suddenly must be a million to one.  Even if the BBC decided to do a stage adaptation of Kenneth Travers’ long-lost classic “Summat’s up at t’mill,” * there would be a new edition released faster than you could say, well, “t’mill”.   So I do see the point of a reserve collection, but only up to a few years or so.

Then of course there’s the fact that we hardly promote our reserve list.  Is that because it generally looks about as attractive as a day in a lion pit?  It’s clearly being kept for “emergencies” – those urgent scurrying customers who must desperately find the long-forgotten novels of Kenneth Travers.  The chances of us being able to satisfy all of them must be minute.  Surely we need to concentrate on other services than being this vast antiquarian book repository that keeps every item ever published – there’s always ILL for such things – why not concentrate on promoting that truly excellent service instead?

* OK, I made this up.

Posted by: paultovell | January 2, 2010

Meeting Mr Have-It-Now

The usual New Year paradox.  I would like to try and be more customer-focussed this year, but if I make a resolution about it, I’ll just be miserable if I break it!  So I’ll not make a resolution but try hard anyway.  The reason for all this angst is that I have started doing the Frontline training course recently – aimed at making library workers more reader-focussed.  I think it’s working already – as part of the first module I spent a morning asking customers about how they were choosing their books in the library.  

I’ll admit I was a little bit trepidatious about doing this, as I hate to pester people and don’t find it easy approaching strangers and starting a conversation.  But the mistake was in my assumption that this counted as pestering.  I had forgotten how much library customers love to talk about books.  I had several really nice conversations and it seemed less like working, more like chatting.  One lady had only just found the area of the library where we separate out thriller/crime fiction, and was in some sort of Grisham heaven.  Another gentleman was browsing everything in a very haphazard way whilst his wife was having her hair done, and started to interview me.  It was good to hear from one lady that she regularly took whatever caught her eye from one of our displays – job done!  Only one customer seemed to think there was a right answer and was trying desperately to find it from my responses and expressions – that must have been amusing to watch.  And one gentleman – Mr Have-It-Now – was frustrated that there weren’t more titles by an author on the shelves, but rejected all of my suggestions about requesting or reserving and went on to find something else.  What a mystery customers are.  He still left happy, I think, and he certainly didn’t resent me talking to him – he was delighted to be listened to! 

I may try it again some time, just to stay in touch with our readers – it strikes me that I’m missing a whole lot while I’m sat at my desk in the back office.

Posted by: paultovell | December 7, 2009

Rudolph the Red-nosed reindeer has different lyrics these days

There aren’t many workplaces where local school children come in and sing you carols before morning break.  And three soloists, a clarinet and a saxophone, not to mention the stereotypical warbling conductor.  Great stuff.  I wonder if the parents have been subjected to practice at home?  Apparently in the New Year it’s up to me to try and build up the Library Club – the group of older people who are a bit housebound – that the children were singing to.  But I’m not sure I can follow a full-scale concert with oodles of charm factor.  Anyway, there’s something rather heart-warming about children singing to pensioners.  Good ol’ public library service.

Posted by: paultovell | December 4, 2009

What you share with the world is what it keeps of you

… nice sentiment for a Friday, courtesy of Noah and the Whale.  And today I’m sharing my experience of RDF (Reader Development Fund) bids.  Imagine having a massive pot of money available to help you stage whatever reading development event you can dream up, working with whoever you like, and drawing on all sorts of colleagues for help.  The only catch is that you’ve got to outline your intentions in a bid, and justify why you want the money.  It’s a bit like Dragon’s Den.  And it’s the way Staffordshire allocate funding to all Team Leaders (including me) every year.  Seems to me like a very sensible way of doing things.  So at my first District Team meeting, which takes place next Tuesday, I need to outline some of my preliminary ideas so we can thrash them around in our teams for a couple of months.  After all, it’s competitive and we’re against every other district and every colleague with another idea, in theory.  Apparently the trick is to not have too many ideas, or all of them might be successful bids and you might end up with a very busy year!  So – do I go with something relatively simple like organising an event for the National Year of Music (yes, that’s 2010, apparently), a promotional drive like promoting reading to train commuters (at least I’ve done that before), or how about developing links with our ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) communities in Burton?  Bringing in authors for a festival like Voices week, which could celebrate all sorts of cultures at once?  A poetry slam event, which I’ve always wanted to do?  The funding can go on absolutely anything, as long as it’s well-presented.

