Respecting the Reader – Bob Usherwood (guest blog)

Bob Usherwood is Emeritus Professor, The University of Sheffield. He remains active in library affairs. He edits Post-Lib, a journal for retired librarians, chairs the SINTO Executive and is a member of several editorial boards including that for JOLIS. His latest book is Equity and Excellence in the Public Library. He was President of The Library Association in 1998. Before joining Sheffield, Bob was Chief Librarian in the London Borough of Lambeth. He also worked for Devon County Libraries, The London Boroughs of Havering and Sutton, and the Polytechnic of North London.

It may place me on the wrong side of current fashion, but I cannot agree with a recent suggestion that public librarians should concentrate ‘on current, popular books’ when considering expenditure on book stock. It is a policy that marks a sad return to that dire decade of the eighties when a combination of marketing speak and inappropriate management techniques seemed to result in what might be termed the Ratners school of public library stock management. “We know that it is rubbish but it is what the people want” appeared to be the governing philosophy. I expect those responsible for libraries to reject such philistine and patronising ideas and offer people a deeper and braver vision of the public library. I want them to counter the culture of ignorance because ignorance is the enemy of equity and the friend of prejudice. It excludes people from full participation in a democratic society. At a time when we can see all around us the dangers of a celebrity and consumerist culture public librarians have a responsibility to provide and promote more worthwhile material. They should seek to influence rather than slavishly follow populist trends. This is not, as some critics maintain, an elitist position but one that will increase people’s enjoyment and open up new opportunities and experiences. President Obama who has been critical of “a general culture that glorifies anti-intellectualism” told American librarians, “Children can’t achieve unless they raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white” (Obama 2005).

Good librarians raise expectations too. Simply stocking libraries with books that reflect the assumed tastes of the public at large is a condescending act and one that reinforces the shallow values of the market and the media. It is insulting to the intelligence of people from all kinds of backgrounds who are, as history shows, more than capable of enjoying works of excellence. In a democracy, the public library’s role is to provide equality of access to first-rate collections and services. These should support the vulnerable while satisfying and extending the able. Many examples of populism are essentially undemocratic. We live in a society where highly educated individuals supply the public with what they (i.e. the highly educated) decide people want. Think, for example, of those behind Big Brother, and similar televised trash. In the words of Jimmy McGovern, creator of The Street and, currently, Accused, “They have utter contempt for their audience. These executives don’t sit around and say, what kind of intelligent, informative thought provoking programmes would we like to watch? They think, what will the ignorant plebs that watch our channel want to see”. (In Martin, 2006). To paraphrase another dramatist, Arnold Wesker, public librarians should not just give people what they want – because they deserve better than that. We should respect the library audience and not treat users as if they had limited intellectual aspirations. We should encourage them to experiment and try some different and perhaps more difficult reading experiences.

Public librarians should be prepared, in all senses of that word, to select and manage their collections on the basis of professional decisions rather than simply on the back of some dubious marketing technique or mathematical formula. They must have the confidence to make judgements founded on their knowledge of their communities and the material available. To achieve this they will require education and training in collection development and stock management. They should be encouraged, indeed required, to read as part of their professional development. It has happened. For example, a few years ago, a promotion of literature course on Sheffield University’s Masters in Librarianship programme was attended by library staff from within our catchment area while more recently some library authorities have sent their staff on Literature Awareness programmes.

As the Con-Dem’s cuts begin to bite, librarians will be faced with the central dichotomy of value versus demand. Basically, do you spend limited resources on what people already know about or do you give them the opportunity to enjoy new and maybe more challenging material. To adopt the second approach is not to deny access to “popular books” but to recognize that it is also the role of the public library to enable the public to come into contact with the best. To give them the chance to sample works which may not be readily available elsewhere. These days, as a user of public libraries I am often surprised and sometimes annoyed when I am told that a major work from the past is not available – even from a reserve store. Recently, for example, I wanted to re-read the C. P. Snow, “Strangers and Brothers” series but found that only The Masters and one or two others were in the stock of my local library service. It is not just fiction that is treated in this way but drama and poetry and classic texts of all kinds.

Such matters become critical at a time of declining resources and philistine spending cuts. Librarians, who have been told to become more commercial, are in danger of responding to “wants” rather than “needs”. In building a library collection it is necessary to differentiate between the two and that is where the judgement of professional librarians is important. Those responsible for public libraries need to move away from the commercial approach that simply uses issue figures, or the lack of them, as a reason to buy or not to buy an item, or for that matter open or close a service point. In particular “classic” titles should not be judged by such criteria. For example I would expect to find a copy of Richard Hoggart’s Uses of Literacy in most library services. Moreover, I would hope that when new editions of such “classics” become available, as did Uses last year, they would be bought and displayed on the open shelves. You might want to check if that is the case with Hoggart’s masterpiece in your local library service.

