A Place for Children: Public Libraries as a Major Force in Children’s Reading

Stuart Hannabuss (The Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen)

Library Review

ISSN: 0024-2535

Article publication date: 1 July 2000




Hannabuss, S. (2000), "A Place for Children: Public Libraries as a Major Force in Children’s Reading", Library Review, Vol. 49 No. 5, pp. 252-260. https://doi.org/10.1108/lr.2000.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

This book has been needed for a long time, surveying and summarising what is going on in public libraries where children’s services are concerned and identifying key areas of future professional growth and research. It is based on research carried out in 1996‐1998, asking three questions: How do public libraries benefit children? What makes for an effective service?; and how do public libraries define and assess success? It looks mainly at England and Wales, though cross‐references are made at times to Scotland and Northern Ireland. A Place for Children, as well as being a book in its own right, is also British Library Research and Innovation Report 117.

The research/editorial team is strong and well recognised, Elkin and Ray Lonsdale (now Editor of The School Librarian) having edited the very useful sister publication Focus on the Child: Libraries, Literacy and Learning (Library Association Publishing, 1996); another contributor, Peggy Heeks, is also well known in the field, while Kinnell’s work on marketing and benchmarking is important. Overall it is a work well provided with bibliographical leads, excellent for anyone, practitioner or researcher or student, wanting to get quickly up to date with what is being published in the UK. It is aware of all the key trends – policy, education, literacy, information and communications technology, special needs, professional training – and these are emphasised at the end, along with more longitudinal and impact studies, as being critical areas for further research.

There are no surprises in the range of contents: context, public library role, client groups, collection development, promotion, performance. There are workmanlike chapters on all of them, supported by up‐to‐date references. With all the changes and challenges it is no surprise to read that services are uneven and that, despite an increasing emphasis on quality and rising borrowing figures among children, specialist materials spending for children and young people is down. This will be familiar to anyone who has read the surveys from LISU (the Library Statistics and Information Unit at Loughborough University, where Claire Creaser has done substantial work; she also contributes to A Place for Children).

Few public libraries appear to have written collection development policies; two‐thirds did not currently use an OPAC in this area; more attention was needed on developing selection criteria for electronic and Internet‐related resources; 42 percent provided CD‐ROMs; and some activities were widespread (visits from institutions, storytelling, exhibitions and bookmarks), and some less so (IT provision/support, reading groups, information skills programmes, and language user groups). While wanting to support reading generally, most did not see their role as providing reading skills as such. The decline in specialist children’s staff, and in specialist training, appeared to be inhibiting their effectiveness.

Particularly useful for someone wanting to get the measure of the book quickly is Elkin’s summary, picking up on role, audience, management, and partnerships (there are more and more of these with corporate, educational and other organisations). Research reveals that more links with national initiatives would help, as would more literacy support, more strategic planning, more Internet access – in a word more research. As a signpost, then, the book is very useful. As a piece of research it has some idiosyncracies of its own: a long and fascinating statistical appendix which, apart from the section on promotion, receives scant explicit attention in the main text; a hare set running in special needs provision but never coherently developed; and, probably in the desire to write clear report‐style chapters, some oddly arranged material.

Some of the difficulties are almost inevitable: the discussion about how – and whether – to apply performance indicators to children’s services will run and run; the survey evidence (there was a 76 percent response rate) is at times substantial and precise, while at others just anecdotal. It is not wholly clear who this book/report is for: some of the critical issues (strategic planning, Internet access, performance indicators) are really for senior managers, although I believe the main readership for this book (along with the inevitable student) will be middle and junior managers spinning the plates.

There is a long way to go and times are difficult. There is a lot emanating from policy‐makers but a knowledge gap, for professional watchers, between them and what goes on on the ground. A Place for Children has started to bridge the gap, and about time. We seem to be looking for ever higher quality in an age of cuts, and that is never easy. The answers to the three questions at the start of this review are, probably: “yes”; “lots of things, some of which could be done a lot better”; and “up to a point”. So, there is further to go, and no doubt other things in the pipeline from this research team will provide more answers.

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