SYP Scotland event: Libraries in the Publishing Sphere

Posted on July 30, 2019 in Scotland

For SYP Scotland’s predictably bookish July event, we decided to explore the relationship between libraries and publishing houses. This relationship is a complex one, and varies from library to library, and publisher to publisher. To guide us through the “lovely web” of it all, we were joined by Kirstin Lamb, Senior PR and Rights Manager at the wonderful Barrington Stoke; Hannah Mateer, Head of Collections Services at the University of Edinburgh Library; and Sarah Barnard, former librarian and publisher, and current SYP Scotland Co-Chair and Bookseller at the Portobello Bookshop. The conversation was chaired by our own Rebecca Wojturska, Co-Chair of SYP Scotland alongside Sarah, and on the journals team at Edinburgh University Press.

The discussion began with a look at each of our panellists’ interactions with librarians as publishers, and vice versa. The extent to which this varies was clear from the offset. Barnard didn’t interact with ‘the other side’ at all as a librarian nor as a publisher, despite “having written a dissertation on the fact that [they] should”. Lamb, however, works very closely with librarians, describing them as the “gatekeepers” of what publishing houses have to offer. They are on the front lines of public demand, and perfectly placed to feed this information back to the publisher, letting them know what’s striking a chord and what isn’t. This is mirrored by Mateer’s experience as an academic librarian, where the need to satisfy public demand is so great that students are seen as customers of the library; if a book is requested, the library will do their absolute best to purchase it. Mateer noted that publishers would do well to make use of this cyclical curation of content by marketing their books directly to the students. Hint hint.

Needless to say, we all love a library. They provide us with free access to thousands of books, they help to build a sense of community, and, among myriad other things, they are an excellent place to foster literacy in even the most reluctant of readers. This is a huge part of Kirstin Lamb’s job in her work with Barrington Stoke, a publisher of dyslexia-friendly books. In working closely with librarians, Barrington Stoke ensures that their books are presented to the public in a sensitive, accessible, and welcoming manner. They also get feedback on their books directly from readers through the Young Editors Scheme, which is usually run through school libraries and gives children access to books pre-publication, a treat which really “switches on reluctant readers”. Hearing about these huge benefits that Barrington Stoke get from working directly with librarians, it’s easy to see why Barnard considers it a “missed avenue” that library assistants tend to have less of a say in selecting stock than suppliers, who are much farther removed from the public.

Libraries are continually expanding not just the amount, but also the format of content they offer to the public. We’ve revolutionised from physical books and cassettes to downloadable eBooks and audiobooks, and some publishers are moving with the curve. Wojturska mentioned Canongate in particular, who have partnered with audio publisher Bolinda to get their audiobooks into libraries. Lamb would love to see Barrington Stoke follow this example, while Barnard, from a consumer perspective, would love libraries to develop a more streamlined way of accessing audiobooks than the three-platform minefield that is the current standard. It seems that a push in digital accessibility and more engagement by publishers could really increase the popularity of these nifty new digital resources.

Throughout this conversation, it was made clear that publishers and libraries would mutually benefit from more engagement with each other, but how can they make this happen? Mateer pointed out that publishers could think more about the kinds of markets academic libraries have within universities, for example the push to diversify library collections by supporting Black History Month, Pride, etc.; it’s not all about lit crit and molecular biology. There is also a UK-wide sense of community that exists in libraries that the much more insular publishing industry would do well to engage with. This could be as simple as holding more book events in libraries, pointed out Barnard; after all, an author might love the occasional jaunt to Chichester, or perhaps Orkney. Above all, Mateer believes that the best way forward is for people invested in libraries to “keep demanding more change”; libraries and publishers exist to provide literature to the public, and the more support and appreciation that we show, the more innovation will follow.

By Kirsten Knight, SYP Scotland Shadow Panel Coordinator

Image: University of Aberdeen library, credit Neil Grindley via