It is pertinent to mention Hoggart in this context because he foresaw a time when, as is the case today organizations, such as, public libraries, would come under threat as public goods. Indeed, The Uses of Literacy remains generally relevant to our present concerns. It reminds librarians of their responsibilities and is applicable to the current debates about funding, literacy, commercialised culture, equity and the need for excellence. For example, relativism is a constant theme in Hoggart’s work. In The Uses of Literacy he writes of a society that has developed “the techniques of mutual indulgence and satisfied ‘ordinariness’. As traditional sanctions were removed or, in popular belief, proved irrelevant, so the popularisers with their great machines for persuasion occupied the open country left. They found their customers among all classes” (Hoggart 1963). Among these are librarians whom he later reminded “cannot escape the need to make judgments of quality” (Hoggart 1977).

The public library if it is to survive and remain true to its public purpose will need to protect and promote good writing, be it fact or fiction, and the provision of trusted and accurate information. In providing information and imagination services it will need to make available to all “the best that has been thought and said”. At a time when there is increasing concern about intergenerational fairness there is a danger that if public libraries only concentrate on the current and popular our children and grandchildren will be deprived of free access to their intellectual heritage. Future generations as well as the present will be victims of the spending cuts. If public librarians just focus on buying what people already know about it will work against the acquisition of high quality but less hyped work that will enrich public library collections and ultimately the readers and communities that use them. This is recognized by many who use libraries like the person who wrote: “Which books a library chooses is extremely important… quality means everything and quantity nothing. People must have what they want? Yes, but a balance must be struck and those who can discriminate mustn’t abdicate their responsibility”.

When, in an earlier life, I undertook some research on the value of library book lending many people told me that the provision of a wide range of material had encouraged them to experiment and take risks with their reading. It enabled them to develop and grow because in the words of one library user, “it is economical to try out books in the library. [People] are not wasting their money. They are safe to try out new books or authors.” Another said: “It broadens what you read, I’ve read new writers, I wouldn’t have done if I had to pay every time” (Toyne & Usherwood 2001). Visitors to public libraries have the right to expect collections of high quality material. The service should aim to guarantee diversity both in terms of its collections and the people it serves. Of course there is a balance to be struck and a good public library will include the best of the popular, and a comprehensive range of material that has stood the test of time. It will provide the opportunity for users to stumble across a material that will provide them with a rewarding read.

Decisions about the quality of library collections and materials are at the heart of the debate about the role and function of the public library service. Professionals, politicians and the public have to decide if they want to maintain public libraries as social institutions serving the public good or as quasi retail outlets that simply seek to maximise their market by simply responding to populist demands. To argue the case for the former is not to suggest that users should be faced with shelves of material that is unremittingly highbrow but that they should be given equality of access to collections of high quality. These need not be restricted to what is sometimes characterized as literary fiction or high culture. They can include popular novels along with the writings of ancient authors and the thoughts of sociologists, scientists and many others. They will be collections that are the result of properly funded and well founded policies and procedures that strike the right balance between value and demand. They will, in short, be collections that respect the abilities and aspirations of the reader.


Hoggart, R. (1963). The Uses of Literacy. London: Harmondsworth Penguin Books

Hoggart, R. (1977). “Books for the people”. Times Literary Supplement, 30 December, p. 1532.

Martin, L. (2006). “Cracker creator blasts ‘chav’ TV”. The Observer, 27 August, p. 5.

Toyne, J. & Usherwood, B. (2001). Checking the books. The value and impact of public library book reading. Report of a project funded by the AHRB Univ. of Sheffield. [CD format]

Obama, B. (2005). “Bound to the Word Guardians of truth and knowledge, librarians must be thanked for their role as champions of privacy, literacy, independent thinking, and most of all reading”. American Libraries Association. [Accessed 6 December 2010].

9 thoughts on “Respecting the Reader – Bob Usherwood (guest blog)

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  2. David McMenemy

    Excellent post from Bob, agree with every word. For those interested in more of his throughts on “The Uses of Literacy” he wrote an excellent review article on it for JoLIS last year, which is a terrific read:

    CILIP members should have access via the CILIP website.

    Also agree with John’s comments on season 4 of The Wire. As well as hammering home the importance of education, it’s also one of the finest missives I’ve ever seen on how bad performance measurement damages professions and the citizen.

  3. Ian Anstice

    Gosh, nice to see Bob is still going (Hi Mr Usherwood, remember me from the class of 1993/4?! ). Not sure if I agree with the selection policy though, as classics tend to have dire loans compared to the modern stuff and branches are demand-drive rather than librarian-driven. I always recommend “Ragged Trousered Philanthropists” though :-)

  4. john underwood

    Anyone who starts a sentence with ” In a democracy (like ours)….” nowadays is automatically talking rubbish, sorry

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  6. Christopher Pipe (@cplrc)

    I can imagine Mr Gove agreeing with these sentiments. Yet schools are permitted to function without either library or librarian, or indeed a local public library branch. The Philistines are not just at the gates, they have entered and taken control of many councils and some schools and (I suspect) a good many corridors in Whitehall.

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