Needless to say, I’m finding it quite difficult at the moment to bring some of these ideas down to earth and encapsulate them in anything remotely like a bid outline.  But I suppose that doesn’t matter for now – ideas are the important thing.  So many things we could do – so little time!  Quite an exciting time of year, this. Oh, and the Christmas tree count in our library is currently two – the children’s team have yet to reveal their glamorous centrepiece for the season…

Posted by: paultovell | November 26, 2009

Tovell’s Law of Booksales

Today I have observed a scientific law.  Logically, there is very little reason for booksales in libraries to work.  We withdraw books that no-one is borrowing because they are old, tatty or unpopular. We put them in a jumbled heap with very little thought about display or sequence on a table, and then we make lots of money when people buy them.  And yet these are the same books that no-one wanted when they were only a few metres away on a shelf.

Surely, this proves once and for all that customers look at books differently depending on their context.  Faced with several bays and hundreds of books, not much looks appealing.  Yet select twenty, put them somewhere else and automatically, something happens inside the customer’s head and they start ranking them.  Well, I wouldn’t take that one, but the one next to it looks a lot better, and so does the one on the end.  Which should I pick up?  I can’t decide – I’ll take both. But the human brain cannot rank 100 books in a manageable way, so this kind of thing doesn’t really happen amongst the shelves.  So we just need to use this process more in our stock management, and bingo.  It is of course the same principle that we use in displays and promotions already, and the reason the returns shelf is so popular.  I just hadn’t seen the Law of Booksales as a proof before.  I’m not convinced that customers really want a blinding amount of choice.   It may make them feel secure in the knowledge that they can find anything in the library, but it doesn’t translate into good issues.   At best, it’s a perception rather than a truth.  And I can’t help wondering if “rationalising” the stock is a great way of getting customers to tell us what they actually want, rather than us guessing.   But it’s been ages since I’ve seen a “Can’t find what you’re looking for? Just ask!” sign.  Where’s that kind of promotion gone off to?

Just need to put the law in scientific terms: I guess it would be,

Immediate Context a Desirability*

(*No alpha symbol on this page – my hazy memory tells me that means “is proportional to…”?)

So there’s something to think about – what in my library does my brain automatically try and rank?

Posted by: paultovell | November 19, 2009

An introduction to Staffordshire

3 days into the new job, and I thought I’d record what has happened so far.  On day 1 I met lots of people (about 35 of us work in Burton library – the busiest library in Staffordshire) and had all sorts of inductions and chats with my line manager, the District Manager.  All library assistants are organised into teams – I am the leader of the Books, Reading and Learning team, which consists of 9 people.  Very different from Nottinghamshire, where there are no teams like this.  Disadvantage is the old silo problem, but advantage is that you get very good and experienced at your specialism.  They showed me how things are done in Burton, but kept repeating that I could change things if I wanted to.  Perhaps they could see the confused look on my face at times.

Burton Library

Burton-on-Trent Library

Day 2 began with a trip to Stafford, a frighteningly long way away, but the HQ as far as the county is concerned.  I had a meeting with all the District Managers – in fact, I invaded their meeting as a good way to get to know them.  Lots of people, including my role, get to have a say on what the priorities are for the service, which is great – in fact, it kind of starts with all the team leaders.  Then they go back to the libraries management team for refinement.  So this meeting talked about those a lot, which was very interesting, if a little hard to follow due to anagram overload.  They also allocate funding a lot through bidding – which it sounds like I need to quickly become very good at doing.  When they found out I’d only started the day before, I nearly drowned under a wave of sympathy.  Next we went back to Uttoxeter library, in my district.  This is a very bright, exciting library where we had a cup of tea before heading back to Burton.  I finally got to sit at my desk and meet my direct report as well, who filled me in on what had been happening while the post had been vacant.  Finally left for home at 6 and was pleasantly surprised at how much of the traffic had found its way off the A38 by then.

Today I had a meeting at Uttoxeter again with the person in charge of learning and resources for the county (good example of learning and reading sitting very well together).  She effectively defines my workload as much as my line manager does.  We went over all the priorities and different parts of my role – mammoth amount to take in, but sounds like I’ll be very well supported – there are 7 other people doing the same job as me in different districts, one of whom I’m meeting on Monday.  After this, we went to Rolleston-on-Dove – a little village which has a travelling library one day a week (it sits in a car park for 10 hours on a Monday and is different from a mobile library because it’s about 10 feet longer and much harder to park – cue parking stories of days gone by from the two friendly people who staff it).  Had a very quick look at the stock before it was on to visit my last library in the district – Barton-under-Needwood.  This is a village with a massive secondary school in the middle of it, and the library is right next to it.  Hardly any of the children live in the village; a load of coaches ferry them in and out again.  Library needs a bit of work, particularly the lighting and the rather quaint and delicately placed trophy cabinet, but there were a few people around.  Not to mention the first decorated Christmas tree of the year… it obviously comes early in Staffordshire!

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