I started out in adult education and the Open University, sharing my passion for literature with people who had missed out
at school for various reasons. Then I worked in community arts, using drama, writing and visual arts to express the experience
of people who had not had much chance to have their voices heard. From there I got a job with a library service and discovered
the perfect context for the work I wanted to do. I spent the first 6 months trying to turn the 37 libraries in my area into mini-arts
centres because that was what I knew about. Gradually it began to dawn on me that was a mistake. The libraries already had an
audience which was far bigger than any arts centre. Thousands of people came every day but they did not come for a performance
at 7 o’clock - they came from early in the morning to late at night, they came when they wanted to and on their own terms. What
could we offer to extend and deepen this experience? How could we engage our customers more actively without losing the key
library strengths of acceptance of everyone and independent use?
With imaginative colleagues and a visionary boss, I began to explore how to help libraries move from passive provision into more active
promotion. Over a few years we produced a strong body of work which caught national attention. Our festival of reading and writing was
the first to give prominence to readers as much as writers (the writers loved this, of course) and changed the face of literature festivals
in the UK. Partnerships with arts funders, publishers and booksellers saw libraries taking their rightful place in the cultural landscape
instead of being overlooked by other cultural organisations. And then – as happens – the city I was working in overspent on other budgets
and ran into financial difficulties. Non-essential posts were cut back, budgets reduced, talented staff sought jobs elsewhere. By this
time I had a husband and a small child so moving wasn’t easy.
So I went freelance. I took the ideas I had tried with one library service to others and developed them further. And gradually, a wave
of energy built up, locally, regionally, nationally. Library staff at all levels responded to our ideas with such energy and imagination – it
was like a waterfall of pent-up creativity being released. I recruited other staff to help run our training programmes and found myself
running a company. I never planned to run my own business but I’ve found the whole process fascinating and am now a sucker for management
and business books just as much as for fiction!
I was fascinated by the methods of Paco Underhill, the great American retail research guru, and our company trained library staff in the UK
to use observation to understand more about their customers. In 2001 I made a new partnership with Helen Thomas who brought a wealth of experience as
head of marketing for one of the UK’s major bookselling chains. Together we looked at what libraries could learn from retail, and tested how successful retail
ideas could be adapted to work for libraries. We brought in the UK’s best bookstore designers and challenged them to work with us to create furniture which
would exploit library strengths.
Opening the Book is now 21 years old and our work is well-known in Scandinavia and Australia as well as the UK. We run whichbook.net, one of the most
successful book choosing sites in the world, in tandem with public libraries. Our web expertise helped a lot when we took our training programmes online
and made courses which offer practical and fun learning experiences with lots of human interaction. Our work is grounded in ongoing relationships with
library staff and library patrons; this is the starting point for furniture designs, promotional packages and whole library interiors.
I am passionate about promoting reading and promoting libraries. I travel a lot to speak at conferences as our ideas take off internationally; in the last
6 months I have spoken in Amsterdam, Dublin, Brussels, Oslo, Paris, Milan, Warsaw and, of course, at ALA in Anaheim last June.
Over the next nine months, I will be writing a regular web column on Making Space for Reading for Brodart. If you’d like to
debate the ideas, or make suggestions for what you think will work best in your libraries, please do send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org