Today I’m delighted to welcome Liz Gardner, Stock, Services and Activities Officer for Burton upon Trent public library in Staffordshire.
Hello and welcome, Liz. First of all, many congratulations on winning Librarian of the Year in the RNA’s Publishing Industry Awards 2020. Could you start by telling us how you came to be such a proactive supporter of the Romance genre and of the RNA in particular?
Thank you. It’s a great honour and I still can’t quite believe I have been lucky enough to win such a prestigious award.
As a librarian I embrace all genres and reading choices, but feel romance has been something of an underdog, with the breadth and depth of the genre and the high quality of the writing not always being appreciated.
As a teenager, I was told by my local librarian that all romantic novels were pulp fiction written in ‘purple prose’ and only read by those incapable of reading ‘proper books’. As a massive fan of historical romances at the time, I faced an intellectual crisis—I loved Hemingway, Proust and Dostoevsky with as much passion as I adored the doyens of romance such as Woodiwiss, de Blasis and Howatch and suddenly it seemed that I had to choose between them. That legacy has led me to encourage everyone to read what they enjoy, not what they are told to read or think they should be reading.
When I started working with the RNA in 2019 on how Staffordshire Libraries could support your 60th anniversary celebrations, I realised there is still a lot of work to do around challenging the stereotype of the genre and its readers and raising the profile of its authors and their fabulous work. I like a mission!
Thank you for being our ambassador! I understand you organise author events for the library. Could you tell us what this involves and have any romance writers come your way lately—or at least when times were more normal?
Part of my role is organising events and activities at the library to link with Libraries’ Connected Universal Library Offers calendar and the needs of the local communities our libraries serve. We don’t have a budget for this so everything has to be done through maximising the talents and abilities of our staff and volunteers, networking with community partners, publishers and cultural organisations and enabling creative people to showcase what they do. Across the County, the library service delivers everything from baby bounce sessions for families to work clubs, digital support, social and wellbeing groups and Lego and Code clubs.
Burton Science Fiction and Fantasy Conference is definitely one I have missed organising this year with local dystopian author, Angeline Trevena. It’s always such a fantastic, joyful event and we get over 1,500 people coming along on the day. Unfortunately, the pandemic has put a stop to physical events for now, but in the past 12 months we have reached almost 1.5 million people on Facebook and had over 9.7 million impressions on Twitter.
In the first lockdown, I set up a Book Chat group through Staffordshire Libraries’ Facebook page to support individuals and reading groups who were missing physical events. We now have over 380 members. As part of Book Chat my colleague, Hilary Riley, and I run a monthly evening interview session with an author. We’ve been delighted with the response and the support of publishers, agents and organisations, including the RNA and CWA. Our average audience is 96 which is far higher than we would usually get for a physical evening library event and audience numbers for a single event have gone as high as 184. Yes, RNA authors are very much involved; Joanna Toye was our guest in December and we had an exciting Valentine’s Special panel event on 14th February featuring Elaine Everest, Kitty Wilson, Kim Nash and Linda Tyler.
My own local library in North Yorkshire, as for quite a number in Staffordshire, has only survived by becoming community run and I’m one of a substantial team of trained volunteers who keep it going—so I’m well aware of how essential IT skills are to do the job. As a career librarian, what are the main changes you’ve experienced during your years in the role?
Well first I would like to say thank for volunteering at your library and to all the volunteers who do so throughout the country, especially in these challenging times. Your contribution, not just through the time you give to libraries but also through your skills, ideas, community engagement and sheer passion are an inspiration. You are a vital part of library services and we couldn’t do it without you!
I was a teacher before I became a librarian so technology has always been an interest. There have been huge digital changes over the years, including self-service kiosks and e-libraries. The push towards ‘digital first’ services is often more efficient but it also excludes whole chunks of society. Lockdown has highlighted what people who work with communities have known for years, that many people, regardless of their age, are not ‘tech savvy’. Digital exclusion through poor literacy, lack of comprehension, confidence or access to the internet are huge barriers in our society. Libraries have an important role in providing free access to computers and training in their use.
Given that not everyone can access online facilities to cope with lockdown, we’ve provided more telephone services, such as Reading Friends launched by the Reading Agency. There’s a recognition that physical engagement is vital to our communities and that, going forward, we need to blend physical and online provision to offer something to everyone.
Your job title includes the word stock. How do you decide what to add to the shelves and and what to remove?
The majority of our stock is purchased centrally through ‘supplier selection’. We have automatic orders for any new book published by a popular author and regularly review the the authors on that list. Librarians also have some local budget allowing discretion in stock choices. In some communities ‘Scandi crime’ is very popular but in others it’s sagas that issue best. Unfortunately, we can’t afford to stock all the books and authors we’d like to, so decisions are based on what we feel will issue best. I also have the great pleasure of overseeing the Reading Group Service for the county, including purchasing the stock for Reading Group sets of books, largely chosen by the Reading Groups themselves.
