As we all know, trying to be cool is deeply un-cool. Anyone trying to get through to teenagers is basically navigating a minefield of deadly ‘lame’ to reach a tiny patch of solid gold ‘cool’.
You think you are doing so well and then, boom! You get some crucial vocabulary wrong (“Hey kids, I know you’re all on your ‘Spacebook’ and ‘Myface’, but check out this website about studying for exams!”) or something that was cool last week is now incredibly lame. Your credibility is in tatters!
Teenage trends come and go at a rapid pace. Library budget planning tends to work on an annual basis. For libraries in secondary schools this age group is our bread and butter, yet budgets are tight. Is it possible to keep up with the ‘latest thing’?
Last week a pupil came in after school, and headed to the same fiction section as always. When he emerged without a book I asked
“Did you not find a Doctor Who book?”
“I guess I’m just not interested in reading stories about David Tennant’s Doctor any more.”
Now, I’m known around school as a bit of Doctor Who geek. I tend to find out who the fans are. It’s a show that appeals across generations. But this fickleness took me by surprise. Of course it shouldn’t have done. David Tennant isn’t on our TV screens as the Doctor any more. He’s last year, he’s ancient history! David who?!
And yet my heart sank. I don’t have money for more Doctor Who books right now. I already have quite a few, is it really fair anyway to spend more on something only a few people really enjoy? How quickly are going to go out of fashion?
The same dilemma faces us everyday. High School Musical books are still popular right now, but for how long? Is Hannah Montana still cool? I bought so many copies of the Twilight Saga books the shelves are bursting, yet when another film comes out, interest surges and I can’t keep up with demand.
Popular culture resources might burn out fast but they burn bright – for a short time they are very popular. I try to balance cost against durability. Bargains are out there – discount bookshops, sales: I spotted WHSmiths were selling Twilight for £1 so stocked up; I buy Guinness World Record books in the sales instead of when they first come out. If they are cheaper, I can buy 2 or 3. The kids have to wait slightly longer but there are more to go around.
CILIP’s ‘Start with the Child’ report is one of those resources I go back to repeatedly. It puts into words things librarians instinctively knew, but backs it up with solid research. The report talks about “youth culture” as distinct from “culture” in general. Youth culture emphasizes music, fashion, consumer goods, technology and informality; it is fun, participative, well presented and accessible (cheap!). To meet the needs of this age group, libraries need to emulate these qualities. It recognises that this is challenging, and anticipating trends is difficult
“Libraries find it more difficult to respond with credibility to popular culture but ignoring it runs the risk of alienating young people”. (Page 64, CILIP, ‘Start with the Child’, London, 2002)
So we keep on trying in all areas: library appearance, planning, accessibility (avoiding use of charges, for example).
I don’t mean to say that we should only stock biographies of Justin Bieber – I think I could lend about 200 of those right now! Libraries need be places where people can access a wide range of cultural and literary resources. I also feel that the young people are pretty relentlessly advertised to, and that their choices can sometimes be based on which brands are cool, and wanting to be associated with that brand. Of course librarians don’t judge! But I think it is good to avoid getting too caught up in hype over a ‘brand’. Otherwise are we actually doing the work of the advertising agencies? Is that really offering children and young people a real choice?
Last week I tried a variation on Carel Press’s reading game. I always run this game as part of S1 Inductions where it is great because it works for all ability groups – just swap around the books you use. Last week, I did a version with an S2 class, in which every single book was a “classic”. My condition for including books in this exercise was that they had to have an attractive cover. New editions of Pride and Prejudice, Little Women, the Jungle Book, The Lost World etc, went down pretty well.
Obviously “classic” is a debatable term, and I did include some “modern classics”. But that meant we could have a class discussion about what makes a “classic”. We talked about films or TV adaptations; we looked at the few titles which were in older editions, chatted about what difference the cover makes. Funnily enough, no one borrowed an old edition at the end. So being ‘well-presented’ really works.
Maybe sometimes I try too hard. I was helping a pupil choose a book recently, and as I took one off the shelf to show him, it made that sticky peeling sound from when books in PVC covers have been sat squished together.
“Woah, that’s a really bad sign, no one’s borrowed that book for ages!” he said.
I was indignant! This was a Young Bond book, not some dusty old thing! But I did wonder…so later I spent a spare few minutes separating books to get rid of that ‘sticky’ sound. Of course when I tested them again a few days later the sticky sound was back….so now I know I can honestly say that doesn’t mean a book hasn’t been borrowed in ages. Or does a few days or weeks mean ‘ages’ if you are 11? Perhaps it does! Maybe eventually I should swap to another kind of cover…and so the struggle continues!
Back to the Doctor Who books: I know I shouldn’t, but I donated some of my own (like I said, I’m a fan!). They haven’t been borrowed by anyone yet. Epic fail??