Lorna Roberts considers some questions raised by the Bookmaster holiday reading scheme for teenagers.
Over the years Westminster City Libraries has gradually built up a summer holiday programme which includes activities sessions, and two reading schemes. The Bookworm Reading Scheme started in 1975. Aimed at encouraging children to read throughout the holidays, it is devised to meet the needs of all age groups and all reading abilities. From this developed the Bookmaster scheme in 1978. Young people of eleven to eighteen are invited to join the scheme and work for a Certificate which requires them to read four books from a select list and write reports on the books. Publicity encourages teenagers to join the scheme and offer their opinions on books so that the library can provide the kind of books they enjoy reading.
The information gained from Bookworm and Bookmaster has revolutionised staff thinking on book selection, and is leading us to re-examine accepted ideas and to question the organisation of libraries. Bookmaster also offers us the possibility of research into the reading preferences of a large group of teenagers. They register at one of the eight libraries in the scheme and, as they come from all over Westminster, and London generally, and attend a wide range of schools, they represent a varied sample of readers. There is also no chance of one librarian or one teacher influencing the opinions of the group. A detailed report on the 1980 scheme is currently being prepared for publication. Based on an analysis of some nine hundred reports, certain trends emerge and some points which need discussion and further investigation.
Bookmasters need to be competent readers. It is generally assumed that competent teenage readers will be able to use their libraries and select books they will enjoy. Yet for many participants the pleasure of Bookmaster is in selecting books from a small collection, and in the extra help they get from staff. Throughout the scheme there is a total commitment to individual readers. All but the most routine essential work is dropped. Time is spent offering help with the initial choice of book – all staff have to be thoroughly familiar with all the books in the scheme. Should we be consistently offering an obvious advisory service for readers?
Each time a review is written the reader and the librarian discuss the book and the review together. This is particularly popular with our teenagers. Is it perhaps that this activity mitigates the essentially solitary activity of reading. Should we seek to provide opportunities for shared response, exchange of opinions?
Should we be questioning the automatic arrangement of fiction by author? Many of our readers want science fiction. If they want information on space travel and exploration they can find this carefully shelved under the right classification number. Why therefore do so many libraries refuse to classify fiction? Is there a case to be made for a special science fiction section? If so, why not for mysteries, for historical, for romance?
The Frenchman’s Creek experience made everyone think. This Daphne Du Maurier title was one of the most popular books on the 1980 list. All Bookmaster books are in paperback editions and this one had a most attractive cover. Although a number of the teenagers in the Bookmaster scheme normally use the adult library, none had previously read this author. Looking for more, they were dismayed to find the dismal hardback edition which gave them no encouragement to read further. Covers matter enormously, and it seems impossible to persuade teenagers to try anything that does not look interesting. Even paperbacks vary in attractiveness. Through Bookmaster we are beginning to comprehend something of the reasons why some books are rejected.
The problem of the lost teenage reader has long been under discussion. Could it be that major reasons are our book selection and the arrangement of our libraries? We have been using libraries for years. We know how to find the books we enjoy. It is hard to recall what it was like to be fourteen, faced with shelf after shelf of dull-looking books, and panicking at the over-abundance of the literary world. We should be encouraging publishers to produce books with jackets that are more informative, and in formats that will encourage the hesitant reader. Somehow we must find a way of arranging the library so that the readers can find the books they will enjoy. During the ever-changing teenage years this will be a major problem. An instructive aspect of Bookmaster was the enthusiasm for books like Frenchman’s Creek which had sat unread on the shelves for years; yet found a readership within the scheme. Bookmaster seems to show that librarians, teachers, parents, need to give more time to all age groups: introducing books, guiding the developing reader to new authors, new styles, and, very important, listening to and sharing response. It’s time well spent if it gives us an insight into the ideas and needs of children and young people that can lead to better book selection and a more useful library.
Lorna Roberts is Head of Children’s and Youth Services for Westminster City Libraries. She and her staff put a tremendous amount of work into the Bookworm and Bookmaster schemes. Modestly, she says, ‘The ideas I have put forward are basic and probably already adopted in some schools and libraries.’ She is also reluctant to generalise from the Westminster experience which was ‘based solidly on community needs’: but she hopes that publishing the Bookmaster reports will stimulate other teachers and librarians into publishing reports on their own schemes which would allow us to see if there are any common factors.
Copies of the 1979 Bookmaster Scheme Report are available from Marylebone Library, Marylebone Road, London NW1 5PS.
The 1980 Bookmaster Report should be available by the end of the year. It includes profiles of the eight libraries in the scheme, extensive quotes from reviews, and a particular consideration of the reading needs and problems of a multi-ethnic community.