Bless Matthew’s soul. The dude (an allowable word if you live near the sea – I do.) totally came out of left field when he mailed me and asked me to contribute to his blog. (Which I hope my superiors never ever read or else I might be subjected to the Managerial Finger Twinge. See my blog for what that means. Plug)
He asked me to list what we’re doing in teen services in our libraries in Cape Town, South Africa. Also, to discuss the services in our libraries and to mention anything in particular I have done in my library (in Cape Town, South Africa).
I think my initial response to curl up into a foetal position and stay there until he went back home was probably the best and least painful response. But then, I wouldn’t be a Public Librarian in Cape Town, South Africa, if a little pain was going to be the issue. And although he doesn’t know it, he’s the one who set me on the path to Comic Books and YA ‘stuff’ evangelism. (Stuff here being a technical term that I use interchangeably to make me seem more intelligent. So far, I don’t think it has worked, but it’ll do in pinch). So I, in the total dude sense of the word, owe him. (I still use his method of preparing Graphic Novels for circulation).
So, what happens from here on can thus be firmly blamed on Matthew. What I hoped was a short little paragraph, turned into something *shudder* anecdotal and slightly personal even. I couldn’t tell you about my experiences with YA “stuff” if I didn’t give you a little bit of background first about me, the Public Library Service in Cape Town and finally, elves bearing gifts.
And it all started with comics and Graphic Novels….
Comics get old-school librarians’ backs up. (Think of every horror movie you’ve seen where the plucky heroine/hero sees the big bad in all its horrible glory, now times 10.) As a reader of Comics and lover of the Comic book medium I couldn’t let that stand.
So, with the fortitude of a young librarian who has not been broken by too much shelving and my trusty power point presentation, I decided to change some minds by presenting a fair, unbiased view of comics to librarians in Cape Town. The emphasis being that there is NO downside to stocking four colour pages of pure unadulterated joy (be they Marvel, DC, Batman, Superman or even Sandman) in their respective libraries.
The biggest public library in Cape Town asked me for selection criteria and a list of recommended Graphic Novels for their shelves. It was a vindication for me on many levels which was only eclipsed by the findings of a Canadian educational and psychological study 3 years ago, that stated quite simply: Comics were good for you. Period.
(The YA ‘stuff’ comes in about now. Thank you for bearing with me.)
The perfect demographic for comics in public libraries are teens.
That’s what I told my librarian colleagues and that’s what I believe (and all the scientists and educators agreeing is just gravy). The plan was to get teens excited about reading and keeping them at the library week after week, to grab Comics. Then, when the opportunity presented itself, to slip in a YA novel and hope like hell I didn’t undo this well nurtured enthusiasm.
The plan played out in my library without an issue.
I convinced my boss that it was absolutely crucial, to the point of the world ending, that we needed the teen section front and centre, so it’s the first thing you see when you look towards the English fiction section. She needed little arm twisting when I asked for regular buys of YA books.
And then I did the unthinkable.
I started talking to THEM, and I asked the staff to do the same.
If you want to court controversy, ask a public librarian to hold up the queue to ask a teenager if they really want to take out that book as oppose to these three books in the same series, that might or might not be something they might like and then casually mention the Girl falls in love with a Vampire that wants to eat her.
At the time (and now still) this sort of one on one marketing helped despite no organisational mass marketing tools. Even though most times we received no visible reaction from teens at the desk, the lending stats on titles that we ‘pitched’ told a different story. Still, what we needed was a magic push to get bodies back through the door and short of teleporting a whole lot of teenagers against their will and giving them a ‘read this or die’ ultimatum, nothing could really provide that push we needed.
That all changed when a Mormon lady decided to write about a girl with a vampire and werewolf fetish.
If you would ask any public librarian in Cape Town what the significance of Twilight was for our libraries, they would have said something along the lines of:
”It was just another popular fad book.” (Or, “junk”).
This is true. (Except for the junk part though).
It didn’t have the market awareness and GIGANTIC fandom that Harry Potter had but I believe it still left a lot of public librarians wrong footed because suddenly girls AND BOYS of the Teen persuasion were coming in with their parents. The unseen demographic suddenly got seen and YA sections in public libraries in Cape Town, tucked in their corners, out of sight (and out of mind), suddenly had a whole lot of bodies hanging around them looking for the this Twilight “nonsense”(or so-called “junk”).
What followed was:
Thoughtful customer orientated libraries (the good ones) bought the books in good numbers and supplied the hungry masses, while other libraries approached it from the “let’s wait and see” or “if we ignore them they’ll bugger off” approach (the bad ones). The exceptional libraries realised they had an opportunity and moved their YA sections into the light, bought similar titles, and new authors, marketed them (with home-made posters and an overabundance of glitter) and gained consistent numbers in the YA demographic.
This bore fruit when South African novel Spud by John van de Ruit crossed over from adult to teen reading. In libraries it rivalled Twilights’ circulation numbers. This was due to the word of mouth generated by YA readers, who were now all talking about the books they were reading. The YA demo was staying with intent to loiter and read.
