Cacophony in the library

I’m going to start this post recounting a personal experience of mine from 2000. At the time I was 3 months pregnant with my second child and I was expecting a phone call from my obstetrician with some urgent blood results. I was in a meeting which was being held in a library (I was not working as a librarian at the time). My phone rang, I excused myself and went into an empty corner and answered it. Despite giving very quiet, monosyllabic responses to my obstetrician, the librarian approached me and quite loudly told me to turn my phone off and to leave the building to make phone calls. The officious librarian talked over me and was getting more and more agitated that I was not listening to her. Upon hanging up, I ignored her and made a mental note to NEVER be a librarian like that. So I want to point out from the outset that this is not about keeping a library in absolute silence. However, it is a post about libraries being quieter places and to recognise this as a positive attribute of our library spaces rather than a negative that turns libraryland into apologists. This positive attribute allows for reflective, calmer spaces that are conducive to thinking, creativity and innovation.

I like a quiet library. I like a library where you know there is a buzzed conversation but you cannot hear its detail. I like a library where the sound of fingers hitting keyboards and photocopiers printing is the norm. I like to hear the tutor leading the child through their maths homework using hushed tones, I like the parents quietly reading picture books to their pre-schoolers. And I like that occassionally this hushed space is converted to sounds electric but for an hour, for storytime, an author talk, a science presentation or a bookgroup meeting. I like running paper-plane flying competitions down the aisles of books during Open Days, I like craft-time for kids and adults (as long as I don’t have to lead it) and I like people feeling comfortable enough in the library that they use it for creativity, learning and for escape. This buzz, this muted white noise in a library is welcoming and expected.

But what I do not like is the library as a playground or a cafe. I cannot stand children playing chasings amongst the aisles of books both in childrens’ and adult sections. Aside from the grating noise, it is also compromising the safety of other library patrons. I do not want to see teens throwing a basketball over bays of books in a game of blind baskets and nor do I want to hear music being piped into the library in some weird super mall sense and I especially don’t want to have to stick my fingers in my ears to drown out the group sitting over 15 metres away. I know that this is not a popular stance to make, and that many libraries have cafes in them (I’m all for that as the cafe is then a designated talking space) and that kids should be made to feel welcome but I think libraries can do this without giving up what, for a large part of library patronage, is a place that they can come to that has relative quiet. For many people, going to the library is to escape from their already loud, busy, cluttered, over-stimulated spaces.

Now let me start, as Miss Piggy would say, with “Moi”. Up until I was 13 years old my parents ran our house as a boarding house. Until I was 8 we could have up to 20 people living in our house at a time. Predominately, these boarders were migrants, refugees and at one stage a bunch of illegal immigrants – sailors who had jumped ship in Sydney one night. We had Germans, Dutch, Italians, Indians, Greeks and Egyptians. Families, bachelors and even a Vietnam vet. As you could imagine, life was one big party. The shared living areas either had a television on or a radio or my dad’s trusty reel-to-reel (this was the 70s!) and there was always dancing. There were always kids living with us so we would all be playing games or making up plays and stories. Even when the majority of boarders left and we only had one other family living with us, we continued being visited by all our (ex-boarder) family friends. The one thing that we didn’t have was quiet in our home. Even 10 years after the last boarders moved out and my then boyfriend (now husband) would come over to visit his comment was “My God! Your house is like a sitcom. The doorbell is always ringing and you always have visitors”. Now as fun as a home like that may be, I relished quiet from a young age. And the only place to get it was the local library. I could spend my afternoons sitting in a corner not talking to anyone or talking quietly with the other kids and not having to compete for airspace. Even now, when I sit in my own home, I never turn on the TV or radio, I drive in silence and it is only me, my tinitis and the white noise of the urban world.

I am not alone in this need. Let me give you some examples of people I know though I have changed their names:

Nena

A Masters student living in a 2 bedroom flat with her host family. She shares her bedroom with 2 other girls. Her bed is her only private space. She studies at the library until closing time every day as her host family has an open door policy with many visitors. She arrives home one night when her host family advise her that they have taken on another boarder. When she points out the lack of space she is advised that they have rented out the other side of her bed and she was to top and tail with a stranger (but not to worry – it was another female). This student’s distress the next day was noticed by the staff and they helped her find emergency accommodation. The student found solace in the library, eventually worked in the industry and 20 years later is a highly effective information professional. The quiet of a library, she told me, was the quiet that she desperately need for study.