As with all library authorities, we have a Stock Policy which is reviewed regularly. It sets out guidelines for purchasing and stock maintenance, for example how long we keep books on the shelf before we remove them. We regularly weed out books which are tatty, yellowed, damaged or just not being borrowed anymore. The weeded books get sent to our recycling partners or we hold local book sales. An average novel gets borrowed around 50 times in its ‘lifetime’, so they are well-used!
Could you describe some of the promotional displays you’ve organised for Romance?
I encourage staff and volunteers to mix up displays rather than make them genre specific. If you showcase romance stock around Valentine’s Day or horror books coming up to Halloween, stock might be un-borrowed (or ‘dead’ as we call it!) for the majority of the year. Instead we might display stock with red covers and include fiction, non fiction and audio books of all genres, so there is something to interest all potential borrowers. We do create award-specific or celebrity book club displays, such as the RNA shortlist or the Richard and Judy winter choices, to draw them to library users’ notice.
Those of us who write romance are well aware that readers vary in what they expect or want from a romance novel, from a sweet, traditional HEA ending (implying nothing shown beyond the bedroom door), to more graphic sexual content and even violence. Do you arrange your Romance stock in this regard so a customer can search on the right shelf? And does the County have any limits in terms of what you might not wish or be permitted to stock?
Every library does things slightly differently. Libraries need to be ‘user-friendly’ and that means shelving stock where borrowers will find it most easily. At Burton Library, we have a section for sagas and romance just like we have a section for crime and thrillers, but everything is shelved alphabetically by the authors’ last name and we don’t segregate books according to the level of their content; it’s up to borrowers to look at the book cover and blurb and make the decision for themselves about whether it’s for them or not.
In terms of what we stock or don’t, public libraries are inclusive and aim to not exclude stock on moral, political, religious, racial or gender grounds. Only once in my career have I refused to stock a book on the grounds that it might cause offence.
Diversity and inclusion are high on the agenda for the RNA, as for many other organisations and I gather your library serves a culturally diverse community. How do you cater for the whole range of customers so that all feel welcome and can find something they want on the shelves?
Public libraries are inclusive by default and that makes us extremely special.
In terms of stock, providing fiction that shows culturally diverse characters and/or are written by authors from different cultures is one aspect; providing stock in different languages is another. In the past it was quite a challenge to find books that showed cultural diversity but that’s not so much the case today, although I think more still needs to be done on that front.
If you consciously go out of your way to provide cultural diversity in your stock, I feel you’re already doing it wrong. I have never thought for example, ‘I’d better buy the International Booker Prize shortlist because it’s culturally diverse’. I get the books on our shelves because they are brilliant books by talented authors and I feel they will issue well to the broadest range of our library users. Books in different languages are another matter; we stock picture books in dual languages e.g. English and Farsi, for families to enjoy. We also have a free request service for books in other languages in partnership with Wolverhampton Libraries who hold a large collection of suitable stock.
I see Burton Library is no stranger to awards. Congratulations to your Reading Group Service on winning a CILIP Marketing Excellence Award in 2019. Could you tell us more about the initiative that won the award? (CILIP is the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals)
Thank you. The initiative was Burton Bedtime Stories. I planned it in partnership with the local Children’s Centre to encourage families to read with their children. Celebrities reading stories was big on TV at the time and feedback from local parents suggested they felt inadequate in comparison and were put off reading with their children. We recruited ordinary local people to read children’s picture books to camera and the videos were released one a night on Facebook in the two weeks running up to Christmas 2018. The majority of the volunteers had never done anything like that before but we were very lucky to have filming and editing help from Dan Wareing—a student then volunteering with us, who now works for BBC Radio—who made the whole process very simple and put everyone at ease. The volunteers told us they found it an inspirational project to be part of and we had an amazing community response, with people borrowing the books from the library to read along with their children at home whilst watching the videos. Because the videos featured familiar faces from their own community, they made parents and carers realise they were good enough to read to their children and were now sharing a bedtime story with their kids every night. Because of demand, we went on to make two more series of Burton Bedtime Stories during 2019 which also did extremely well. The last twelve months have seen an explosion in online storytelling but in 2019 that wasn’t the case and the project made a big difference in encouraging reading, not just in Burton but across the whole county.
What a great way to build confidence and promote family time! Perhaps I could finish by asking you a little about yourself. What else do you like to read (if you have time!)? And would you ever have a go at writing something yourself? If so, what would it be?
Historical is my favourite romance genre. I am constantly reading. My teetering ‘to read’ pile by my bed includes everything from children’s picture books to the latest popular non fiction. I feel it’s part of my job to read a lot, otherwise how can I enthuse library staff, volunteers or customers about books?
Yes, I’m always writing. It’s been something I’ve done my whole life. I can’t help it. My latest opus is a gritty time-slip reincarnation saga set between the early Roman Empire (which I used to lecture on when I was teaching) and the 1980s. So if any publishers are interested…!
Good luck with placing it and thank you so much for sparing time from your incredibly busy sounding role to talk us.
You can find Liz at:
Liz was talking with Susan Leona Fisher: (Website: http://www.SLFisherAuthor.co.uk)