Saturday, November 6, 2010

RA in a day 2010: "Putting Readers First: An introduction to the reader-centred approach" with Rachel van Riel

These are my final notes about RA in a day 2010; I am concluding with notes from the first session of the day (sorry for being backwards!)

Our first session, which lasted all morning was "Putting Readers First: An introduction to the reader-centred approach" with Rachel van Riel, the director of Opening the Book. I was lucky enough to have dinner the evening before the conference with Rachel (as well as Sharron from the RA committee and Brittany Bryan from NoveList); we had some fascinating discussions about books and reading, and the reading / library culture in the UK.

Opening the Book is a British company that has worked with every library service in the UK (as well as several in Eastern Europe and Scandinavia) to design, equip (i.e. with furniture) and train employees in “reader-development.” The concept of reader-development involves looking at the psychology of reading; this seemed to become a theme for the day, really, as it was a term picked up later in the afternoon by Dr. Mar (see also). Reader-development involves libraries’ focusing on a reader-centred approach to service, which includes:
  • Increasing people’s confidence in and enjoyment of what they read: says van Riel, “I want to live in a world where no one apologises for their reading!” We shouldn’t be ashamed of our reading, or put our own tastes down; we should be talking about what’s on our bedside table, not what we brought with us to “look good” in public.
  • Opening up reading choices: 80% of the sales in UK bookstores are of less than 5% of the stock. Libraries have a definite strength here: we can offer a much richer diversity of titles, and the “risk” (monetary + disappointment) factor is much less in borrowing from us than in buying.
  • Offering opportunities to share reading experiences: Reading is a bit invisible. Where were you when you finished the last great book you read? It’s likely you were in bed, with the light on, late at night. If someone else is there with you, it’s probable that they are snoring. You are not, for instance, in a sports stadium with 10, 000 other like-minded people, cheering your favourite author or book on! Reading is not like sharing other art forms. Were you to travel into space, however, you might see the world lit up at night by all the lights on from the homes of all the readers, worldwide: we outnumber fans of all other leisure activities.
Van Riel’s session was so informative, and so jam-packed, that I am going to break it down into my own “themes” for clarity of expression here!

Sausages and chocolate bars: concepts behind the reader-centred approach
The reader-centred approach starts with why, how and what people read, how reading fits into people’s lives, and how to promote to readers using motivation and engagement. As van Riel phrased it, “sell the sizzle, not the sausage;” libraries should be selling the experience of reading more than the actual book (eg. what the sausage/book can do for you, not what it is). She says we spend a lot of time choosing our sausages (debating which book to recommend or promote). Often, even, we end up promoting access to the bestsellers, which is counter-intuitive; we “sell” the same top 10 that people see at the bookstore, even though we have a much broader selection, and even when these top 10 are unavailable at the library (due to requests). The real test of the library of the future will be when patrons come in for that bestseller, can we sell them something else? The reader-centred approach should open up reading choices, allowing library staff to escape from genre and author displays, bring books together in unusual combinations, and mix fiction/non-fiction.

Look at the way chocolate bars are marketed, which is pretty stereotypical: there are chocolate bars sold to men, and these campaigns stress energy, protein, etc. There are chocolate bars sold to children, and these campaigns stress fun colours, shapes and textures, or pop culture characters. There are chocolate bars sold to women, and these campaigns stress treating yourself, doing something for yourself, and/or sex. As ridiculous as this is, we could learn something from this idea: the library tries to be “anything aimed at everybody,” and as a result, “nobody identifies with it.” People come into our buildings for 3 minutes, 30 minutes or 3 hours, and we treat them all the same. We should be exploring offering more targeted services to targeted markets.

As an example, van Riel described a pilot outreach project in a cancer treatment centre in Wales. The project was developed after a library employee visited the centre herself. She observed that the reading material provided in the waiting rooms was out of date and tired; moreover, people in the centre for treatment came from all walks of life and various parts of the country, often for up to 8 hours a day. A small library collection was developed for the cancer centre; the idea being that people could read the book while they were there, or take it home to finish and return it to any library in the area. The program was a great success: during the first week, one book from the collection ended up in Anglesey, which was “pretty much the farthest it could be” from the centre. Having the collection also provided a “safe” topic of conversation (eg. other than illness) for patients and staff of the centre.