Dr John

Dr John’s parents ran a fish and chip shop. There a 6 children living in a 3 bedroom house above their shop. One room for the boys and another for the girls. They all have to work in the shop after school and if there was a busy moment you would be pulled from your room where you were doing homework to help out. For Dr John going to the library to study was his escape from a loving but busy, noisy house.

Sally

I met Sally earlier this year when I went to pick my son up from a friend’s place. She was discussing how she could no longer bear to take her kids to her council’s newly refurbished library because the books were tucked into nooks and crannies and the children’s area was designed for rough and tumble play. “I know where the playgrounds are, I know where playgroups in community centres meet. Not everything needs to be hyped yet my kids get hyped in the library. I just want to sit and read to them”.

Ben

Ben and his family had moved to his mother’s home during a renovation. He worked from home but found it impossible to concentrate as his mother cared for his 3 nieces during the day. Going to the library was a better (and cheaper) option than a noisy cafe. However, it took visiting 5 library branches before he found one that was not overwhelmingly noisy.

I believe that these library patrons are not a tiny minority. I believe that most people in the community expect a library to not be so loud that they need to use noise cancelling headphones when they use it. Nor do they expect the absolute silence required in cinemas and theatres. Certainly, many larger libraries are able to provide designated quiet areas and floors but smaller libraries will find this harder to manage particularly if they are open-plan.

However, I think it is imperative that library staff do no scoff, do not ignore and do not dismiss as unimportant the library patron who comes and asks if there are quiet spaces or for a staff member to intervene and ask someone making unreasonable noise to tone it down. The library patron with a need for a quiet is no less important than the needs of other library patrons that as librarians we are able to meet.

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Alphabet vs Genre

As a child, I remember progressing from the picture books to the chapter books at my local children’s library, The Warren in Marrickville. Upon my progression to the Junior Fiction section, disorganised child that I was, I made the decision to delve into the collection at the beginning. At A. And I would progress until I read every book in this, albeit tiny, branch library. I read Alcott’s Little Women, Brink’s Baby Island, Brown’s Flat Stanley, Cleary’s Henry Huggins and Ramona the Pest and as you could imagine the list goes on and on all the way to Zindel’s The Pigman. (As an aside, I spent about a year at E and F having hit the mother lode with Elizabeth Enright, Eleanor Estes, Edward Eager and Eleanor Farjeon). I went on to use the same method when I matured from the children’s library and I moved up two flights of stairs to the then Adult Library at Marrickville Town Hall under the beautiful stained glass ceiling.

Once again, I started at A and progressed slowly through the collection. Serendipity ruled for me. And browsing shelves alphabetically, whether in a bookshop or a library was great because, unlike Dewey, it was simple and unbiased. I just read whatever caught my fancy. Steven King, Leon Uris, Wilbur Smith, Isabelle Allende, Penny Jordan, Carole Mortimer all interfiled in the one big area. Horror, literature, romance, fantasy all there. Despite this, I still discovered my favourite genre, I still found my favourite romance authors. This was objective shelving, for while the library may not pass judgements on different genres, people sometimes do, and link a writer’s, and even reader’s quality, to their preferred genre.

Over the last 10 years, libraries have seen a shift in the layout of their spaces and the way people access their shelves. There is a lot more display space, bookshop layout is aspired towards, and this is all very positive as it makes libraries much more attractive and appealing places to their members. But I am ambivalent about the reorginisation of books according to the genre that they fall in. Unlike retailers, libraries are not about profit margins but about unbiased access to information and cultural materials. Selection may be unbiased but we are seeing a move towards subjective organisation.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of genre fiction. Over the last 30 years my reading has seen me devour comics, horror, literature, children’s fiction and, of course my mainstay fiction favourite, romance. To add to these, I will occasionally dabble in fantasy, science fiction and my least favourite (and only because I’m squeamish), crime. But I found my favourites by browsing unbiased shelves. And much as I love walking into my favourite bookshops and libraries and heading straight to the romance shelves I often wonder about the people who will miss out on reading a fabulous romance because they don’t want to be seen in the romance section or the science fiction fan who just doesn’t want to read literary work. Somehow, I feel that it is like apartheid for books (harsh words, I know!).

