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Source: Stuart Cliffe

I’m happy to hear that there are plans to encourage young people in the greater use of local libraries and reading for pleasure, but I wonder how effective these efforts will be in a market requiring quick gratification and (probably) vampires. Not to mention that book reading for any purpose is fast becoming a lost art.

Although there have been attempts to drag the library service into the 21st century, they are largely restricted to having online lists of books, lending CDs, DVDs and ‘talking books’, offering computer and wi-fi internet access and hosting occasional visits from groups that benefit the community.

Libraries, I gather from informants who work for a few different local authorities, are not a high priority for expenditure. In the current economic austerity they are even being cut

back by closures and shorter hours - prompting one MP to challenge recently whether local councils are at risk of failing in their legal duty to provide a “comprehensive and efficient” service.

Yet there are so many ways in which the process of borrowing books could be improved so as to be less effortful – and therefore more attractive – to young and old borrowers alike.

Currently you go into the library (if you’re lucky enough still to have one) and browse the shelves for your books. Some libraries have fiction shelved under different headings as well as alphabetically by author. Most get books into the right slot for their content or author most of the time. It’s not unknown however for detective fiction to be filed in sci-fi or in a spot on the shelf remote from the author’s other work.

And one library often has a different stock from another. I qualify for and regularly borrow from two separate local authority’s libraries, and often reserve books from elsewhere which I find via a web-based external service. Finding an interesting book by browsing is pure luck, so I supplement that by reserving, prompted by other books I have read with that publishers’ standard “other books by this author” listing, and by advertising for new launches.

If a newly-discovered author has previous books that I want to catch up on, I can reserve them online. But if they should be read in a certain order, I have to reserve the next one only and wait until that becomes available. If this is a popular author, and there are several people on the list, this can take weeks. When I know that book is available for me, I can order the next in the series. But it can still take over a year to read several books in the correct order. So of course I can order all the books at once – which then come in completely the wrong reading order.

If I’m looking for recently advertised books, things are also convoluted. My library may or may not have decided to order any copies, so I have to search the stock of several libraries and make a special order to ‘import’ the book from somewhere. The library may not buy the book immediately, and until the item is at least ordered I won’t find it in a listing, so I can’t reserve it at all until then. Even after that point I’ll be asked “this item is on order, do you still wish to reserve?”

And wi-fi. I’m now a smartphone user, for reasons of web browsing and (amongst many others) an app that keeps a record of all books I’ve read by scanning bar-codes. According to statistics at least half the users in the library will have a smartphone these days, but getting connected to the library wi-fi router is a matter of typing in a secure password that changes from week to week. It’s not hard to set up a wi-fi system that would authorise a ‘phone user permanent access. If the library had a smartphone app, it could be used for all sorts of matters, from warnings about possible fines to promoting an author reading.

So what could your library experience be like?

Well – how about libraries getting together to offer a listing of ALL books, not just the ones currently in stock; and letting borrowers reserve ANY published book, no matter where it is geographically or whether it is in the shops yet.

Host an Amazon, or IMDB-style review system so borrowers can comment on, find and reserve books in their preferred genre, and offer the option to manage the reserving system so that the first volume of a selected series is delivered as soon as it is available, followed by the succeeding issues in order, separated by a reasonable (again, selectable) interval to allow for reading time.

The management information generated by that system would allow libraries to manage their buying much more closely, and browsing online will be more effective. Foot traffic in libraries might well reduce, more picking up orders than browsing for inspiration. Library staff can spend more time managing books and less time managing customers.

Most importantly the finding and borrowing of good books will be easier because the buying practices, financial constraints and random luck which otherwise restrict the discovery and selection of the ideal book will be eliminated from the system.

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