One Big System, Many Small Disappointments



In the evaluation process the librarian will analyze the major aspects of the work in question as they would do with any other material being considered for purchase. However, some aspects may take on a higher relevance or be viewed in a different perspective when purchasing for the adult new reader than the general library user.
* * *
How a book looks may be the determining factor in the adult new reader's decision to read a book or not. Layout and format make a difference. Is the cover visually appealing? Are these adult oriented illustrations?

"Collection Development", Reference Services Today, p. 117
Katz, Katz, & Fraley (1986)


I was annoyed to see a children's book shelved in my local public library's adult learner collection.

I was also discouraged to see a couple of dozen books written about and for high-school kids - books I'd suggested be removed some months ago.

* sigh*

Look. I know this won't seem like a big deal to most people. But it's a problem because it signals a weakening in my community's ability to support adult learners.

I've been reserved in my comments about the library's recent support of adult and family literacy, mostly out of respect for the several staff members who have been friends of literacy since long before I became involved in this work. In the past, the library did a good job of managing what money and staff resources it could afford to direct into its literacy collection. It did a good job of talking with the literacy field about appropriate ways to support adult learners and facilitators. It has been an active and valuable partner in many worthwhile literacy initiatives. Among other things, this climate of cooperation and partnering helped the library create a space and collection that reflected many adult learning principles and literacy best practices.

But recently, something happened. There was a large investment of provincial money and the creation of a dedicated adult-learning staff position. Since then, paradoxically, the library has... done less well.

The source of the problem may be an increased involvement of the provincial bureaucracy. Certainly, there has been political interference. The most obvious example may have been when more than $10,000 worth of books were purchased for adult learners' use, and then warehoused for several months. Only when the government minister felt it was politically expedient to "announce" the purchase, were these books finally released to the public.

But there are other, less obvious signs that some of the library's former flexibility and responsiveness are being smothered by red tape and top-down management - the triumph of accountants and managers over librarians.

So, for example, the staff responsible for the library's literacy-support work, including purchasing decisions, is different from the staff members who determine the reading level and shelving details of books in the adult learners collection. Yet a third group of staff actually interact with learners and facilitators; dealing with queries, check-outs and returns. These are all smart, kind-hearted people. But good-intentions don't prevent the mislabeling of reading levels or the mis-assessment of fines. (To encourage reading, it was decided patron's would not be charged late fees for adult learning materials. But, the computerized system records a fine nonetheless, and circulation staff only sometime catch this mistake. They've never caught it in my case. I always have to point it out - something the target adult-learner population is unlikely to do.)

As I said above, the library has been a friend of literacy work, and I'm not interested in complaining just to complain. There's a point I want to make. Actually, there are three points:

Big systems sometimes work poorly at the local level. Big systems are commonly cumbersome and inefficient, when not completely ineffective. And big systems, with big budgets, always suffer the meddling of the people on top.

I said that there's been a weakening in my community's ability to support adult learners. I don't mean that we are somehow threatened by the presence of one or more inappropriate books in the adult learner collection. I mean we are threatened because a large system, designed to serve the needs of the provincial bureaucracy and elected representatives, has been imposed on and supplanted a local system that was more effective and more flexible.

That's something to think about the next time you're part of a conference or conversation where someone says we need better coordination and more government funding in literacy.

My province's government directed more money and coordination into print resources for adult learners. Now, for the first time in the 10 years I've used this resource, there are kids' books being shelved in the adult learner collection.


Oxford children's dictionaries and thesauruses have been conceived and put together specifically for children and the school curriculum. Oxford does not publish cut-down versions of adult dictionaries for kids, but rather considers the way in which they use dictionaries and the way in which they process language. Advanced children and young adults might find a larger dictionary with more coverage and adult conventions suitable for their needs. For most children (ages 14 and younger), however, it is essential that they have a children's dictionary and thesaurus that is accurately matched to their needs.
Oxford Children's Thesaurus Publisher's blurb


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