For, heaven forbid Dean R Koontz is shelved near Milan Kundera, or Roald Dahl to be seen alongside Victoria Dahl, or Howard Jacobson grace the same shelf as Eloisa James. And then, what of the books that sit across genres such as Charlaine Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse and J. R. Ward’s Black Dagger Brotherhood books that sit comfortably in both fantasy or romance genres. Or benchmark setting authors such as Margaret Atwood – does she sit in literature or speculative fiction. Genre-based shelving endorses a classification of fiction that may not be needed.

I know that as a child, I loved discovering books and that none of them had genre labels. As an adult, I am struggling to decide upon whether I like the genrification of libraries or if I would like fiction, to once again, be a roll call of authors on shelves.

* strikethrough added a few years after I first posted this

No Touching Rule in a Touchy-Feely-Needy Library World

I love being a librarian. And as a librarian I will take up most causes, promotions, events. I will willing give you whatever information you want and don’t want (but hey! maybe one day you’ll realise I was right and you did need it and you’re welcome). I (humbly big noting myself here) am a dedicated librarian.

When the powers that be asked me to celebrate National Simultaneous Storytime. Great, I did it! When I was asked to take part in National Science Week – I was there with safety glasses on! Four years in a row now (but who is counting). When I was asked to take part in Public Lending Rights counting (in pre Online Catalogue days) I volunteered. And so the story goes from ALIA week, to Library Lovers’ Day to Heritage Week even threatening to make “Avast! ye’ll walk the plank, ye landlubbing, fine dodging curmudgeon” on Talk Like a Pirate Day. I am hands on!

Even when twibrarians get in the swing and start library #hashtags trending – I get involved. Yup. I’m there, in the midst of the #savelibraries, #followalibrary, #followalibrarian, #readit2011, #AliaIoc, #reading, #nswra, #hcod, #followreader, #spbkchat….you get my drift. I’m there with bells on. And I’m there with bells on because I want to be there.

But today, my lovely leaders in the ether whoever you are. Today, you declared the day to be the International Hug a Librarian Day. I’m sorry but I cannot support this program. I cannot open up myself to strangers throwing their arms around me, I cannot endorse this touchy feely program. With Hug a Librarian I feel that you have entered my personal bubble, that cone of silence that I hold sacred – my body.

I am quite happily a “No touching” type of person.

When I am with my family, I am affectionate. I hug my children, I kiss them and adore them. I hold my husband’s hand in public (really – I do!), I kiss him and adore him. But that is my “Out of work” personal life and even there I am not overly touchy, feely.

But in the workplace, I am a professional and a “No Touching” rule prevails. Affection does not come into it. As it stands, I really don’t appreciate having to approach the occassional amorous, horizontal teenage couple in the corner of the library to tell them to keep it vertical and frankly, I don’t want any of the 1000’s of borrowers that cross the library threshold to feel that I am in need of affection of any kind. I am happy in my answering questions objectively, contributing to someone-else’s information needs. And damn it, no one is walking around proclaiming it’s “Hug an Actuary” day or “Hug a Surveyor” day. Is this another stupid way of perpetuating the grim, spinster librarian stereotype?

So, please, leave me alone to do my job. Do not encourage strangers to give me unsolicited affection. I don’t want dead-pigeons-down-her-top lady hugging me, or the guy-who-exposes-himself hugging me nor do I want that over-perfumed-botox woman giving me “Mwah!”. I just want to do my job. And needy affection is not in my job description. Hell, I don’t know where members of the public have been and frankly they don’t know where I have been either. And we’re all covered with germy germs.

P.S I think that I would have accepted “High 5 a Librarian” Day. Though that too would have entailed touching.

