Thursday, June 16, 2005

Why bother to promote to those who don't want to use libraries?

A few years ago, a colleague asked me something to this effect -- "Why do we have to try so hard to promote the library, implement outreach activities, do loan promotions? Why spend all the effort trying to get those who aren't interested in reading to use libraries? Why don't we only serve those who want to read?"

I was reminded of that after reading Michael McGrorty's post, Moving Libraries (14 Jun 05).

The person whom Michael described in his post would be what the NLB defines as a "non-user", in the category of those who are more concerned about hand-to-mouth issues rather than think about "expanding one's learning capacity". As Michael puts it, these people "have their hands full just getting along".

Essentially, Michael is saying that opening libraries isn't enough on its own. He advocates outreach activities, as well as for libraries to consider other options to reach these people. I agree wholeheartedly with Michael. But I have no answers how to effectively do this.

It is very tough trying to reach out to these people who are just not inclined to use libraries (I mean, consider READ! Singapore. As it is, not all readers are participating).

Over the years, NLB have tired to target the non-users. And we're still trying, like the kidsREAD programme that targets at children from low-income families. There are successes, though it's never enough.

Trying to serve this group is extremely morale-draining. One can lose heart because the response from them just isn't forthcoming. I'll be bullshitting you if I said I'm never disheartened. Oh, many times especially at the beginning of my career.

Now, perhaps because of my current responsibilities, I take a more detached view to such things. But instead of feeling disheartened directly, it's more of dealing with issues of staff resenting you for, say, asking them to do outreach when the results have not been forthcoming. Reading an earlier post of mine, I realised I was actually expressing some of that frustration.

So as much as I want to say that "parents have to play their part", the reality is that if libraries don't do something, the vicious cycle continues.

If I was asked the same question again, I'd refer my colleague to Michael's post.

I could recall vague bits of my answer to my colleague. Frankly I don't think I was that convincing. Or maybe this colleague of mine didn't really want an answer. Or maybe, I tried too hard to give one.

Perhaps the only answer (at least one that I believe in) is that we public service librarians just have to do it, because no one else will.

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  1. You could also tell doubting colleagues that such work is important because any additional user you gain helps to justify your existence. And if nothing else, the difference you make to those few non-users who become users is huge! Oh, and greetings from Perth, Western Australia! :)

  2. Thanks for dropping by, CW.

  3. Thanks for dropping in on my blog, too Ivan! I look forward to reading yours :)

  4. Hmm...I really think that you guys did something fantastic to NLB leh. of cos it's difficult to move the library over to the ppl, but i think nowadays more ppl are going to libraries. it's just that, most readers are very shy or reclusive...I mean, I read because I need the quiet, so it necessarily translates to me being quite unresponsive to certain things like a reading group...

    But everytime I go to a library, I always feel very proud. i think you guys did a fantastic job. :)

  5. Thanks AKK. I have passed your comments to my colleagues. They need to know, 'cos it's the work hard and dedication of many that brought about the results of today.

    Your words, and of those who were kind enought to leave comments, are most encouraging.

  6. Here's another piece of encouragement for your colleagues...I think the library is one of the most important places of any country, the lives it touches and changes are incalculatable. I sometimes visit the TP library in the afternoons when I'm in sg and happen to be nearby, the place is like an oasis for the browsers. I can't say I'm very proud of many local things, but the local library system, especially after the changes in recent years to upgrade etc., I'm damn proud of it!

  7. To make NLB's programmes for kids successful, NLB must first make the kids Love going to the library - including those who do not really like reading. Non-books related aspects of the library may nonetheless be relevant to this. For example, the Design of the library environment may increase their inclination to visit the library more frequently, and over time, the library will start to feel like a place worth visiting....

    Some suggestions might be: put some nicely decorated large fish tanks (or even small pets like exotic frogs) in the library (get more books on Fishes/Animals/ Little Pets - kids love fishes and small animals), and fill the walls (for the kids section) with lots of cute artworks (2D or 3D), or lovely/funny/majestic pics of inspiring animals/fishes (natural style or 'Photoshopped') that kids will enjoy marvelling at, even if they do not read, etc. Art, Animals, and Adventure - the 3 A's - are important. (For the 3rd A, since one cannot run about in the library, u can use Art to communicate 'Adventure' vicariously.)

    So my point is: non-books related aspects of the physical environment can be changed to make them Like the place first, and if they like going to a place, they will eventually like the things that the place offers. My suggestions sound drastic, but that is because the problem you raised seems difficult to solve. Drastic problems call for drastic measures :)

  8. Anonymous7:38 pm

    One of the things I wished library staff could do more is to actually go out to the library floor and speak to people.

    Offer that personal touch - ask patrons if they needed any help, provide recommendations etc. Even go beyond that and strike up casual conversations, so as to learn who's using your materials, which titles are used, and which ones aren't, and why.

    Most patrons would be naturally shy and some wouldn't want to be disturbed, but I am sure there'd be some who would appreciate the gesture. And we gain information that may not show up on our reading trend charts or feedback or loan figures.

    Library Officers and assistants are rostered to rove through the library, but it's become more of a service duty, with just the bare minimum offered, due to lack of manpower and time to spend away from other duties.

    Outreach needn't always be limited to people who don't come into the libraries. We can also be thinking of ways in which we can retain those who've stepped in for the first time. What do we know about them, in order to get them to come back?

    Some staff may feel shy approaching people in this way. But that can be easily fixed with some encouragement and product knowledge sessions that can help boost their confidence. Everyone gains!

    aka TheQueerLibrarian


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