Rachel is author of The Reader-friendly Library Service and Opening the Book-finding a good read. She designs training programs for library staff which have reached 20,000 people in three continents.

Rachel devised and managed the Stock Quality Health Check which evaluated the range and balance of adult fiction collections for the UK government. A keen follower of all things digital as well as print, Rachel runs the whichbook site to offer new ways for people to discover their next good read and to link to library catalogs. Rachel also designs and installs public and school library interiors; 2013 sees the installation of her first designs for university libraries.

Read more about how Rachel founded Opening the Book and why she believes libraries offer the best places for making space for reading below.

How I started and why I love working with libraries by Rachel Van Riel

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 oclock - 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 wasnt 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 Ive 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 UKs 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 UKs 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 youd 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 rachel@openingthebook.com

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