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Publishers & Librarians: Two Cultures, One Goal

May 3, 2009

Barbara Fister, Librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, and author of In the Wind writes in the latest issue of Library Journal:

For two professions so committed to meeting the needs of readers, publishers and librarians have distinct cultures. Put simply, one culture is all about developing and selling books; the other is about sharing them and fostering a culture of reading. But there’s another basic difference, too. Publishers work closely with authors and use sales figures to tell them what readers want, interpreting those figures like tea leaves. Librarians work closely with readers, using them as informants to help them select books that will satisfy the diverse tastes of a community.

Libraries are far more than a market, however. Libraries create readers. They are the test bed, the petri dish for books, a place where people can discover a passion for reading as children and indulge it as adults and where passionate readers can sample new authors. Librarians are the ultimate handsellers of books (though they call it readers’ advisory), and increasingly they put their considerable technical skills into making library web sites rich interactive social networks for book lovers.

Librarian Shushing © Tom Grill/Corbis

Librarian Shushing © Tom Grill/Corbis

The next person who tells me, “Gee, I wish I could read books all day at my job,” is going to get a punch in the nose, seriously. (Haha, that’s a good one – I get that too! And the next part is absolutely true.)

People seem to think I spend my time shelving books, except when I’m shushing people. They don’t realize how much planning goes into the workings of a library, how much technology know-how is required, or that I have to keep on top of a gazillion forthcoming books to make sure we have what our patrons want, cataloged and shelf-ready before they know they want it.

Though publishing and librarianship may have different cultures, we have a common goal. S.R. Ranganathan put it in a nutshell with two of his famous rules: every reader his book; every book its reader. In an era when publishing opportunities have proliferated and the number of titles being published has skyrocketed, libraries rely on professionals who can do the painstaking work of developing quality books. In turn, publishers need librarians, who help spark a love of reading among children, sustain it through the stages of life, and know what’s important to readers.

Though book sales have slumped in recent months, library circulation is soaring. If publishers didn’t get the importance of libraries before, now’s the time to get the message, because it’s in libraries that book culture will be sustained through these hard times.

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