Library and Information Services, Royal Conservatoire of Scotland

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Why don't readers ask?!

In a fit of pure introspection, I tried to work out what my motivations were when I went to Waterstones and W H Smiths today. Obviously, I can’t tap into my subconscious, so the exercise was hardly scientific.

Amazon was promoting Grace Dent, How to leave Twitter. I wanted to see it before deciding whether to buy. I’d also come across Maureen Callahan's Poker Face: the Rise and Rise of Lady Gaga, about Lady Gaga’s astounding success at self-promotion. Again, I wanted to assess how much of it actually was about self-promotion.  I started in Waterstones. But where would I find these titles?
  • What did the Twitter book come under?  No catalogue, no classification to help me. A mass-appeal paperback on promotion (piles on tables, special displays)? Autobiographical? Humour? No sign of it. Did I ask for help? Not initially. Finally, I learned it wasn’t currently in stock. As for Lady Gaga - I found the music section, but that title wasn’t there. (Mind you, there was an interesting book about Beethoven - Harvey Sachs, The Ninth: Beethoven and the World in 1824. I have an obsessive research interest in musical culture in the 1820’s…)

Given that I wanted to see the books, I gave up and went to Smiths, where I faced the same conundrum, although I asked sooner!

But why don’t we want to ask? Reticence? Pride? Reluctance to fall prey to a pushy salesperson?  Transfer all this to a library, though, and the parameters change.

  • Catalogues available to the readers, for a start.
  • A more detailed classification, too - at least in an academic library. I spotted the new Beethoven book on a promotional display at Waterstones, otherwise I probably wouldn’t have found it. On the other hand, books on the same narrow subject will be side by side on a college bookshelf.
  • No financial risk - and if you don’t like the book, you just return it, read or unread. There’s a lot to be said for libraries!

So, that leaves us with my initial question: Why won’t we ask? Would you ask for help finding something in a bookshop? In a library?  If the librarians were more visible, would that change things at all? Should we be more proactive, or sit in our office like books on shelves, waiting to be consulted?

Which is one of the reasons why I blog.  Someone commented on Twitter the other day that libraries aren’t just books - they’re also people. Knowledgeable people, who not only know their subjects, but also know how to interrogate a catalogue!  (See 'Libraries are about People', by The Wikiman.)  But we need to reach out to our readers, who perhaps don't realise our "unique selling point".

So I’ll share something with you right now. I ordered the Twitter and Beethoven books on Amazon at home just now. I’ll let you know if they’re any good. Promise!

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