What Twilight wrought, was a clear indication that YA readers and the Teen demographic, when mobilised by whatever they craved so intensely, could have wonderful positive effects on circulation as well as shape market trends. (The impact on literacy levels and comprehension levels was something no one tried to find out, but, I’d like to believe it was positive.) It also helped that they were vocal about what they wanted to read next, which in my library’s case was a clear call to meet demands to get the YA horde to stay.
Some libraries took that momentum and used it to cultivate a readership, but others let the tide ebb. YA readers not seeing the books they wanted, left. Or that’s what my colleagues believed. But they were in for a shock when the tide came back in with The Hunger Games. A handful of libraries stocked the book before a movie was even announced, promoted it and used it as carrot for keeping YA readers in the library. So when the wave hit (again), a demand could be met because the exceptional libraries have staff members dedicated to ensuring the YA section is stocked with appetising titles. Unfortunately, in even the exceptional libraries, this staff member usually has to shout very loudly to be given a fair hearing.
Sometimes, in public libraries popular can be a four letter word.
At present I believe we are at a tipping point in our public libraries.
The YA ‘stuff’ is not going away despite some of my colleagues’ best efforts to not care. The short sighted need to still believe in the “preservation of the library” against so called unworthy material is censorship, plain and simple.
Nothing exists in a vacuum. The deeper significance is ultimately not so deep: we keep pushing away a customer base in a time and place where we can’t afford to. Doing so, when all available data indicates that people are reading less, opting for alternative methods to get their bibliographic fix and buying fewer books due to high prices, is tantamount to negligence.
You see, the stuff of YA ‘stuff’ in Public Libraries in Cape Town, South Africa is one of potential that is for now unfulfilled. The why of it is particularly complex and terribly involved and would in effect require a full time study, 3 bags of ice, a best of Barry Manilow compilation and red bouncy ball. Since the budget is simply just not there at all, I have taken a stab at explaining the whole thing and have decided that the reasoning for the (non)state of YA services is in fact:
Reasoning, the First.
What the Public Libraries lack in Cape Town is an effective marketing tool/methodology/magic wand to market the material that sits on our shelves. The drive gets channelled to other pursuits that are equally worthy: reading, comprehension and basic literacy but effective marketing would have a positive effect on those initiatives as well. (And the City’s Public Libraries footprint on social media is about the size of an ant’s indentations across a block of butter. But I can’t say more: Managerial finger twinge.)
The skill (be it technological, biological or mineral) to take a book, track its market potential, communicate to users about its merits and allow users to comment and interact just isn’t there.
The thing is, we are good enablers of reading but what we are crappy sustainers.
What that means in not so indistinct terms, is that we’re reacting to what our patrons want and not being proactive.
The difference being: that 15 people will have to ask for 50 Shades as oppose to having it waiting when person number 1 walks in the door.
Reasoning the Second:
Imagine this sort of reactive behaviour applied to YA books/services and a demographic that at the best of times is tolerated in a Public Library/ies.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that NO YA books are bought for and by libraries.
Not at all.
What I am saying is that YA books in public libraries in Cape Town end up in libraries because;
a quota of the money for books needs to be spent.
not all the monies can go to study materials.
it made a bajilliion dollars and some pimply faced ‘person’ wants to read it.
a staff member recommended the book because it was good, well reviewed and would circulate knowing the demographic, circulate well.
If you wondering, the last reason is the one that public libraries in Cape Town should use to buy YA books.
The hard realisation which I am trying to soften with all these snarky asides and failed attempt at humour is that YA services in Public Libraries in Cape Town, don’t exist.
It’s a hard pill to swallow. The Library and Information Services Department’s specialised groups have been established along lines of Children’s and Adult Interest groups amongst our librarians. YA has a small representation in the children’s groups but not in any meaningful sense. These groups generate a lot of genre based content ranging from reading lists, all the way to developing basic marketing strategies but none seem to touch on the specifics issues or needs of the YA demographic.
Instead, what we have is more like a movement that exists despite the uninterested that seems organisationally hardwired into the existing work structure. (Any more explanation about that and I’d be shot.) There’s a movement of public librarians within the Public Libraries in Cape Town, who not only keep in touch and recommend and talk about (lament) books, but also try to persuade, cajole, wheedle and just plain nag the Powers That Be to give a little ground about starting a YA interest group, developing better marketing tools and branding for libraries and its services, making eBooks available for cell phones and getting the Public Library “Institution” seen on Facebook, Twitter and Mxit. (Something the Local Authority wants to prevent with all their might).
It’s not ideal, but grassroots movements have been known to foment great change, and we wouldn’t be public librarians, Cape Town – South Africa, if we didn’t think we could try.
…and Elves bearing gifts: Just say no* .
*Thank you Terry Pratchett. Just because.
Rudi Wicomb is a South African Librarian based in Cape Town. You can find him blogging at http://fromthelibraryfloor.blogspot.co.uk/ or follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/Floorlibrarian