Close reading III: The reader-friendly library service

Open book

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Chapter three: Reader-friendly environments

This chapter outlines library environments and how we might think we are making them reader-friendly while we are in fact doing the opposite. This chapter made me smile to myself a bit – as I think many school libraries fall into the traps discussed. I know I will be looking at my school library with fresh eyes tomorrow!

On entering any new space, 80% of the impression we carry thereafter is based on what we see immediately. In the case of libraries, the view is often dominated by security barriers and the main counter, after which there is no real focus, just rows of similar looking shelves, crammed into the space.

After reading this (page 83) I thought the authors must have visited my library without me knowing! This is just about a perfect description of it. While in the short term there is not a lot I can do about security gates and fixed shelving, there are some things I can alter at little or not cost. It also provides a lot of food for thought for our future library rebuild.

Negative notices are part of a policed environment. They set up a relationship of censure and anticipate bad behaviour before its occurred.

This (page 94) is one of my pet peeves about school libraries – they are places of “NO”. I removed most of these notices when I started in my library but a couple have remained – and it is totally for the purpose the authors’ identified (so I can point to it and say “See?”). I’m going to remove them first thing tomorrow. The signs are to remind students there is no eating, but as they are not supposed to eat in any of the school buildings they are really surplus to requirement.

Public libraries have a tendency to undersign globally and oversign locally…[there is a] real lack of directional signs – Fiction, Internet, Children -…[until] they get to the shelves [where] they will find that individual books can have as many as three or four different labels on the spine.

I chuckled at this (page 98). I’ll admit that our library has terrible global signage but I ditched genre labels a few years ago – pretty much when everyone else was ramping them up as they genrefied their collections. And at the beginning of this term, inspired by Miriam Tuohy (and a Rachel van Riel video), I ditched call number labels on our fiction stock.

As the authors point out, the labels are usually there for library staff but they are justified as being there to help readers. Surely being able to see the title and author clearly on the spine helps the readers more? Another objection to the genre labels is that often the designs don’t look that good and can be confusing (do students even know what a deerstalker hat is? Or what the castle signifies?). The authors have a great suggestion if you really must have a category label to help staff – put it somewhere discreet, like inside the book.

Most customers don’t want to understand the systems, they just want to find their type of book easily…Wanting customers to understand can be about self-justification rather than empowerment.

These statements (page 102) are more clear cut for public libraries, but the lines are a bit more blurry for those of us working in school libraries – we are in the business of education too. However, I think we do need to question our motives about why we continue to do things at times. Stubbornly sticking to Dewey at primary level because “they need to know how to use it in secondary” could be counterproductive. As long as students can see there is a system for organising books, and have the confidence to explore it, search it or ask for help, do whatever works for your community of users.

Actions arising from this chapter:

  • Gather data for missing books to ascertain whether security gates are worth the cost
  • Remove extraneous signage and spine labels
  • Investigate smaller issues counter at low / no cost


Riel, R. V., Fowler, O., & Downes, A. (2008). The reader-friendly library service. Newcastle upon Tyne: Society of Chief Librarians.


2 thoughts on “Close reading III: The reader-friendly library service

  1. Getting rid of our security gates was a great move – I felt having them there was not creating an environment of trust, plus the amount we spent on security strips was a serious amount of $$$. It’s more positive to try and encourage people to do the right thing, rather than constantly trying to warn them against doing the wrong thing.

    Liked by 1 person

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