I like the poster quoting Canadian librarian Eleanor Crumblehulme, “Cutting libraries in a recession is like cutting hospitals in a plague.” Libraries need all the support we can give them at the moment, and what encourages me most about the current campaign against government and local authority cuts is that the main voices we are hearing seem to be people who actually still use libraries. This is in marked contrast to press campaigns in the recent past, where the usual role call of celebrities has been rounded up to say, 'I think libraries are great, I used to use them all the time when I was a kid.'
It is not the time to raise questions about libraries. But maybe it is the time to ask some fundamental questions about where reader development stands now.
I have to declare an interest. I was involved with the beginnings of the movement. As Literature Officer at Yorkshire Arts, I was lucky enough to have Rachael Van Riel and Olive Fowler on my patch, and worked with Opening the Book and the region's library staff to shift the emphasis from libraries being neutral custodians of books, to them becoming active agents promoting, celebrating and extending the curious and unique reading journeys of people who read them.
It seems odd to think of it now, but before their intervention we had struggled to work out how the immense resources of libraries related to the rest of the literature sector; to writers, independent publishers, promoters and festivals. Reader development quickly became a national rather than a regional phenomenon. Arts Council colleagues, who had previously argued that we were there to fund writing not reading, began to see the connection and invested accordingly. Opening the Book rolled out their training nationally in the Branching Out programme, complemented by Miranda McKearney's high level advocacy supported by Keiren Phelan at Southern Arts, and for a time I served on the board of Well Worth Reading which became The Reading Agency.
I left Yorkshire Arts, and in my own practice, began to concentrate on writer development and producing literature projects. A few years ago I got a call from the British Council asking me to “contribute to a seminar on reader development ...” I was just about to say it is not really my area at the moment, when they said “...in Jamaica.” So of course I said yes, and began to brush up on reader development. What struck me then, and what strikes me now, are two things. Firstly, how although the profile of reader development has increased, how little front line practice has developed since the early days. Secondly, how reader development has shifted from it original impetus of being about the reading and life experiences of the individuals and alternatives to the mainstream, to being about the publishing industry and chasing social agenda funding.
So, some questions:
Has reader development become institutionalised? Has the discourse become about systems and schemes rather than the art of reading? Why have I felt that the reader development meetings I have been in recently have felt more like managers discussing the inter-library loans scheme than curators engaging creatively with readers?
In institutionalising reader development and creating reader development posts did we remove the responsibility, the methodology, from core library delivery and every library employee? Did we create something separate that is now easy to lop off, rather than shifting organisational culture?
Did we lose focus? In chasing funding for individual projects with reluctant readers, did we forget the core audience - passionate and habitual readers and in so doing fail the new readers we attract because all the funding went into the conversion and not the retention of readers/users?
Has reader development fallen under the thrall of commercial publishing? In the desire to secure free books and free readings, is the reader development sector concentrating its energy on promoting writers and books that are already well promoted and widely read, rather than celebrating readers' idiosyncratic book choices, individual reading journeys and extending the reading diet?
Have we become too focussed on the book group, the book, the author, stock, buildings and events and failed to explore how libraries might serve the wider reading and literature ecology who might use these services while not physically engaging with buildings or activities?
As NALD Director I know there are many reader development specialists doing wonderful work that answers these questions, but I also know that some of them share similar concerns. I have been talking to Ruth Harrison at the Reading Agency and together we are creating an opportunity to discuss these issues later this year and look forward to hearing your answers to these questions, your perspectives. Meanwhile let's shout about libraries. And if, despite being passionate about books and libraries, you haven't used a library in the twelve months, let's be honest about why not.
This article appeared as the first of a regular column in Writing in Education, the magazine of the National Association for Writers in Education.