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Monday, 10 December 2018

Are you being served by your library?


Libraries have passed the two degree threshold that spells global catastrophe. This, despite ducted air conditioning systems. This, despite their projected image as a democratic refuge for worthy books and whatever contemporary lifeforms text find themselves in.

Try this test. Go to your local library headquarters. At the front desk, ask for the Collections Manager. Be prepared to explain what a “collections manager” is. In the unlikely event one is available, ask her to name a book – any book – she’s read recently to decide whether or not to order it in.

You might be surprised by the glazed look in her eyes.

Yes, I know. Libraries are under threat. Budgets are shrinking. Staff resources are dwindling. Librarians are trained to tame Big Data, develop profiles, analyse borrowing trends, sniff the airwaves to detect celebrity authors.

Enter a Superhero to save the day: the “library supplier”. Treating books as commodities, these companies allow librarians to outsource their primary reasons for being – to discover and curate content. Publishers plead their case with the suppliers in a pecking order from multinational to independent. 

Guess who gets the crumbs?

Are you being well served by your library? Are they helping you discover the very best in content by employing staff who actually read the books that are offered to them? Are they actively promoting new talent in your country? Would they recognise a Joyce, an Atwood, a Patrick White if it came to them from a publisher they hadn’t heard of?

Are they fearful of poetry, “literary” novels and experimental books eating up their budgets?

Here’s a case in point. Our publishing house, Interactive Publications Pty Ltd has been in business for 21 years. In that time, we’ve published more than 350 titles, many of them emerging authors who have gone to establish solid relationships with larger publishers. We’re located in Brisbane, Australia and focus mostly on Australian and New Zealand authors.

Prior to Big Data and the Call of Accountability, the Brisbane Libraries, which comprise over 30 branches, ordered most of our titles, many of them in substantial quantities. As inter-library loans took hold, the library system ordered fewer of our titles. We accepted this because our titles were still available, even if readers had to wait a bit longer to access them.

But as BCC Libraries, like many other library systems here and overseas, delegated their responsibility to curate content and to favour home-grown books to suppliers who treat books as commodities to be moved rather than read, our orders dwindled even further. Because  we felt this 3rd party supplier did us no favours, we began sending books on approval directly to BCC Library Headquarters.

We hit rock bottom recently when an Acting Collections Head determined that NONE of the new 20 titles we sent on approval met their “current requirements”. When I questioned this, her superior sought to justify the ways of God to the naive publisher by referring me to a bland policy manual. I doubt that the Acting person had read any of the books. I KNOW her superior hadn’t because they had already been returned.

There is a quiet revolution happening in our libraries. Libraries are becoming more and more like chain bookshops where you can predict what brands will be available, and discovery is increasingly a thing of the past. Libraries’ role as a curator of content has been outsourced to enterprises whose interests are more commercial than aesthetic. Curating and discovery will still happen, but in the unreliable ecosystem of internet blogs and paid for review sites. Librarians are prime targets for replacement by robots who dispense rather than analyse and evaluate, although recent strides in AI cognition may yet save libraries from becoming ATM dispensers.

And global temperatures are still rising.

Do you have any library stories to share?

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