Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The psychology of books

Books can be viewed as ‘objects’ or as ‘containers’. The first viewpoint sees books primarily as physical artefacts: objects that should be preserved and made available. The second claims that the physicality of books is incidental: that their main purpose is to be containers of information. This means that ebooks – a book without a physical component – are just as effective in this purpose. These represent two extremes on a spectrum and so the possibility is not excluded that one may appreciate the beauty of books while also believing that their primary purpose is to provide information.

The position that a person occupies on this book-value spectrum determines their behaviour towards books. I’ll illustrate this with an anecdote from work. 

The original Alice's Adventures Underground. A very beautiful book.

Last week, my library launched a book sale: partially to coincide with World Book Day and mostly because we had excess stock. After announcing the sale via email and a poster campaign, we immediately had an influx of users who only came in to look at the book sale and buy books. This included people who regularly use the library, people who don’t come in often, and – most interestingly – people who had never used the library before. I found it fascinating that people were so eager to buy old books even when surrounded by newer books that they could borrow for free (with no late fees). Buying a book seemed to have more value for some of these people than borrowing a book.

Librarians buy books and librarians cherish books. But in my experience, librarians also tend to be heavy library users. Personally, I find that borrowing a book has the same value as buying a book. Before I resort to buying a book, I will search the libraries of which I am a member. I will check to see if I can get the information or entertainment required for free before I’m willing to pay for it and – except in limited cases – I would rather borrow a book than buy it. 

So on the one hand, we have people who would rather buy books than borrow them. On the other, we have people (including many librarians) who would rather borrow a book than buy it. These behaviours in relation to books seem to link to the values expressed at the beginning of this post: those who would rather buy a book view books as objects – artefacts to be owned and kept – whereas those who would rather borrow a book view them as containers of information – once the information/entertainment has been gained, the book can be passed on or shared with others from a central repository. 

Part of the remit of librarians is therefore to change people’s psychology about books to change their behaviour towards books. If we move people from the ‘object’ end of the spectrum to the ‘container’ end, we thus encourage them to view libraries as repositories of information / knowledge / entertainment-experiences rather than repositories of physical books. This psychological shift is being helped by the rise of ebooks and digital commodities: these are ‘container’ mediums which exist for the purpose of passing along information. As someone who believes that librarians are the custodians of knowledge rather than the custodians of books, I would argue that this is a way libraries can evolve and survive in the long-term (50+ years). 

This leads into the topic of the role of libraries in the 21st Century: more has been written about this than I can encapsulate in a blog post. There are some great pieces on this topic: a Tame The Web post by Justin Hoenke, a The Unlibrary post by Chris Meade, and Phil Bradley’s  seminal piece on the subject of librarians and booksellers.


Lucile Deslignères said...

I do admit am a librarian who buys books...And put them on librarything. When I used to be unemployed or a student I used the library heavily, not much now.,also am so afraid of returning the books late...the shame ot woild be!

Simon Barron said...

That's fair enough: I buy loads of books and I use LibraryThing for any books I read. I just think that librarians perhaps have more of a propensity to borrow than some non-librarians.

I'm always a lot more cautious with books from libraries other than the one I work in. The prospect of real fines is too shameful!

Debby Raven said...

I'm interested to discover yet another skill for the librarian to acquire - to 'change people's psychology'! Difficult I would have thought. I think most people are in the middle of the spectrum, wanting to own some books and borrow others. For me this is partly for space reasons, partly 'green' issues - I don't want to contribute too much to wasting resources. It always puzzles me why public libraries don't capitalise on this aspect of the ethos of book loaning.