 

Mea Culpa Mea Culpa Mea Bloody Culpa (but then again maybe the bookstores will have to shoulder this one)

Last week, RedGroup went into administration and along with it a number of Australian and New Zealand book chains – Borders, Angus and Robertson and Whitcoulls. Of course, the media have gone crazy blaming the darn internet again (my god – prior to 1994 you could only blame society). With the gradual decline of the print newspaper (hell, they’re giving them away at 8am these days) the media are bitter, enraged and ready to snarl at any hint of online business having healthier sales than a bricks and mortar company.

Now I am being implored by the media to “put my money where my heart is” and support my bricks and mortar independent bookseller and stop buying from those horrid online bookshops.

Well, let me say this to the book chains and indies.  You lost me, and a large chunk of the book buying market (romance readers), by being disdainful of our reading choices. I have spent decades struggling to source romance titles and finally have found places that will not only stock them but will sell them to me at a lower price than venerated bookstores can supply them. Why should I change my buying habits. As it stands, I would still have to source my titles through the online bookstore to give to my indie who has actively chosen not to supply them.

Yes, I do love my indie. Their loyalty program is splendid, their staff are friendly and knowledgeable (and all greet me by name) and for years they would order in books for me (back when I really didn’t feel comfortable with online purchasing). These books were, inevitably, romances.  But did this impact at all upon their book stocks? Well – they always stock Jennifer Crusie. But that is it. Despite the fact that they had staff that enjoyed the genre and and that they had customers that enjoyed the genre and that they had genre sections throughout the shop (Sci-fi, Fantasy, Graphic Novels, Crime) my “beloved” indie chooses to not sell Romance. Somehow, I suspect that independent bookshops would prefer to declare bankruptcy than to dedicate any space to the romance genre.

When you have a mortgage or family  or other responsibilities to look after, your book buying priorities change. Thankfully, I work in a public library so access to millions of books is at my fingertips. These same millions of books are accessible to any Australians who visit their public library. To find these books Trove is the best source for titles held throughout the country. That said, I love my keepers and I am all for the adage of “Buy the best, borrow the rest”. So when I find that I have borrowed and renewed a book multiple times and I am deeply in love with it I will go out and purchase a copy for my home.

I find that I buy approximately 20 books a year for my whole family and I buy these books from various sources. Now, the difference between paying $20 per item by going through my indie/chain or paying $8 for the same book through Book Depository/Amazon – it’s a no brainer. And it is insulting to my intelligence to beseech me to stop buying online. Franky, that “leftover” $12 supplies my home with 10 litres of milk (which lasts 3 days) or 1.5 other book titles. A win/win situation for my family.

And if the issue is “Buy Australian” there are a number of generalist Australian online bookstores who do supply romance titles and promote them, discuss them and enjoy them too. They provide a wonderful service and operate in a similar way to indies (except they know what their customers want to read). And their prices are reasonable, too. A shout out to Booktopia and The Nile.

The question is: do I still buy from my indie? That would be a resounding yes though not as much as I used to. I buy all my Australian and New Zealand authors and publications from them. It is the same price (and in many instances, cheaper) than buying those titles online. Will this save the store? I don’t know. Would I return to my local indie if it set up a romance section? Perhaps. I love reading the last pages of a book before I buy it and I also love skimming through a book to get a sense of the language that is being used. Once again, I can’t do that online. So it would really depend on the price and the quality of the titles being sold.

The important point to observe is that readers who choose to buy their books online do so for a number of reasons, be they cost driven, being too busy to be bothered going into a bookstore or quite importantly, inaccessibility of titles readers want to read.

I am putting my money where my heart is – and my heart is with the suppliers of books that I like to read. So if this means that bricks and mortar bookstores will close down I will be amongst the many who will be saying “Mea Culpa”.

Sex, love and passion: the appeal of romance novels: the moderator responds

On Friday the 11th of February, I moderated a Romance Panel for the City of Sydney at Ultimo Library.

Kick off your Friday night talking about Sex, Passion and Love with our romance panel discussion. Join Mills and Boon author Annie West, romance scholar Sandra Barletta and book blogger, Kat Mayo along with Ultimo’s romance reading librarians in discussing romance fiction in the 21st century…

It was a fabulous night with an engaged audience, a wonderful panel and fantastic discussion that ensued. So fantastic that Ultimo Community Centre staff had to push us out of the building as we went beyond their closing time.

