Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Reading, Libraries and Librarians

Spotted these recent posts in
The articles were interesting by themselves. Together, I see them as issues that relates broadly to the role of librarians.

The current brand name isn't that bad, is it?
Nowadays, I don't mind what I'm called (although I used to, but that's another story) -- as long as the library patrons/ users understand what the term is about*.

I can understand the intent in choosing a new professional title because few people understand what is it a librarian do on a daily basis.

A new name might be a better representation of the job scope but "Audience Development Officers" needs a rethink. The term is too generic and too vague, and hence counterproductive. The term "Librarian" may not be well understood but at least people can associate it with "Library", which is largely a positive association (I hope).

Also, in coming up with a new name, you'd need to spend efforts on branding. Might as well spend that money and effort building on an established brand like "Librarian". Granted some people may not think very highly of librarians (as QQ*Librarian points out here) but compared to decades ago, there's less negative association with it.

So I think it's about engaging in a holistic brand-building exercise, including a review of services and products. A mere name-change cannot effectively communicate what roles librarians perform and its relevance.

Reading is an anti-social experience
Justyn Dillingham, in reflecting on the annual survey of American reading habits, made these sensible points [emphasis mine]:
Teachers, librarians and even parents are helpless to force anyone to read for pleasure. By definition, reading for pleasure excludes the whole idea of obligation...

The truth is that the decline of reading for pleasure has little to do with the things that teachers, librarians and parents seem to think are causing it. The majority of American adults are literate, and high school English curriculums are meant to teach them to analyze literature, not enjoy it.

Unlike, say, watching a movie, reading a book is necessarily a private experience. No matter how similar your opinion of a book might be to someone else's, your experience of reading it will be different. Reading groups don't make reading a public experience; they're a place for people to share their personal experiences of a book.

Because reading is a private experience, it's an anti-social experience

Reading is also considered a frivolous activity - much more frivolous, say, than browsing the Internet. If you doubt this, try reading a book at work, even a book you're reading for work, and see how fast you catch your boss's attention - attention that your colleague who spends his days playing Minesweeper isn't likely to attract. (It's a wonder even as many as half of Americans still enjoy reading after being subjected to "The Scarlet Letter.") The reasons are more complex than that, and it's not at all clear that better education or higher literacy would change Americans' reading habits. - as opposed to television or movies, which are social experiences...
Calling reading an "anti-social" experience seems harsh to me. More accurate to say it's a solitary-experience. But that doesn't invalidate what Justyn is saying.

I agree with Justyn's observations that we cannot force people to read for pleasure.

But I feel strongly that it's the role of public service librarians to create the environment and sell the idea that reading can be something pleasurable and enjoyable.

Librarians can be educators and trainers, but I don't see our roles in promoting literacy per se.

We should be promoting reading and the broader scope of learning for pleasure (be it involving print or digital sources).

And as Justyn infers: in trying to promote reading, parents, teachers, and librarians have to be mindful that we, in our good intentions, do not inadvertently discourage reading as a pleasurable activity.

[* Yes yes, if you have something to say about "National Library" and "Public Library" feel free to post your comment here :)]


  1. Anonymous9:50 am

    agree that justyn's "anti-social" comment is too strong. i would prefer "non-social".

    but bringing this back to libraries - many libraries have reading rooms or areas, and you could even say that a library is really a big reading room. although library patrons don't socialize much there, the reading room does make reading a kind of social experience. there's no verbal socializing, but there's still this shared social presence of other readers, a belonging to a larger group of readers, punctuated by random eye contacts, that makes reading in a reading room a different experience than say reading alone at a cafe...

  2. Very nicely put, Tinkertailor!


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