Display and marketing ideas
Libraries in the UK and Scandinavia have experimented with reader-centred marketing campaigns, design, and programs, and van Riel outlined several in her presentation, including the “Give me a break” marketing campaign in Wales. This campaign was geared towards 18-30 year olds, and the posters completed the slogan: “Give me a break from stress,” “Give me a break from the kids,” or “Give me a break from it all.” The emphasis was on the diversity of experiences of 18-30s: some already had families, jobs and responsibilities, and some were still living at home, students or unemployed, possibly bored. The posters themselves featured images representing these experiences. As van Riel pointed out, book publicity generally shows photos of authors and book covers; where is the reader in all this? By giving readers the starring role in marketing and display ideas, libraries can re-engage with readers, value their individuality, and celebrate what reading means to them.
Other ideas:
  • Take the lead: books to get ahead
  • Take a risk – on a book
  • Bite-sized reads
  • Books about people more memorable than you!
Displays and marketing are key because studies show that people like manageable choices. One study analysed people’s behaviour in an empty parking lot versus a full one. In the full one, people pulled into the first available spot; in the empty one, people changed their minds about their spot many times, often pulling in and out repeatedly. To avoid this dithering, displays are a great tool to spark discussion and help patrons make choices.

Programming ideas
A book and wine tasting event was held at a community library in England. Several countries were represented by a table in the library containing a wine and a novel; visitors sat at that table, and, while they were tasting the wine, listened to a reading of an excerpt from the novel.

The physical layout of a library
Furniture and displays should thus make choices easy; we should also remember that the bestsellers don’t need our help! In children’s departments, van Riel suggested actually connecting books and play (TPL’s KidsStops and OPL’s early literacy spaces do this very well, I think!). Many libaries segregate areas for play and areas for reading - van Riel sees this as implying: “Have fun here; be bored here!” She showed some magnificent photographs of children’s spaces in European libraries, including one library where they had hollow tunnels with custom slatwall on the exterior curve; children were encouraged to pick a book from the slatwall and enjoy it inside the tunnel on a built-in bench.

The library’s online presence was used as an example of a dynamic website targeted to readers. The site promoted titles beyond the bestsellers and from independent presses using an online read-alike survey. Reader-friendly websites, van Riel explained, should be structured around users, not the library, should use technology to meet needs that cannot be met online, and work best when they are small and changing, rather than huge and static.

Getting the conversation about books going
Consider using real people and their real statements about reading for a library marketing campaign: one campaign in the UK took pictures of local well-known personalities and put them up around town (eg. the local hardware store would have a photo of the owner). Each photo was captioned, “What is he/she reading? Find out at the library!” In the library, there was a display of books chosen by each personality.

Some other suggestions for engaging with patrons included:
  • Have a spot for returned books. People love browsing each others’ returns. Consider a double-sided book truck, with one side labelled “Recommended” and the other “Not recommended!”
  • Have a “Book of the day” display – one book. If the book is taken out, that person has to choose the next book of the day. van Riel said that in one library where this was done, the book changed practically every 2 minutes.
  • Recommended reading from patrons: write down what people say in their own words. Can be used on small noticeboard with passport-sized photos of readers to accompany text, or large poster on end of bay of books, or on website, local newspaper, or e-mail signature line.
For the next part of her session, van Riel had us break up in pairs (with someone at our table that we didn’t know very well) to discuss the following questions and get our own conversations about books going. The questions below were geared to get us thinking about the experience of reading, and how a conversation around reading habits can easily turn into a conversation about particular book titles.
  1. Where do you read? (places, eg. armchair, bed, staffroom, beach, balcony)
  2. When do you read? (time, eg. time of day, season)
  3. Do you read every page or do you jump ahead? Do you employ different strategies for different types of books?
  4. Do you ever cheat and read the ending first? If so, what are the circumstances?
  5. How far back can you go with your reading memories? (eg. what is your earliest memory of reading or of books?)
  6. What else do you do when you read? (eg. cook, sunbathe)
  7. What did you read as a teenager for the “sexy bits?” (eg. what was passed around class or had well-worn pages in the school library?)
  8. Who do you talk to about your reading?
Final thoughts
Most organisations, van Riel concluded, claim a lot more than they achieve. Libraries, on the other hand, “achieve loads more than they claim.” We should be immensely proud of the fact that we are the most popular voluntary organisation; the most popular organisation that people choose to participate in!

We then took a lunch break. During either break or lunch, a woman from Stratford Public Library (Melanie? Sorry, my memory is terrible!) came up to tell me she was a reader of my blog. That was pretty exciting! She also told me about some wonderful things going on at SPL, and she shared with me a great reading list they made that is set up like a menu, entitled “A taste of the Stratford Public Library.” Categories included appetizers (magazines), entrees (non-fiction), desserts (light fiction), and specials (DVDs and databases), with all titles food-related!

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