I’ve been working as a Library Assistant for six months now. I had imagined that my bookselling knowledge would easily transfer to library work and it’s true that my customer service skills have helped, but that’s about it. Of course I’m still handling books all workday long. l unpack books, shelve books, find books. These things are similar and yet not at all the same. Other skills have been needed. The library wonderfully provides up to two hours free internet access for all users each day and I gladly assist people to use computers. People also need a lot of help with photocopying (which was unexpected and my heart sinks when they ask how to enlarge and scan and so on; I’m getting there though.) Often people want someone to chat to while they collect their Blue Badge, or drop off their borrowed books. Many times customers come in hesitantly and ask questions. It’s so good to be able to find them answers and see them leave the library satisfied. From Baby Rhyme Time to Knit and Natter groups the library service offers something for everyone. It’s a remarkable thing and vital as libraries provide equal access to information for all. I am proud that I am playing my own tiny part in it. You can sense a but though, right?
But, it’s a really big reality check for a book snob like me. Contemporary literary fiction is my thing. I read it, write it, review it, discuss it. For years I sold it. My social media feeds are full of likeminded people. I read broadsheet reviews. I have writer and bookseller friends with whom I chat about books. Sometimes it’s easy to believe literary fiction is as important to everyone as it is to me and I have to remind myself that it’s not. For every person that used to come into the bookshop looking for the latest literary must-have there was a customer proudly stating they never read at all. Hey, I have pals who aren’t into books. I’m married to a man who only reads graphic novels. It’s not how I judge people, but it is something I’m deeply passionate about. I thought that my years of working in the fiction section at Waterstones would be invaluable in recommending books to library users and helping them find what they want. In the six months I’ve worked in the library I have not needed this knowledge. Firstly, people don’t seem to ask for recommendations often. I suppose when you’re not paying for the book there’s less at stake. The library demographic in this county seems to be overwhelmingly children and old people. There are far fewer teenagers through to people maybe in their late 50’s. All the stereotypes that I try to avoid are true; the older women like sagas and romances and the men like crime novels. The latest Peter James novel is the book that’s had the biggest interest and people jostled for places on the reservations list. There is literary fiction available, but it doesn’t get out so much. I have awkward conversations about books with colleagues. They ask if I’ve read XYZ and I have not. I would not. I don’t want to be this awful judgmental bitch, but oh wow, there’s a lot of frothy shite being read. And that’s absolutely fine, isn’t it. We all like what we like. I do miss shiny, new fiction and go to Waterstones and lovingly tidy the tables, patting the delicious litfic, reassuring myself.
What it says to me as a writer is interesting. I worried initially that it meant there simply isn’t a demand for litfic, but now I think it’s likely that readers of this style of fiction are bookshop buyers rather than library users, as I was for years. A library will source whatever book it’s asked for, if it can, so I assume nobody is asking. Of course on the shelves you can find good quality novels, I’m not saying they aren’t there, however, they are nowhere near as popular as I imagined. I have tried adding them to displays to see if they get checked out as a consequence and maybe one or two have, but overwhelmingly the preference is clear. This may only be true of my area; I’m working in small village libraries, not city ones.
And of course I’m well aware that fiction is fiction and to label something as commercial fiction/genre fiction/literary fiction isn’t always helpful, but my preference is for quality literary fiction and as my husband said when I discussed it with him and called myself a snob because I don’t read the books my colleagues have mentioned to me, “It’s like someone assuming you’d like a Boyzone song because you told them you like music.”
Anyway, libraries, whoo, excellent places and it’s great to enjoy my job and get to feel all glowy from being helpful, I just won’t expect to have a conversation about the fiction I adore.