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C'mere a minute

A neverending topic of conversation at your average library is how to increase circulation statistics. Apparently it’s not enough to provide access to a wide variety of materials across a range of formats and subjects, and then open your doors and welcome the hordes. Ideally, some sort of advertising campaign would alert your public to the library’s goods and services, perhaps with billboards, radio spots, bus ads, and whatnot. But what if a media budget is not handily available and your circulation figures are falling (no crude jokes about librarians’ physiques, please)?
William here, no stranger to long and complicated answers to questions of the human condition, has the answer for you.
Naval press gang

That's what you get for getting drunk within 50 miles of the sea

 The naval pressgang. Imagine yourself innocently walking down a street in any seaside town in England during the Napoleonic Wars, and a sinister-looking fellow approaches you, not with a library book, but with a bayonet. Before you can say Bob’s your uncle, you’re eating weevilly biscuits and your teeth are falling out into the Caribbean.

It worked for the Royal Navy, and it can work for the public library, too. If they won’t come in on their own two feet, drag them in at pencil point. Isn’t that pretty much the model for school tours? And, just as regulating officers used to earn a little side money by letting men go free in return for a guinea or so, we can increase our budgets by letting the truly desperate pay for their freedom not to read.

Consider this as you celebrate Banned Books Week, September 24 – October 1, 2011 (1). Everyone talks about the freedom to read (it’s probably enshrined in your library’s collection development policy), but no one’s talking about the freedom not to be attacked in the street and forced to sign up for a library card.

Did I mention that September is also Library Card Promotion Month? Please, please, keep the librarians behind their desks where they belong, not roaming the streets looking for their next victim. At least wear your library card on a chain around your neck.

1. One story of the nickname for the Royal Navy, “the Andrew,” is that one superstar pressman, Andrew Miller, nabbed so many men and pressed them into service that it might as well have been his navy. I thought perhaps the library could be “the William” because it was all his idea, but he modestly suggested that we name it after everyone’s favorite musical librarian.

2. Visit the Banned Books Week website for more information.




I'm only here to help

In the spirit of that well-known line from William Faulkner’s Nobel acceptance speech about “the human heart in conflict with itself,” (1) I have a little guest here to introduce a segment on the internal struggles of well-intentioned librarians when confronted with readers’ advisory and other delicate matters.
Let’s call him William.
Readers’ advisory (or, reader’s advisory, if you only have one of them) is the process we undergo when someone asks us for a really good book just like that other really good book they just read. For example:
Patron: I just finished The Sound and the Fury, and I really enjoyed it.
Librarian: You did?! I mean, oh, right, then you will probably also enjoy Absalom, Absalom!
Sounds easy, right? Where’s the conflict? Well, suppose someone wants to read a book of the sort that you don’t like.
Patron: I just finished The People’s Guide to Desecrating the Public Library and I really enjoyed it. What can you recommend for me next?
Librarian: The guillotine.
This sort of physical threat is frowned upon, at least at my library. A better answer would be, “Why don’t you try The Sound and the Fury?”
 I was thinking about this the other day when I looked at the cart of recent returns in Teen. It’s no surprise that the same books get checked out all the time (bestsellers, books with shiny covers) while others ferment on the shelf. If someone returns nine volumes of the latest post-dystopic Victorian flapper were-kitten saga (2) and wants more of the same, a good session of readers’ advisory would come up with something similar, if not in every detail of its plot (because that would be the same book), then similar in its tone, pacing, subject matter, and so on. You might go out on a limb and suggest a romance if what the reader really liked about it was the love between the were-kitten and the cat next door, but you probably wouldn’t suggest a quietly beautiful story of a fourteen-year-old Appalachian girl struggling to keep her family together after the death of her father, a story of tenderness, Appalachian lore, and heartbreaking determination. Even though you really want to.
That would be Where the Lilies Bloom by Vera and Bill Cleaver (1969), and I can’t tell you how perfect this book is. So perfect that its early 1990s library-bound spine is as straight as the day it was born. That is my conflict: I want kids to read, I want everyone to read, but I would also like to see every book in our collection find its reader. I can’t pass judgment on people’s reading choices, because I know that strong readers are created by lots of reading and lots of thinking, and there is no single path. But if I can get one kid to take that book, possibly a kid who just finished Hattie Big Sky or Out of the Dust, I’ll consider putting away the guillotine.
1. “There is only the question: When will I be blown up? Because of this, the young man or woman writing today has forgotten the problems of the human heart in conflict with itself which alone can make good writing because only that is worth writing about, worth the agony and the sweat.” (Stockholm, December 10, 1950)
2. It’s too easy to pick on these books. I know. In their defense, they get people excited about reading, and, darn it, some of them are very smart books. Maybe their devoted readers know something I don’t; it’s not like everyone is flocking to read a biography of Liberace or history of typography like I read when I was 15. I’m crying all the way to the library.