Sunday, 6 January 2013

Sharing Knowledge - Volunteer Reader Development Training

Over the last year I have had the opportunity to be involved in many interesting projects within the Wiltshire Library Service. During the Autumn I received an email from our volunteer co-ordinator asking myself and a colleague to develop and roll out training at our volunteer aided libraries of which there are ten in Wiltshire. Twice a year volunteers are invited to a coffee morning with professional staff to receive training, it also provides a chance for feedback and dialogue between volunteers and staff. The training we were to provide was to enable the volunteers to confidently talk about books in the library and provide resources to help them improve their knowledge and help answer simple enquiries e.g. the next in a series or authors of the same genre.

Reader development has always been an area of interest to me but seems to be a dying part of library services in an age of technologies and budget cuts. This project gave me a chance to explore this area more thoroughly in order to provide insight on resources that could help volunteers when fielding enquiries and getting them involved in the idea of a “reader-centred library”, a phrase coined by Rachel Van Riel of Opening the Book notoriety. A couple of obstacles that we had to keep in mind were that not all training sessions were held in libraries and also that the number of volunteers that attended varied dramatically between five and twenty.

After an initial ideas session we came up with a basic format for the half an hour session. We wanted to keep it as informal and participatory as possible and so began with an icebreaker to get the participants talking about the books that they enjoy reading for the first five minutes with a chance for feedback to the group. Trying to stop this conversation in some libraries proved troublesome but at least we have enthusiastic volunteers! This then flowed into a conversation on why we as a library service value readers and the importance of being able to communicate this love with our readership... it reminds me of a phrase we used to use when I worked at Habitat which was “Our product is our passion”, cheesy but it gets the point across! We also felt it important to point out the difference on the way we work as oppose to bookshops. For instance we do not have multiple copies of bestsellers, forty copies of The Casual Vacancy were ordered in to satisfy a reservation list of nearly seventy over the thirty-five libraries in our county. It is not in our interest to buy multiple copies as a book shop would do but paying at 80p reservation charge is not as bad as paying £12.99 for a book you’ll only read once. So unlike book shops we rely on our customer service and other stock, not just best sellers, to keep our readership interested. We take into consideration our readership when ordering stock; we talk to them and display stock in such a way as to enable readers to explore new authors and genres.

The final part of the training was running through a list of resources found in the library both in hard copy and online which would help volunteers to help with reader enquiries and recommendations. Resources such as Who Else Writes Like, Fantastic Fiction, Books and Media and even Amazon which can help find authors and titles.

There was also the option of a practical exercise if time allowed and volunteers were enthusiastic which was a crate of books picked out for display with a couple of obvious stand outs e.g contemporary literature with a couple of aga sagas thrown in such as a Linda Page or an Emma Blair which would facilitate conversation about what is appropriate to display and how we put displays together. This could be seen to echo some of the frontline training provided by Opening the Book which was adopted by local authorities.

All the information communicated in the session was contracted into two easy to follow handouts and added to each of the volunteer libraries handbooks. There was a handout on resources and one with practical tips on book displays so volunteers went away with the information and those who were unable to attend coffee mornings did not miss out.

Due to staff and timing constraints I was only able to deliver the training in one venue but there was a group of four Librarians who delivered the training to the ten volunteer libraries, supported by the Community Librarian of that area. This went surprisingly well with a good discussion of reading habits and recommendations and the volunteers responded positively to the information they were given. From what I gather of the other training sessions this was true across the board but with the session only lasting half an hour and the mixture of people delivering the sessions were also unique to the volunteers that attended, making them more memorable.

This was a first for me in terms of devising and rolling out library training and it was good to have a group of experienced librarians to go to for advice and guidance. There was also the obstacle of producing this for an audience of volunteers who were not aware of library jargon especially when talking about concepts such as “reader-centred” libraries and explaining the key term of reader development. It also gave me the opportunity to work closer with other members of the library service who I may not necessarily see very often which will help me in future projects. I really enjoyed my time on this project and am glad that it was received in a positive light. Following the project through from inception to delivery took three months which meant balancing it with other core responsibilities which I felt I handled well and I look forward to the next opportunity.

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