As the moderator for the panel I had my questions prepped and I knew that I wouldn’t have to prepare meaningful answers (ever the shallowreader).

From the left: Annie West, Sandra Barletta, Kat Mayo and Vassiliki Veros Photograph courtesy from BookThingo http://www.flickr.com/photos/bookthingo/

However, as the panel discussion progressed I found that I really wanted to give my point of view, too. I behaved and, with the exception of the last question and some library promotion, I left the answers to the panel. A transcript of the panel’s answers is available on BookThingo’s blog. I now would like to share my answers to the questions on the night:

Why do you do what you do in romance, of all genres (I’ll answer this in the vein of why do I promote romance reading as a librarian)

Public libraries are charged with providing equity and access of information to all.  My feeling had been that libraries and librarians were not treating genre fiction and it’s readers with equity. Throughout all my years as a librarian, romances not only were not purchased for library collections but there was also a certain attitude amongst staff and some borrowers that romance reading was secondary and that library budget money would not be devoted towards the genre. This annoyed me so I decided to support the underdog, climb onto my soap box and declare romance King until the shelves were populated and the staff accepting  of readers choices.

What have you observed as differences between romance in the past decade as opposed to romance in the 80s?

For me there are 2 standout differences:

1. Like Annie, the 80’s and prior were predominately written from the female point of view. During the 90’s and now in the 21st century there was a gradual shift to both the female and male point’s of view being written into a novel. In my opinion, this shift has been so strong that the way I personally categorise the books I read is that if it has both the protagonists’ points of view then it is a romance. If it is only a female or male point of view it is categorised as Chicklit or Ladlit.

2. The sex is much more explicit and, thankfully, turgid shafts and manhoods have made way for erections and dicks. A much more realistic reflection of contemporary language.

Some people think that reading the last page first is sacrilege. Do you?

I always read the last page. I  feel that “fairies must die” and have previously blogged about this.

Now about male leads. Why do we love rakes, rogues, cowboys, tycoons, sheikhs?

My favourite leads are Montana cowboys and the best friend/sibling’s best friend hook up. Journeys into someone else’s life, journey’s into a world quite foreign and the complete escape from the reality of our own lives. I tend to avoid romances set in Sydney and in Australia as I keep finding myself distracted by the setting of the book.

Kat, you said people get bored with just a kiss, but the obvious exception is Twilight. Can you discuss why it was successful?

As I haven’t read Twilight nor have I watched the movies I cannot answer this question. Though on a purely aesthetic basis – Team Edward.

Do you think romance has lost its stigma?

I think that some of the stigma associated with reading romance has dissipated for the following reasons.

1. Romance readers and romance publishers are leading the ebook revolution. This is acknowledged further by traditional book review magazines taking on romance reviewers.

2. The establishment of the International Association for the Study of Popular Romance and the Journal for Popular Romance have made inroads in bringing academic merit to the study of popular romance literature. Having been established for under 3 years it will be interesting the changes that will come forth over the next decade.

That said, there is still  a large amount of bias towards romance literature and a lot more work is needed from not only the reading and reviewing public but the publishers of romance, also.

What books would you suggest to a new romance reader?

My 1st question to the person venturing into reading romance would be: What do you normally enjoy and then I would select titles from there. I’m a strong believer in merging someone into a genre by using cross-over fiction titles though there are some definite titles that I never hesitate to recommend:

Agnes and the Hitman by Jennifer Crusie

A Matter of Class by Mary Balogh

How come book stores don’t have a romance section? Where can we buy romance?

Unfortunately, romance isn’t stocked in most bookstores because it relates back to the stigma question and bookstores don’t value their readers. I get my romance books from 2 sources Kmart/Target and from overseas. Either the Book depository or Amazon. I also get most of my books from the library but, it too, has it’s biases.

Fave authors? (the only one I answered on the night)

Vassiliki: Anne McAllisterJennifer CrusieVictoria DahlSusan Elizabeth PhillipsSuzanne BrockmannAnne Stuart, Rachel Gibson, Julie James and Melanie La’Brooy)

It was a very successful event and I feel it is apt that my moderator’s cherry was painlessly popped at a romance literature panel.